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ACLU: Politics Over Principle

'Non-partisan' Group too Busy Battling Buchanan and the 1950s to Notice Clinton/Gore's Shredding of Bill of Rights

By MATT WELCH, June 14, 2000

A few months back, when the money got good enough, I sent my $20 and joined the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a no-brainer -- help an idealistic non-partisan group that fights to uphold the Constitution and Bill of Rights, irregardless of fashion or governing party. I'd been out of the country for a long time, and the ACLU and some anti-death penalty organization were two of the first three nonprofits I supported.

My enduring impression of the ACLU, gleaned in the usual fog of college, was that of a loving but cantankerous old organization, mostly fun to be around but borderline fanatical when it came to defending the First and Fourth amendments. Kind of like Crazy Uncle Bob who still smokes pot and listens to jazz, but storms out of the room in protest if the subject turns to the basketball playoffs -- a valued but occasionally eccentric member of the family, whose presence you appreciate.

What impressed my young mind back in 1986-87 was that, while generally horrified of the long Reagan regime, the organization was never shy about flatly opposing the politics of its natural supporters, if the said politics happened to run afoul of those treasured amendments. We argued back and forth about Skokie, and about many of that era's battles over the free-speech rights of abortion foes, or the appropriateness of feminists tearing down St. Pauli Girl posters from the local liquor store, but regardless of conclusions we appreciated the nerve of a group that held fast to a narrow yet tremendously vital set of beliefs, which just so happened to be some of the more genius ideas dreamed up at the beginning of our Republic

Well, I'm either fetishizing some teenaged belief that was never true, misdirecting unrequited love of Nat Hentoff, or the ACLU has turned into just another professional-politics racketeer offending my meager intelligence and pawing at my even more meager money.

I get a lot of political mailings, from both major parties, the NRA, Ralph Nader, etc. These horrible, theoretically oppositional letters have many things in common -- the courier font, dramatic use of bold type when talking about the infidels on the other side, and loaded "opinion polls" designed to insult the intelligence of people over the age of 12. The ACLU -- as an ostensibly non-partisan, apolitical body -- should be different, right?

Wrong. The other day I received one of those large yellow envelopes bearing the warning "Enclosed: National Citizens' Survey" that looked nearly identical to what the gun-nuts and libertarians send me. But it was from the ACLU, and instead of being some status report about free-speech conflicts on college campuses, or rights abuses committed by cops during the Clinton-Gore era, it was a naked plea for cash that I've already paid, dressed up in a virulent attack against the right wing of the Republican Party.

"A very loud and very dangerous bunch has tried to claim [the word 'morality'] for its own over the past few years," ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser allegedly wrote. "And you know who they are, too. Pat Robertson. Jesse Helms. Pat Buchanan. They want to use government power to tell you how to live your life."

Actually -- am I weird? -- I'm more concerned about how SWAT teams in L.A. get away with exploding flash grenades to wake up law-abiding families without a search warrant, so they can shoot Grandpa Paz in the back while "looking for marijuana." Also, last time I looked, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan had as much chance of "using government power" as my wife, who is not remotely a U.S. citizen.

So fixated is Glasser on the far-right bogeymen, he's convinced that "they've so corrupted the meaning of the word 'morality' that most Americans have forgotten what a moral country really is."

Setting aside how in hell he's qualified to make such a statement, what's Glasser's definition of a "moral country"? "How a country treats its people," he explains.

Vague, maybe untrue, but let's accept it for now. Let's also accept that the "country" has been run by Democratic politicians for the past eight years. Nevermind, the ACLU is apparently fighting a battle that has plagued America since before I was born.

"Will our country resume its way along the path we started in the 1960s, when we saw a new commitment on the part of this country to treating people with justice and equality?" the letter asked. "Or will it instead return to the time Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms and the others point to as the better, more 'moral' time -- the 'good old days' of the 1950s?"

Well, boys, I'll leave that up to you to figure out. Me, I was born in 1968, one of those years y'all occasionally make CNN specials about, and I really really really don't want to spend one more second listening to you inflame your prostates by arguing over whose decade was the best. I have an unkind hunch that the both of you have had plenty of time to run the country and the culture as poorly as you cou