Commentary Magazine

Liberty & the Liberals

At first sight the change Joseph W. Bishop, Jr. (p. 50) tells us has been taking place in the American Civil Liberties Union looks like the same process of politicization which so many other organizations have undergone during the past few years. This, in fact, is how Mr. Bishop himself seems to see it. Although he never actually uses the word politicization, he does provide many salient examples of ACLU embroilment in “political crusades which may be moral, or even right, but which have no readily discernible connection” with civil liberties as such. I agree with Mr. Bishop’s feeling that this is an undesirable course, but I think that something more precise may be involved here than is suggested by the general idea of politicization.

Mr. Bishop says that ACLU’s base of support has in the past consisted of people “having very different political views, but sharing a common belief in the virtues of the Bill of Rights.” How different, I wonder, can their political views really have been? Surely the common belief they shared in the virtues of the Bill of Rights made them all liberals—that is, people to whom individual liberty in its own right and for its own sake is an infinitely precious value. As Mr. Bishop needs no reminding, there are very few such people on the face of the earth, or for that matter in the United States, though here almost everyone pays lip service to liberty. If the tendencies he describes should go much further there will soon be very few such people left even in the American Civil Liberties Union itself.

ACLU once saw itself as a defender of the Bill of Rights against encroachment by the power of the state, and there are those within the organization who still talk as though this continues to be their main function. Yet ACLU might be hard-pressed to find enough work to do if it were to devote itself exclusively to the protection of civil liberties from government assault. Never has there been so much talk of repression, but never has there been so great a degree of civil freedom, probably in the history of the world, as exists in the United States today. Far from curtailing personal liberty, the government seems unable, even when it is willing, to set any significant limits on the freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, the freedom to vote, the freedom to associate, the freedom to worship; and the provisions governing both due process and equal protection of the law are more stringently enforced than ever before.

For it is important to recognize that even if the entire indictment brought against the government by those who speak of repression were true—even if there really were an official conspiracy directed from Washington to wipe out the Black Panther party; even if it could be shown that the killings at Kent State and Jackson State were deliberate acts of murder; even if the prosecutions of Dr. Spock and the Chicago Seven and the Berrigans really were unconstitutional or abuses of prosecutorial discretion; even if the police really were being encouraged to violate the rights of suspects; and even if the Vice President and the Justice Department really were attempting to muzzle the press—even if all this were true, and most of it is not,1 it would also still be true that there is no censorship of any kind to speak of in the United States today and that the rights of dissenters have over and over again been either respected by the authorities or, when not respected by the authorities, then affirmed and vindicated in the courts.

Why then do so many prominent persons, among them a former Attorney General of the United States and the Legal Director of ACLU, persist in spreading the impression that our liberties are either illusory or in imminent peril of suspension? Why do they go on lending support to the kind of view expressed by ACLU’s Legal Director when he said that “we are not yet a fascist state in general,” and of which Theodore Draper (p. 43) gives many other examples? Does it perhaps all come from an excess of zeal in the defense of liberty? Perhaps it does. But I doubt that those who cry repression would wish to be justified in the same terms which Senator Goldwater once used to apologize for the John Birch Society. Let me offer another set of explanations.

Some of the talk we hear about repression is, I think, merely a matter of partisan politics: it is calculated to discredit the Nixon administration in the interests of the Democratic party. Some of it, however, is nonpartisan with respect to Republicans and Democrats, and is calculated to discredit not the Nixon administration but the American polity by denying that it possesses even the one political virtue which it unmistakably does possess. One might have supposed that it would be easy enough nowadays to discredit the United States by harping on the familiar litany of things that actually are wrong with the country, on its real social and cultural failures. But no: it must be said to be lacking in liberty too.

Well, whatever else we are lacking in, in all truth we do not lack for liberty in the United States. Liberty is not everything. Like everything else in the world, it is what it is and not something else. It is not, for example, equality. Nor is it “distributive justice.” Nor is it community. Nor is it clean air. Freedom tan and in this country does live—if not in perfect harmony, then on chilly terms—with the inequitable distribution of wealth, with racial and ethnic discrimination, with a shallowness of culture. The increase of freedom in America has brought with it . . . an increase of freedom. It has not brought with it a solution to any problems other than those specifically created by its absence (such as the problem of being forcibly prevented from speaking one’s mind and penalized with imprisonment for doing so), and it has even created problems in the maintenance of social order which never existed before. It has not made us more equal or more peaceable; it has only made us freer.

For those of us who value freedom and need it, this is enough and, more than enough, it is a blessing; we ask of freedom only that it be itself and that it give us what it alone can give. There are, however, those for whom liberty, in being only itself, is of little or even of no account at all. What good is freedom, they say, when it does nothing to abolish poverty, war, racism, and pollution? The answer to this question does not lie in an apologetic listing of the contributions of freedom to these other worthy causes, although such a list could certainly be drawn up if one had a mind to draw it up; the answer lies in the assertion that what freedom is good for is being free.

Anyone to whom this seems insufficient—to whom being free is good for nothing or for nothing much—is implicitly acknowledging that freedom has no great friend in him. It has no great friend, for instance, in Mary McCarthy who has said derisively that “freedom in the United States . . . simply is the right to self-expression, as in the dance, psychodrama, be-ins, kinky sex, and baking ceramics” and that it “is no longer a political value.” And it would seem that there are those occupying important positions in ACLU and its affiliates who themselves share in such an attitude. Thus a Vice Chairman of the NYCLU is quoted by Mr. Bishop as believing that “Hyde Park speeches or Tom Paine leaflets”—this is how he characterizes the crown of all the civil liberties—are less important than “social justice.” Possibly from some points of view they are, though not, I would have thought, from the point of view of an organization devoted to the maintenance and advancement of civil liberties. It would in any case be easier to decide the issue of relative importance if this noted civil libertarian could tell us exactly what “social justice” is and how we might bring it to pass.



A few years ago, Richard H. Rovere gloomily observed that a disenchantment with individual liberty unprecedented in the American experience had overtaken both the young and some of their older follower-mentors. The main reason for the low esteem in which liberty had come to be held, Rovere thought, was the realization, connected of course with Vietnam but also with other issues, that “free speech and free thinking and free love are not particularly effective instruments of change.” (Not that the form taken by this realization could always be respected: Dwight Macdonald’s complaint against liberty was that even after two whole years of “writing, speaking, and demonstrating against the war” he “had not got through to our President”)

The situation has not noticeably improved in the years since Rovere wrote his essay. Even among people less given to frivolousness than Macdonald, it is hard to find evidence in recent days of any growth in the appreciation of liberty, and the evolution of ACLU is a step in the other direction. If, then, there is a danger to civil liberties, it arises at the moment not from the government but from the desertion of liberty by liberals, the erosion of their old belief in its value, the weakening of their devotion to its cause. At best, liberty has never had many friends, and if it loses even the liberals, who once defined themselves by their commitment to it, who will be there to protect it from its many enemies on the Right and on the Left?




1 See Walter Goodman’s “The Question of Repression” In the August 1970 COMMENTARY for a detailed analysis.

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