Law, Order, the Bill of Rights, and Political Correctness

"The first duty of government is to protect the powerless against the powerful." -- The Code of Hammurabi, 1700 BC

Former Bush treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who resigned under pressure in December 2002, makes an interesting observation to biographer/reporter Ron Suskind -- that secrecy in government has almost no value whatsoever. The threat to our national security, from within America as well as from outside forces, is not from secrets revealed, but from bad analysis. O'Neill says that the separation of information into "silos -- guarded as core assets by self-interested players -- [is] one of the greatest obstacles to managing the huge, unwieldy American government. It has created an acute need for particularly skillful integrators -- those who can move freely among silos, pick and choose, and form connections to create a fabric of shared purpose." This has been virtually absent from the Bush administration, with its unprecedented penchant for secrecy for secrecy's sake. -- Ron Suskind

One of the most interesting transformations in American politics has been the rebranding of conservatives from stodgy, authoritarian figures more committed to preserving law and order (mainly in the interests of business) into the world's leading advocates of "freedom." The Republican definition of "freedom" can be gleaned from their various party platforms and manifestos. Joe Conason writes, "Their definition clearly includes freedom from taxation on certain kinds of income, such as capital gains and multimillion-dollar inheritances, as well as freedom from regulation on pollution and safety for corporations. It also means freedom to purchase an unlimited number of automatic weapons." Conservative freedoms do not include women's sexual and reproductive rights, nor rights for gays and lesbians. They don't include "the freedom to obtain information from the government, freedom to travel to Cuba, or the freedom to read certain banned books in public school libraries. Since the advent of the war on terrorism, it no longer means freedom from omniscient surveillance by agents of the state."

Conason notes that traditionally the American right has always placed order above liberty, and that attitude reflects in conservatives' antipathy towards much of the Bill of Rights: "They waffle on the First Amendment, revere the Second, and aren't very keen on the Fourth." When the basic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association were advanced during the twentieth century, it was liberals doing the advancing and conservatives trying to block them. The venerable American Civil Liberties Union was created specifically to preserve these rights. Conservatives spend most of their time attacking and mocking the ACLU, unless they happen to need that organization's protection, as in recent court cases over campaign fraud and the ACLU's intervention on behalf of Rush Limbaugh's right to privacy in his fight against drug charges.

Nevertheless, the right has trumpeted itself as the only real protectors of American freedoms. "How did that happen?" Conason asks, and answers his own question: "Appearance matters more than substance in contemporary politics -- and since the Reagan era, appearances on the right have changed dramatically. The stuffed suits of yesteryear have retired or receded into the background, while into the limelight has stepped a fresher and more freewheeling cast of characters. Frumpy, beehived Phyllis Schlafly gave way to swinging Laura Ingraham, in her leopard-print miniskirt; the cornball voice of Paul Harvey was replaced by the aggressive baritone of Rush Limbaugh, dominating the airwaves to the thumping beat of the Pretenders, and the GOP's gray-suited lobbyists and officials are now fronted by a virtual zoo of Republican party animals, from P.J. O'Rourke, Matt Drudge, and Bob Tyrrell to Ted Nugent, Dennis Miller, and Andrew Sullivan. As any advertising executive could have predicted, these wisecracking entertainers and pundits have radically altered the perception of conservatism without changing the reality at all. It's the same principle used to sell soft drinks, sanitary napkins, and cigarettes." Conason notes that what really has changed is the level of discourse practiced by conservative pundits, and much for the worse. He cites Ann Coulter's comparison of Hillary Clinton to a "prostitute" on national television; as late as January 2005, Coulter told an interviewer that Bill Clinton would be best remembered by history as a "rapist." Conason writes, "But the quasi-pornographic banter and racially tinged humor indulged in by right-wing TV and radio personalities only enhances conservatism's aura of rebellion."

"This slick repackaging of the same old ideology couldn't succeed without the simultaneous discrediting of liberals. If conservatives represented the new counterculture, then liberals had to become the stifling establishment. Liberals are incessantly displayed as drab and overbearing 'nanny statists,' conspiring to outlaw ethnic jokes, junk food, nude centerfolds, gas-guzzling cars, workplace flirting, and almost anything that's fun. Paradoxically, these same boring, uptight PC liberals are also held responsible for adultery, divorce, premarital sex, abortion, narcotics abuse, teenage pregnancy, movie sex and violence, rap music, and other lurid indicators of American society's hastening decline. ...According to this vision, liberals would eventually herd everyone into their grim vision of a progressive utopia unless stopped by heroic conservatives. America could be on the verge of turning into the old Soviet Russia, only worse: there would be no vodka and no cigarettes. All the negatives once used to describe conservatism -- narrow-minded, intolerant, rigid -- were attached to liberalism with a buzz phrase that also evoked Communist regimentation. The epithet that stuck was politically correct." -- Joe Conason

Conason turns to a brief examination of the term "politically correct" and its connotations. "Nobody is certain who first used that term," he writes. "Its American roots can be traced to the Communist Party in the thirties; at some point it seems to have migrated to Maoist China. Lifted from left-wing jargon, 'PC' began to be used ironically during the seventies by liberal and progressive students to mock the solemnly rigid cadres of the campus ultraleft. Before it was turned into an unbearable cliche by the right, 'politically correct' was the kind of phrase that could have been used by Orwell to deride the 'smelly little orthodoxies' of authoritarianism." Reagan-era conservatives used the term to characterize the excesses of a few extremist, lunatic-fringe proponents of multiculturalism, feminism, and racial sensitivity, and insist that these fringe positions represent those of mainstream liberalism. College campuses, beset by tensions growing out of increasing diversity and resultant polarization, tried to walk a line between curbing hate speech and protecting free speech, and sometimes handled the situations badly.

"In that dilemma," Conason writes, "conservatives saw an opportunity to expand their 'culture war' against the legacy of the sixties, wreaking plenty of collateral damage in their zeal to discredit liberalism, put down restive minorities, and restore patriarchy." Conason concludes: "Although political correctness is now mostly a dead issue, conservatives still appeal to those same fears and resentments. They can play both sides of any PC issue, depending on convenience. The niche marketing of 'political incorrectness' persists even while national Republican leaders promote very different ideas and images (notably 'compassionate conservatism'). The most recent example occurred during the 2002 midterm election, when Republican campaigns in the South fought to restore Confederate symbols on state flags. Flying the banner of secession and slavery is probably the most 'politically incorrect' stance championed by any mainstream candidate, and the offense thus inflicted on black citizens apparently troubled nobody in the party of Abraham Lincoln. ...The indictment of liberalism for political correctness was a diversion as well as a deception. While conservatives generated fright about PC, the most potent threat to American freedom existed not among a few addled college professors, but in an ambitious mass movement that is openly hostile to the nation's traditional ideals of liberty: the religious right." -- Joe Conason

"Feminism was established so that ugly, unattractive women could have easy access to the mainstream of society." -- Rush Limbaugh, quoted by Frontline

Ashcroft, the USA Patriot Act, and Detention Camps

"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends." -- Attorney General John Ashcroft

"Indeed, [Attorney General John Ashcroft] believes that he can hold any American without bail in a detention camp for as long as he sees fit -- without charging the unfortunate citizen with any crime and without revealing to a lawyer or a court what evidentiary basis, if any, exists for that action. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the Attorney General has approved procedures for overseeing and operating such camps. Johnathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who endorsed Ashcroft's controversial nomination, regards his plan for detention camps as an outrage. In an article demanding Ashcroft's resignation or removal, Turley said he had transformed himself 'from merely being a political embarrassment to being a constitutional menace.'" -- Joe Conason

"Quietly but effectively, the USA Patriot Act and the other powers usurped by the executive branch have encouraged a nascent military regime. Aming the collaborators with Bush and Ashcroft in this project is, unsurprisingly, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose court is supposed to uphold the Bill of Rights and restrain the executive branch's excesses. Selected by Nixon for his right-wing partisanship and his indifference to civil liberties, Rehnquist has abdicated his constitutional responsibilities, because, quoting Cicero, he says that 'in time of war, the laws are silent.' Instead of restraining Ashcroft's excesses, Rehnquist appointed a secret 'special court,' set up outside the federal judicial system, to oversee the administration's expanded national security apparatus. With three judges hand-selected by the Chief Justice from among veterans of the Reagan and Bush administrations, this 'star chamber' has already overruled a circuit court decision that held the government had abused its power to spy on ordinary citizens. As a result, that power was expanded so that, in essence, the FBI will no longer be required to meet any significant standard of proof before invading the privacy of citizens via wiretaps or by seizing documents, computers, or other property. Those agencies will be able to spy on any citizen without permission from a judge." Journalist and First Amendment expert Nat Hentoff says that Ashcroft "has subverted more elements of the Bill of Rights than any Attorney General in American history." And liberal law professor Lawrence Tribe says, "It bothers me that the executive branch is taking the amazing position that just on the president's say-so, any American citizen can be picked up, not just in Afghanistan, but at O'Hare Airport or on the streets of any city in this country, and locked up without access to a lawyer or court just because the government says he's connected somehow with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. That's not the American way." -- Joe Conason

"It is heartbreaking to watch the Republican Party overthrow the very foundation of democracy in the name of democracy." -- former Reagan official Paul Craig Roberts, November 2005