FGF Op-Ed
THE REACTIONARY UTOPIAN
March 23, 2018

Joe Sobran

Mavericks in Lockstep

by Joe Sobran
fitzgerald griffin foundation

Publisher’s Note:
Joe Sobran is often compared to H.L. Mencken,
whom he mentions in connection with the ACLU, below.

The National Review Years, October 14, 1988 — The American Civil Liberties Union has become a minor issue in this year’s presidential campaign, thanks to Michael Dukakis’s “card-carrying” membership in it. But while George Bush is taking heat for alleged anti-Jewish activities by people in his campaign — activities he knew nothing about — Michael Dukakis is not being held accountable for the public positions of an organization he is (well, used to be) proud to subscribe to.

The notion that the ACLU is some sort of “watchdog” over the Bill of Rights is wrong. Its interpretation of the Constitution is selective, shaped by a political agenda.

The notion that the ACLU is some sort of “watchdog” over the Bill of Rights is wrong. Its interpretation of the Constitution is selective, shaped by a political agenda.

To take a couple of obvious examples: the ACLU interprets freedom of the press to mean that the sale of porn magazines and movies involving kids, even babies, is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. This is known as “expanding our First Amendment freedoms.” How nice. But is the ACLU interested in expanding our Second Amendment freedoms too? You know, the right to keep and bear arms? Not at all. The ACLU actively supports gun-control legislation.

On many issues — abortion, gay rights, racial busing and quotas, crime, school prayer — the ACLU insists that the Constitution not only permits a liberal agenda but in some cases, actually mandates it and permits nothing else.

The ACLU takes a liberal political line whose predictability is only occasionally broken by its willingness to move a little ahead of the herd, as on kiddie porn. On many issues — abortion, gay rights, racial busing and quotas, crime, school prayer — it insists that the Constitution not only permits a liberal agenda but in some cases, actually mandates it and permits nothing else.

Now this is a peculiarly rigid way of reading the Constitution, which ACLU types usually like to praise as a “living document” whose interpretation requires openness and flexibility. Some critics stress the ACLU’s left-liberal agenda; William Donohue’s book The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union documents and analyzes this very well. But my own dislike of the ACLU has a different source.

The ACLU is an outfit for mediocrities who like to think of themselves as mavericks. A real maverick … won’t kid himself that all his political preferences (and those of his friends) dovetail nicely with the Constitution.

William Donohue - The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union bookThe ACLU is an outfit for mediocrities who like to think of themselves as mavericks. A real maverick won’t join an organization with an orthodoxy about political issues over which disagreement is natural and consensus rare. He won’t kid himself that all his political preferences (and those of his friends) dovetail nicely with the Constitution. He knows that life is more problematic than that. He realizes that there are tensions between desire and convenience, between what he says he always wants and what he actually wants on Tuesday. The real maverick doesn’t try to paper over these ironies; he savors them, even in himself.

H.L. Mencken Once upon a time there was a genuine maverick, H.L. Mencken by name. As it happens, Mencken had a run-in with the ACLU in 1938 over the clash between its professions of principle and its real agenda. Its national board was loaded with Communists and fellow-travelers who argued that the violation of civil liberties in the Soviet Union should be excused because the goals of Communism were so noble.

“If the bosses of Russia are free to abolish civil liberties in order to attain some chosen political end,” Mencken wrote, “then the bosses of the United States are free to suspend them in order to attain some other end.” He took wry note of the “interlocking directorates” of the ACLU and the American Communist Party.

H.L. Mencken took wry note of the “interlocking directorates” of the ACLU and the American Communist Party.

Things haven’t changed too much. The leftist lawyer William Kunstler, a member of the ACLU’s National Advisory Council, has said: “I do not believe in public attacks on socialist countries where violations of human rights may occur.”

The ACLU celebrates “pluralism” and “diversity,” but its own positions are dismally monochromatic. Yes, it really is a wonderful thing to expose your mind to various views, so that you can carry on a sort of internal conversation among them. But the mark of the pseudo-maverick is that even though he reflexively defends bizarre forms of dissent, his own mind is never shaded and subtilized by carrying variety within. Instead, it assumes the sort of crude momentum some people mistake for logic, which reasons that in order to protect Ulysses, you have to protect kiddie porn too.

If you want the country to move leftward, and if you think the best strategy for achieving that is to use the courts rather than the elective/legislative process, then the American Civil Liberties Union is the group for you. But please, don’t try to tell me your card- carrying membership signifies your dedication to independent thought.

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Copyright © 2018 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. “Mavericks in Lockstep” by Joe Sobran was published originally in National Review magazine on October 14, 1988. This is one of 34 articles in the Sobran anthology, Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years published by FGF Books in 2012. The book is currently out-of-stock, but the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation hopes to reprint soon.

Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years

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Joe Sobran (1946-2010) was an author, political commentator, and syndicated columnist for over 35 years. Sign-Up to receive weekly columns by Sobran and other writers.
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