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My Favorite Cowards (1/21/04)
I recently joined the ACLU, which is a good cause: They oppose the drug war, they defend free speech and the separation of church and state, fight for gay rights, etc.
There's just one small problem with the ACLU: They only fight for parts of the Bill Of Rights that their membership approves of people having. Specifically, the ACLU has declared a sort of agnosticism about the 2nd Amendment (the right "to keep and bear arms".) They don't take any position about what the 2nd means, and they make no effort to protect it (having taken no stance on what would represent protecting or attacking it in the first place.)
The 2nd is short and to the point: "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
Regardless of how you or I would interpret what that should mean in terms of individual rights, the ACLU has raised the interpretation of constitutional law to an art form; to say that they can't come up with any substantive and considered opinion of a part of the Bill of Rights that the founding fathers thought was second only to freedom of speech and religion in importance smacks of either unprecedented laziness...or an unblushing abandonment of their own self-proclaimed principles or tireless defense of the Constitution.
I dare say the latter is correct. Most ACLU supporters are liberal, and liberals usually want people to have less freedom to own and carry firearms, while the 2nd at least implies a very broad right to own (and be armed with) a gun. So, rather than actually live up to their claim of being impartial guardians of the Constitution, the ACLU has done what so many have done before and embraced the seductive idea of "bad freedoms"; of rights that should be denied to the people because you don't think they will use those rights responsibly.
For their own part, conservatives perennially claim to want a smaller, less intrusive government that has more respect for the dignity and liberty of the private citizen. Unless, of course, the private citizen might want to exercise personal freedom by having an abortion, marrying somebody of the same sex, or smoking a joint. Such things are quickly exempted from the conservative ideal of a smaller and less controlling government because the Religious Right sees them as Bad Freedoms; freedoms that if exercised may move society away from what they think it should be.
It's easy for liberals to claim that they are better, having in recent tradition been the more vocal advocates of civil rights. But are they? I can reliably trust a liberal to defend the separation of church and state. But I can equally reliably depend upon them to regulate everything that moves (and most things that don't.) You can't buy a toilet that flushes more than a certain amount of water at a time, because being inefficient with natural resources is a Bad Freedom. You can't hire people on the basis of race or religion, because being a bigot is bad (and should therefore be illegal.) You can't take the taxes you pay for Social Security and invest that money in a personal retirement account instead because being in control of (and responsible for) your own retirement would be a Bad Freedom. And you can't get a voucher to take your kids out of a failed government school and put them into a private school, because in doing so you might undermine the ability of the failing public school to continue to not do it's job.
Depending on your political leanings, you may feel that the intrusions on personal freedom one group wants are perfectly reasonable and justified For The Good Of Society while the other is merely self-righteous fascism. The trouble is that the other side of the political aisle feels the same way. Both envision themselves as guardians of society and the nation, and in the name of that Enlightened mission, feel free to ignore and silence the Constitution when it runs up against their personal desires for the shape of our culture. The ACLU chooses to ignore the 2nd Amendment, because any credible interpretation of it supports a right to private gun ownership...and that's not something they feel should be part of our society.
And perhaps they're right. Perhaps the 2nd is a relic; an obsolete example of anti-government paranoia from an age when it was still fresh in the people's memory that they had gained their freedom only by virtue of having shot (or at least, shot at) the former government. But, if that's the case, the answer is to change the Constitution...not to politely cough and pretend you never read that part of it.
The ACLU, like the Religious Right, does not defend what the Constitution says. Rather, they advocate what they think it should have said, having decided in favor of parts of it and against other parts of it. I support the ACLU in the name of their more-often-than-not advocacy of greater personal freedom, but do not pretend that they are a pillar of Constitutional virtue.
Personal and cultural obedience to the 'superior morality' of the State is not freedom; the duty of the government is to ensure that we can make unpopular decisions with our own lives. Let history judge whether we choose wisely or unwisely.