Trampling on Liberty in the Rancid Apple

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Do
we live in a free society? A society in which every political faction,
offbeat philosophy or maverick idea is protected under law? In which
there is a strong and growing marketplace of ideas? Is the "Spirit
of Liberty," eloquently defended by the great jurist Learned
Hand ("A spirit that’s not too sure its right."), alive
and well in this republic?

After
the latest civil liberties outrages in New York City, in which a
few dozen Ku Klux Klan members and a handful of their supporters
were virtually terrorized (much as the Klan used to terrorize its
enemies when it once was powerful), there can be no doubt about
the answer to these questions.

And
what of the authorities’ obligation to protect free speech? Despite
tons of police, a few people were able to infiltrate the Klan rally
and started beating them up. A woman in lower Manhattan who tried
to take the side of the Klan was set upon by dozens of hooligans
who, apparently, felt the only legitimate way to register their
opposition to the Klan was to go out and beat up a woman. That’s
provided, of course, the odds were no less than 100-to-one.

The
moral ammunition for this street violence was provided by many local
pols who lined up in droves to get on the tube and inform one and
all they were against the Klan. City Comptroller {correct} Alan
Hevesi, who is thought to be running for mayor, told the howling
anti-Klan crowd what it wanted to hear: "These are stupid people.
They need to blame their targets for their own failure." Congressman
Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) joined in the anti-Klan diatribe, although
the New York Times reported that many of his comments were
drowned out by the mob.

Some
seven decades ago H.L. Mencken said of our pols: "The only
way to success in American public life lies in flattering and kow-towing
to the mob. A candidate for office, even the highest, must either
adopt its current manias en bloc or convince it hypocritically that
he has done so while cherishing reservations in petto."

Actually,
I think Mencken’s comments give the average blockhead New York City
pol much more credit than deserved. I’m not sure if, even in petto,
these leaders realize that playing to the lowest common denominator
is a bad thing.

The
attempt to crush the First Amendment was provided with legal backing
by a city government, which went to court to ensure that the Klan
members were not able to wear their hoods. Why? The city trotted
out a little heard of 19th century law prohibiting the wearing of
hoods. This law had not been previously enforced. No one wearing
hoods had been harassed at the city’s Halloween parades over the
past few decades. No one wearing a hood for fun, who is not a member
of the Klan, has been cited by the city. Suddenly, a pathetically
small band of white supremacists was a threat to law and order.
The city’s political governing class and "average citizen"
decided to team up to save the city from the threat of the Klan
and, I would presume, the perils of the Greenwich Village Halloween
parade.

The
local media – especially the airheads of the tube – couldn’t
resist crowing about New York’s great accomplishment. It beat the
Klan! On a local cable news show, the anchor said the Klan was "a
loser." It had failed because so few people showed up for the
rally. Given the quasi-endorsement by local pols of the violence
against the Klan, it’s amazing any of these poor hooded hinds showed
up.

And yet many of these same pols, media elites and average citizens
say that they are "progressive" liberals; that they stand
for "diversity" and against everything the Klan represents.
So, ostensibly, the way to prove it is to break Klan heads, or,
if they’re not enough crackpot craniums to go around, find someone,
anyone who isn’t willing to howl against the Klan and break his
or her head.

One
thinks of the wonderful mob scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
In the play, a mob-fired up by one of pols who had helped destroyed
the Roman Republic, Marc Anthony – mistakenly kills a man who
has the same name as one of the conspirators who kill Anthony’s
idol, Caesar. In the middle of the mayhem, someone realizes that
the mob has the wrong person. But it enjoys the violence too much
to stop. And it the goes on merrily pummeling an innocent man to
death as the crowd in Lower Manhattan might have done if its collective
IQ had not been in the double digits (Remember Nadler and Hevesi,
as politicians, bring down their score). The bard certainly would
have understood the scene in Manhattan recently as would the philosopher
Schiller ("Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible
and reasonable – as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes
a blockhead.")

Blockheads
abound in America whenever a radical group wants to exercise its
First Amendment rights. Most pols aren’t too particular about protecting
the Bill of Rights when it might interfere with their poll numbers.

Are
Americans in 1999 allowed to be Klan members? Or white supremacists?
Or – God forbid! – Libertarians, Socialists or Communists
or any American not willing to whoop it up for the American Empire’s
bloody exploits? And, if not, maybe media and political elites –
few of whom were concerned about the rights of an unfashionable
minority – can put out a list of philosophies, misguided or
enlightened as they may be depending on one’s point if view, that
are no longer allowed.

If
Libertarians speak out too loudly against the recent obscene bombing
in the Balkans, do they risk mob violence from Star Spangled Goose
Stepping Yankee Doodles? And will the authorities then go to court
to penalize the Libertarians and unite with the goose steppers baying
in the streets?

If
someone in America today says that he abhors Nazism or Skinheads,
etc, but would defend to death their right to be wrong, that courageous
person is advised to stay out of New York City or at least be sure
that he has a large, fully-paid up life insurance policy. Is it
safe to believe, as J.S. Mill wrote in "On Liberty," that
society has as much right to impose its will on one man as one man
has to impose his will on all of society?

Many
Americans love to preach to the rest of the world. Our interventionist
foreign policy implies that this nation should have the exclusive
right to settle disputes around the globe. The United States is
the only super power left standing and we should use an iron fist
to keep other warring people in line, Thomas Friedman, recently
argued in a disgusting piece in the Sunday New York Times.
Apparently, the Times believes that our government has so
much wisdom that it can settle Balkan feuds that have been burning
for centuries. We do this because we claim to be free; to accord
freedom to every faction or group, provided they live under law.

As
we insist on bringing freedom to other peoples, we should ask: Are
we free? The streets of almost every town in America where the Klan
– or some other unacceptable radical group wants to exercise
its supposed first-amendment rights – tell a different story.

In
fact, we live in a society in which we are only free to advocate
accepted political ideas; the ideas "officially" approved
by media and political elites. Does anyone actually think this repression
stops with the Klan? Or Skinheads? Or Communists in the McCarthy
period? Or anti-war objectors in the Vietnam era or the recent Gulf
War?

Let
others – who may preach anything from racial superiority to
"isolationism" to limited government – advocate these
unpopular ideas at the risk of injury, insult, agents provocateur
(The FBI is notorious for infiltrating these organizations. One
wonders, given what we know about the secret actions of our government
decades ago, will we learn in a few years, that the FBI or so other
government secret operations actually encouraged many of these hate
groups?)

But
what is the worst than the violence of mobs who will not allow people
to be odd, wrong or bigoted is the sleazy pols who line up in announcing
their opposition to the Klan. Why is it so many of them just happen
to have elections coming up? The pols lust after votes and so what
if it means the loss of a few civil liberties for strange groups?
After all, if Joe Stalin could contemptuously ask how many divisions
the pope has, our local George Washington Plunkitts can ask how
many votes does the Klan have in New York City?

A
courageous civil libertarian stand won’t get Alan Hevesi elected
mayor of New York or to any other citywide office. New York City
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who as a former prosecutor was famous for
zealous indictments that were thrown out of court, isn’t going to
be elected to the U.S. Senate if he insists that the First Amendment
covers everyone.

Whenever
I hear the silence of politicians for the violence of these mobs
– whether it is the violence of union workers trying to stop
privatizations by closing down construction sites, or the threats
against various radical groups or the violence carried out against
those who didn’t want to "honor" the picket lines of various
newspaper strikes – I think of the phrase used by a historian
of the Third Reich. He said Hitler’s victory meant, "the gutter
had come to power."

The
gutter was out in force recently in New York City. And pols know
that the "gutter" has plenty of power in our liberal democratic
society.

Gregory Bresiger is a business writer living in New York City.
He recommends J.S. Mill’s On
Liberty
, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy
in America
, Learned Hand’s The Spirit of Liberty,
H.L. Mencken’s, The American Scene, a Reader and Shakespeare’s
Julius
Caesar
.

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