To correct the prevailing misconception, we need to look back to the 1930s, when economic desperation was fueling a battle between reactionary impulses and radical aspirations, and Nazis first appeared on American streets. Even as American fascists appealed to anti-Semitism and white privilege, the ACLU fought for their right to hold rallies. Although it did not oppose regulations against armed marches, it insisted that “the right to parade,” even “in brown shirts with swastikas,” should “never be denied.”
Why did the ACLU defend Nazis when they were terrorizing Germany and their virulence was painfully apparent? As the organization acknowledged in its pamphlet on Nazi speech, it was a “practical tactic” as much as an “abstract principle.”
Way back, the ACLU wasn’t the “civil liberties” organization we think of today, but a radical leftist organization. These were the days of Wobblies and Pinkertons, when the AFL and CIO hated each other, when the idea of workers joining together to amass clout against the bosses was anarchy. The ACLU was part of this fight, and very much on one side of the war between capital and labor.
A core contingent of the ACLU leadership hoped that an expansive interpretation of the 1st Amendment could pave the way to fundamental economic change, above all through the movement to organize America’s workers. The organization’s founders described themselves as “partisans of labor.” And they understood that the courts, which historically were hostile to unions, were disinclined to distinguish between the intimidation posed by Nazis marching in uniform and the intimidation posed by workers on a picket line.
It was not, as Weinrib contends, that the ACLU “believed” in free speech, as much as it believed in the cause of unionism and workers’ ability to exercise their right to take to the streets and fight for better wages and working conditions.
But the headline to Weinrib’s op-ed belies the problem now:
The ACLU’s free speech stance should be about social justice, not ‘timeless’ principles
This conflates the purpose for the ACLU’s birth with what it should be today. Granted, its historical mission had a very practical purpose, and it was considered quite the radical organization. But is it still? Should it still be?
The days of the IWW fighting the Pinkertons are long gone. The AFL and the CIO love each other. Unions are now an accepted reality in the workplace, and the fight for decent wages and working conditions has largely succeeded and, in many instances (think Detroit auto workers) been too successful, to the point that it’s collapsed under its own weight.
So what becomes of an organization that’s fulfilled its mission? It finds a new mission or ceases to exist. That’s where Weinrib’s op-ed has lost its way. Is the current mission of the ACLU to be the voice of social justice, whatever that means at any given hour, or is it the organization that fights for “timeless” principles?
Not in the 30s, but today.
Is the ACLU returning to its roots? Did it ever really leave its roots? Certainly, there’s big, no huge, money to be made by pandering to whatever flavor of social justice prevails at the moment, as reflected by the $87 million it raised after taking up the cause of the Trump Muslim Ban. That’s one hell of an incentive to play to the crowd.
But if the ACLU has decided that its mission is back to radical leftist causes, and that its interest in the Constitution is peripheral to that mission, and it’s willing to sell out, compromise, ignore the Constitution when the beneficiaries are people it hates rather than useful tools for its mission, it should be clear that the ACLU is no longer the voice of civil rights, but the voice of whatever pop cause it favors at any given moment. It should also be clear, to the media, the courts, us, that the ACLU’s interest may just as likely be to undermine the Constitution if it serves their purpose.
Not being the King of the ACLU, I can’t tell them what to do. If they want to stand for “timeless” principles, great. If they want to stand for the lefty cause of the moment, that’s their choice. But then, let’s not credit the ACLU as being a legitimate voice of civil rights. It’s just another agenda-driven NGO trying to accomplish its goals by any means possible.
Principles matter to some of us. If not to the ACLU, fine, but then, they cannot be the honest broker of constitutional rights and are just another shill for their cause. They’re entitled, because this is America, but they are not entitled to pretend they are still the legitimate voice of our constitutional rights.