Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What Happened to America’s Civil Libertarians?

Onetime watchdogs of state power have stopped caring about abuses. It can’t all be because of Trump, can it?


Over the weekend I published a feature on Justice Department use of bullying tactics and unfair practices, called “The Justice Department Was Dangerous Before Trump. It’s Out of Control Now.” Despite the fact that the bulk of the article focused on targets broadly sympathetic to the left, like the late radical lawyer Lynne Stewart and a civil rights firm in Baltimore raided for the crime of representing another lawyer, a flood of emails and social media posts ensued, most on the predictable theme that this piece packed with facts and testimonials by people other than myself was right-wing grift: “What happened to you, man?”

I’ve always been more liberal than leftist — living in the Soviet Union and its successor states will tend to make you queasy about both ends of the political spectrum — but still fit more on the blue side of the aisle, and for a long time, took pride in this. In the Bush years especially it was left-leaning lawyers and antiwar activists who were able to look past gruesome current headlines about 9/11 or anthrax or bombings in Jakarta or London, and see the long-term damage being done to the national character through surrender on issues like torture, rendition, assassination, and watch-listing. The ACLU mattered in those years.

Now, tables have turned. Those who were once quickest to see through War on Terror propaganda are now most susceptible to the same appeals. You may once have been the DOJ’s loudest critics, but they’ve got you now. Man, do they ever have you, worse even than the Pentagon had Republicans in the Bush years. And the real shame of it is, they’re using the same arguments they employed then, down to the smallest phrases, just tweaked a little to fit certain progressive pretensions — and over you meekly fell, like Michael Spinks after the first love-tap from Mike Tyson.


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