Some Issues Where Liberals Are Missing The Boat

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Liberals have traditionally drawn their strength from representing theworking class. Since the 1960's though, they have adopted stances that havealienated the working classes while contributing virtually nothing in the way ofadditional support. The miracle is not that they have lost their long-timedominance of Congress, not to mention the White House, but that they have anysupport left among their traditional power base. Only an equal dose of stupidityon the part of conservatives is keeping liberals afloat. Here are a few areaswhere liberals shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly.


Religion is a powerful source of cultural identity in American society. Lots of people who can'tfall out of bed on Sunday morning to get to church nevertheless get angry overattacks on religion. I suspect a lot of them think getting angry about religioncounts as a substitute for actually practicing it.

So what in - pardon the language - God's name are liberals thinking whenthey support, or at least remain silent about, attacks on religion?

There is no such thing as a right to pretend something you oppose doesn'texist, and no such thing as a right to be shielded from the fact that mostpeople reject your values. So nonbelievers simply do not have a right to live ina society free of religious sentiment. And public displays of religioussentiment - the Ten Commandments, Nativity sets in public parks, the phrase"Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance - are a straightforward FirstAmendment issue. Freedom of speech, which is not, I believe, limited only toindividuals. Government agencies and bodies have it too.

The public exercises of religion listed above involve an absolutely trivialexpenditure of public resources and don't infringe on the rights ofnon-Christians in the slightest. Opposing these exercises is not aboutprotecting the rights of the minority but about suppressing the rights of amajority, using the courts because opponents have failed to make their case onits merits.

But public displays of religious belief send an exclusionary message.Maybe. But the last time I checked, messages of all kinds were protected by theFirst Amendment. Even exclusionary ones. And if you find yourself beingexcluded, maybe you might even ask whether you're on the right side of theissues.

You'd feel differently if you were in the minority. I've spent a totalof two years of my life in Islamic countries. If you're expecting me to buy intothe idea that it's a violation of my rights to have the majority express adifferent religious sentiment, you have definitely picked the wrong person.

Absolutely nothing would blunt the power of the Religious Right more than lettingthem have their public symbols. The last time they did, they were lulled intosuch a complete sense of complacency that the values shift of the Sixties caughtthem completely by surprise.


I suspect that some advocates for criminal rights are vicarious criminals;they are too cowardly or squeamish to commit crimes themselves but they can liveout their fantasies by defending criminals. Others perhaps think that societywill only be forced to deal with social injustice under the threat of crime. Thisstrategy amounts, in effect, to keeping society hostage. Liberals routinely lament that they are accused of being "soft oncrime" without bothering to adopt the obvious remedy: stop being soft oncrime. If you're a criminal you have only one right and that is to stopcommitting crimes.

Extenuating Circumstances

Extenuating circumstances are being so desperate for money to feed yourfamily that you steal. Being too poor to afford an HDTV is not. Being poorbecause you have a lousy job because you were too arrogant or lazy to stay inschool and learn, is most assuredly not. Extenuating circumstances are performingsome legal act and accidentally violating some legal technicality. Extenuatingcircumstances are protecting yourself from domestic abuse and killing yourabuser. Extenuating circumstances might even include performing some minorillegal act that spins wildly out of control, but I'd limit this to things thatare utterly unforeseeable. Carrying a weapon means you have planned ahead and can foresee anyimaginable consequences.

The fact that you were abused may count as extenuating circumstances if youexact vengeance on your abuser. But if someone is not harming you, that createsan absolute obligation on your part not to harm him or her. There are noextenuating circumstances for violating this social contract. If you have painin your life, go find the person who caused it and deal with it; inflicting painon a completely innocent person is absolutely indefensible.

Excessive Penalties?

Consider the broader effects of crime. A home break-in might do a few hundreddollars in damage, but scar the owners emotionally for a long time. The damageitself might merit, say a year in jail, but what about the damage to thehomeowners' peace of mind? A relative handful of sexual predators have mademillions of parents reluctant to let their kids go to the park unsupervised.Crime, even trivial crime, degrades the quality of life of 280 millionnon-criminals. How can you possibly have an excessive punishment for that?

In one notorious case, a two-time felon stole a slice of pizza from a child.He was sent up for life under California's "three strikes" law. Forstealing a slice of pizza. Now think about this. Here is a grown adult sodisdainful of the rights of others that he's willing to swipe a slice of pizzafrom a child, and so unconcerned about his own future that he's willing to risklife imprisonment to do it. Frankly I'm delighted that he tripped the tripwireover something so trivial instead of something where he'd be willing to kill orseriously hurt someone.

And then there are drugs. Here's a commodity with zero socially constructivevalue, and enormous social costs. If you're willing to risk prison oversomething as trivial as getting high, here's your Darwin Award to hang in yourcell. That's a measureof your screwed-up value system, not society's.

Would it benefit society to legalize drugs and thereby save on the costs ofdrug enforcement? I'm listening. Here's my plan. We get a list of ten millionpeople who support drug legalization and are willing to go on record. We pass alaw that those people can use the money now spent on drug enforcement any waythey like. But they also assume responsibility for any extra costsassociated with legalizing drugs. Say, they file a form (call it W-LSD) with theIRS that authorizes the IRS to tack the extra costs onto their tax bill. Itwould include detoxification, rehabilitation, damage done by people on drugs,lost wages, taxes and productivity by drug users, crime (the fact that many drugusers will be unemployable won't stop them from wanting nice things) and painand suffering by the families of drug users. Put your money where your mouth is.

There are some crimes where the actual damage is minor but the act itself reveals a perpetrator so heinous that he or she forfeits the right to be considered human. Attacking defenseless people like the handicapped or aged. Torturing animals for fun. Vandalism of something irreplaceable or sacred to others. Stealing something that cost someone else enormous sacrifice to get. These - things - have human DNA, but so do my toenail clippings.

The excessive penalty school seems to be based on the dubious assumption thatthere is such a thing as a right to choose crime as a lifestyle, and thatmaking the penalties severe enough to hurt interferes with that right.

Capital Punishment

There is one, and only one, moral issue connected with capital punishment,and that is the possibility of executing an innocent person. Beyond that,everyone has a perfect right to avoid capital punishment by not committingcapital crimes.

Wrongful Convictions

I contend it is absolutely impossible to have wrongful convictions withoutpolice, prosecutorial, or judicial misconduct. Every wrongful conviction shouldbe investigated as a crime.

Having said that, the police don't sweep choir practices and public librarieslooking for criminals. What I'd like to know about wrongful convictions is this:what fraction of wrongfully convicted people had absolutely no prior criminalrecord, no history of drug or alcohol use, and no involvement with people whodid? I suspect the number is pretty small.

And the police tend to be much gentler with the middle class. So if you wantto avoid being arrested for something you didn't do, become middle class. Absolutelyavoid people, places, and behaviors that even remotely suggest you might beinvolved in a crime. And absolutely avoid getting involved in a real crime. Acriminal record is more or less informed consent for being one of the usualsuspects in the future. Once you opt for crime as an occupation, beingwrongfully accused is an occupational hazard.

Rights of the Sociopath

The liberal stance on crime is part of a broader view that the way to protectthe rights of all is to protect the rights of the obnoxious. After all, if youprotect the free speech rights of, say, the American Nazi Party or the Ku KluxKlan or a pornographer, surely you've built a wall big and strong enough toprotect the free speech rights of all.

The only problem is, what happens when the activities of the sociopathdegrade the rights of others? Protecting the rights of the obnoxious protectsonly the rights of the obnoxious. I'm not terribly worried about the FBIcoming into my house without a warrant. I'm much more concerned about a criminalcoming in without a warrant. I'm not nearly as worried about being executed fora crime I didn't commit as being executed for the crime of having something somebody elsewants.

The worst thing about the civil libertarian stance isn't so much that it'swrong, but that it's irrelevant. What good is protecting my right toprivacy if telemarketers and adware creators can invade my privacy, and claimfree speech as protection? (You have a constitutional right to invadesomeone's phone or computer? Why not just argue that locks on the door interferewith other peoples' right of free movement?) What good is protecting my right toproduce pornography if I have no intention of producing pornography? What gooddoes it do to protect someone's right to privacy in abortion when we can forcepeople to keep records on all their financial matters? 

Worst of all are the cases where protecting the rights of sociopathsinterferes with the legitimate rights of others. I routinely see programs Isupport undermined to provide funds to help people who cannot keep their ownlives in order. I have to buy insurance to protect myself against lawsuits bythe negligent and personally irresponsible. For some time during the 1960's and1970's, it was virtually impossible to buy good plastic cement because some peopleliked to sniff the fumes, so all that was available was a grossly inferior goobased on lemon oil. I have to restart my lawn mower every time I let go of thehandle because some idiots have been known to reach inside while the blade isspinning. There is a virtually endless list of petty degradations that ordinarycitizens suffer in the name of protecting Lifestyles of the Stupid, Selfish andIrresponsible.

Alienating the Workers

Liberals are sorely puzzled that they can't get workers, blacks, women, and gays and the poor together in one big unhappy family, that they can't get workers to agree that they share common ground and common enemies with other marginalized groups.

Working class people work, and they worked hard to get what they have. So they don't want it threatened. They don't want criminals in their neighborhoods and they don't want the value of their homes threatened. And they're smart enough to realize that if you can take down the wealthy and the powerful, you can squash working class people like a bug. So many of them don't buy into the "soak the rich" philosophy because they know perfectly well who will be next to get soaked.

If you're a working class home owner, and somebody burglarizes your house, he gets an attorney at public expense (this is considered a triumph of American jurisprudence). You can't sue him to recover your losses, but he can sue you if he gets hurt during the burglary. And you won't get any public assistance with your legal bills. And if you win, you can't sue the burglar for your expenses.

On April 28, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of laws requiring identification at polling places. You shouldn't have to breathe a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court issues a ruling that meshes with common sense. Opponents of the law argued that getting an ID card put a burden on poor voters. Tell that to someone who pays several months salary worth of taxes every year.

Denial Games

Exhibit A is the book "What's Wrong With Kansas? by Thomas Frank, who argues that conservatives won control of much of America because of backlash against the social agenda and activism of the 1960's. The same backlash that activists of the 1960's hotly denied existed when they were warned it would happen, by the way.

Exhibit B is the reader response to a well-reasoned essay, "12 Traps That Keep Progressives From Winning" by George Lakoff, posted on AlterNet on September 26, 2006. Lakoff is professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. Lakoff doesn't mention specific issues but focuses on reasoning and strategic errors, for example, failing to appreciate that many people are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, or failing to understand the reasoning of conservative voters (Whoa. There's a scary thought. Actually understanding your opposition.) Lakoff's reward for his efforts was responses like "STOP PERPETUATING THE BIGGEST LIE: The GOP Won on Values," "We need to unite all the Greens, Dems, Socialists, etc. that consider themselves progressives in a true progressive party," and "The biggest problem with the left today is an almost complete lack of solidarity between minorities - blacks, queers, working class [see above?], latinos..." In other words, there's no need to change anything - let's try all the strategies that didn't work in the past and see if pushing them harder makes them still not work this time.

If you're a Republican, this has to make you feel very good about the future.

Bottom Line

Dump the sociopaths and the criminals. They have one right, and oneonly, and that is to stop being sociopaths and criminals. Defending sociopathsand criminals does absolutely nothing to protect the rights of ordinary citizensand a great deal to undermine their rights.

But who will speak for these people? Nobody. Let them speak forthemselves. Some positions are simply not worth defending.

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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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