Peter Cavanaugh

Freedom can’t protect itself

Democracy is not automatic. In fact, it still remains a fragile commodity.

Only 43% of the global population currently enjoys relatively full political rights and liberties.

The Democracy Index constructed by the Economist Intelligence Unit of the United Kingdom is based on 60 separate indicators. These are grouped into five different categories measuring pluralism, civil freedoms and political culture. In addition to a numeric score and comparative ranking, the index then rates nations as one of four regime types – full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

Of the 167 countries most recently reviewed, the United States ranks 21 on the list with North Korea coming in last. No surprise there.

But we have been downgraded from a “full” to “flawed democracy” - this development generated not by Donald Trump winning the presidency, but, quoting the report - “caused by the same factors that led to his election” – defined by the Economist as a “declining trust in government.”

The consequence of Trump’s elevation nevertheless has spawned a new generation of swamp creatures now threatening core American beliefs and principles unlike any before - a conquering cabal of craven intent dedicated to their own private interests and displaying extraordinary exclusion of everyone else.

This is particularly true of anything dealing with the pubic good and “general welfare’’ – even though those last two words are enshrined twice in the Constitution – both in the Preamble and later in the Tax and Spending clause.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and preserving guaranteed individual rights and liberties. It has over a million members, and in 2020, it will be 100 years old. Get ready to stand back from all the candles on that cake.

The ACLU was formed in 1920 by a group of prominent citizens concerned about government censorship. This had become commonplace. Magazines were regularly being confiscated under anti-obscenity laws. Permits for labor rallies were often denied. Right-wing groups were enjoying enormous political power, while anyone promoting unionization, socialism or governmental reform was branded as being un-American and unpatriotic.

ACLU founders included Felix Frankfurter, later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Felix served for 23 years through 1962.

The first five years didn’t get much done, but things sure changed in 1925 with The Scopes “Monkey Trial” in rural Dayton, Tennessee. Those who recall the film Inherit the Wind (1961) know the story. Spencer Tracy received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, renamed “Henry Drummond” in the movie, just as three-time Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, became “Matthew Harrison Brady” played by Fredrick March.

Even way back then, it was “Evolution” vs. “Creationism.”

Darrow, a member of the ACLU National Committee, argued against the fundamentalist, literal interpretation of the Bible endorsed by Bryan, who won the jury, but in real life died only a few days later.

Many say Darrow plain wore him out and actually carried the day by favorably introducing the ACLU to millions of newspaper readers across the nation. They followed the trial on a daily basis thanks to extensive syndicated coverage by the legendary H. L. Menken of The Baltimore Sun, a character portrayed in the movie by Gene Kelly.

It seems to be a common belief in certain circles that the ACLU is nothing but a “liberal” group of folks. Not so fast.

Allies in litigation through the years have included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Rifle Association, the American Jewish Congress and the Ku Klux Klan, the Nation of Islam and Westboro Baptist Church.

The ACLU has risen to the defense of left-leaning advocates such as Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dick Gregory, but was equally energized and effective in providing critical legal assistance to staunch conservatives Henry Ford, Oliver North and Rush Limbaugh during troubled times.

Freedom of speech is a core American value and a fundamental ACLU belief.

The organization simply states: “It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something most people find at least reasonable. But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive.”

The Oakhurst Democratic Club is honored to present Katherine Pantangco of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California this Saturday at Denny’s on Highway 41. Breakfast will be served starting at 8:30 a.m., with the program beginning at 9:30. Pantangco’s topic will be “Your ACLU in the Age of Trump,” with plenty of time for questions.

As it says on their letterhead, “ACLU of Northern California: Freedom Can’t Protect Itself.”

We need you.