Some Issues Where Liberals Are Missing The Boat

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


Religion is a powerful source of cultural identity in American society. Lots of people who can't fall out of bed on Sunday morning to get to church nevertheless get angry over attacks on religion. I suspect a lot of them think getting angry about religion counts as a substitute for actually practicing it.

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

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

The public exercises of religion listed above involve an absolutely trivial expenditure of public resources and don't infringe on the rights of non-Christians in the slightest. Opposing these exercises is not about protecting the rights of the minority but about suppressing the rights of a majority, using the courts because opponents have failed to make their case on its 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 the First Amendment. Even exclusionary ones. And if you find yourself being excluded, maybe you might even ask whether you're on the right side of the issues.

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

Absolutely nothing would blunt the power of the Religious Right more than letting them have their public symbols. The last time they did, they were lulled into such a complete sense of complacency that the values shift of the Sixties caught them 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 live out their fantasies by defending criminals. Others perhaps think that society will only be forced to deal with social injustice under the threat of crime. This strategy amounts, in effect, to keeping society hostage. Liberals routinely lament that they are accused of being "soft on crime" without bothering to adopt the obvious remedy: stop being soft on crime. If you're a criminal you have only one right and that is to stop committing crimes.

Extenuating Circumstances

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

The fact that you were abused may count as extenuating circumstances if you exact vengeance on your abuser. But if someone is not harming you, that creates an absolute obligation on your part not to harm him or her. There are no extenuating circumstances for violating this social contract. If you have pain in your life, go find the person who caused it and deal with it; inflicting pain on a completely innocent person is absolutely indefensible.

Excessive Penalties?

Consider the broader effects of crime. A home break-in might do a few hundred dollars in damage, but scar the owners emotionally for a long time. The damage itself might merit, say a year in jail, but what about the damage to the homeowners' peace of mind? A relative handful of sexual predators have made millions of parents reluctant to let their kids go to the park unsupervised. Crime, even trivial crime, degrades the quality of life of 280 million non-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. For stealing a slice of pizza. Now think about this. Here is a grown adult so disdainful of the rights of others that he's willing to swipe a slice of pizza from a child, and so unconcerned about his own future that he's willing to risk life imprisonment to do it. Frankly I'm delighted that he tripped the tripwire over something so trivial instead of something where he'd be willing to kill or seriously hurt someone.

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

Would it benefit society to legalize drugs and thereby save on the costs of drug enforcement? I'm listening. Here's my plan. We get a list of ten million people who support drug legalization and are willing to go on record. We pass a law that those people can use the money now spent on drug enforcement any way they like. But they also assume responsibility for any extra costs associated with legalizing drugs. Say, they file a form (call it W-LSD) with the IRS that authorizes the IRS to tack the extra costs onto their tax bill. It would include detoxification, rehabilitation, damage done by people on drugs, lost wages, taxes and productivity by drug users, crime (the fact that many drug users will be unemployable won't stop them from wanting nice things) and pain and 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 that there is such a thing as a right to choose crime as a lifestyle, and that making 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 committing capital crimes.

Wrongful Convictions

I contend it is absolutely impossible to have wrongful convictions without police, prosecutorial, or judicial misconduct. Every wrongful conviction should be investigated as a crime.

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

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

Rights of the Sociopath

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

The only problem is, what happens when the activities of the sociopath degrade the rights of others? Protecting the rights of the obnoxious protects only the rights of the obnoxious. I'm not terribly worried about the FBI coming into my house without a warrant. I'm much more concerned about a criminal coming in without a warrant. I'm not nearly as worried about being executed for a crime I didn't commit as being executed for the crime of having something somebody else wants.

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

Worst of all are the cases where protecting the rights of sociopaths interferes with the legitimate rights of others. I routinely see programs I support undermined to provide funds to help people who cannot keep their own lives in order. I have to buy insurance to protect myself against lawsuits by the negligent and personally irresponsible. For some time during the 1960's and 1970's, it was virtually impossible to buy good plastic cement because some people liked to sniff the fumes, so all that was available was a grossly inferior goo based on lemon oil. I have to restart my lawn mower every time I let go of the handle because some idiots have been known to reach inside while the blade is spinning. There is a virtually endless list of petty degradations that ordinary citizens suffer in the name of protecting Lifestyles of the Stupid, Selfish and Irresponsible.

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 one only, and that is to stop being sociopaths and criminals. Defending sociopaths and criminals does absolutely nothing to protect the rights of ordinary citizens and a great deal to undermine their rights.

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

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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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