Friday, April 2, 2021
What did liberalism mean back then? As a young person helping to read off test questions as my single mother prepared for the LSATs, I had a vague idea of it as a school of thought that believed strongly in the law and due process, and was concerned with protecting the rights of people without means or clout. It seemed also to embrace art, music, and the power of free inquiry, opposed war, believed in self-determination and universal human rights, sided with unions over bosses, had copies of Catch-22 and The Autobiography of Malcolm X somewhere in the house, and laughed at both Jerry Falwell and the “This is your brain on drugs” commercial.
As the son of a reporter I also gathered it had something to do with questioning authority, because power corrupts and the people who had it tended to abuse it. As Glasser says in Mighty Ira, “Anyone in power is going to violate civil liberties sooner or later,” which is why “we end up suing everybody, including our members.”
The ACLU was central to what liberalism meant once, and not just because it had a history of pursuing social justice cases like Brown v. Board of Education (taking on school segregation) and Mapp v. Ohio (helping create the exclusionary rule to protect against abusive prosecutions). Skokie seemed to establish the willingness to take an unpopular stand in defense of a principle as another prerequisite for all liberal thinkers of my generation, especially young ones.