Saturday, 13 March 2010
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the most prominent civil and liberal groups in the USA. Its two branches collectively have funding of over $130,000,000 p.a. (figure for 2008, source: ACLU website), the majority of which (almost 90%, source: ACLU website – figure for 2008) is received from public donations and membership fees. It is a non-profit making organisation whose stated objective is ‘to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States’ and its mission is to: ‘continue to tackle the thorniest issues confronting our nation— racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and censorship. The ACLU's mission remains realizing the promise of the Bill of Rights for all and expanding the reach of its guarantees to new areas’ (source: ACLU website). The organisation operates through litigation, legislation and community education.
Founded in 1920 by Crystal Eastman, Roger Baldwin, Albert DeSilver and Walter Nelles, the ACLU was the successor to the earlier National Civil Liberties Bureau - itself an offshoot of the American Union Against Militarism founded during the First World War (1914-1918) to oppose US involvement in the war and defend conscientious objectors. It currently has over 500,000 members (source: ACLU website).
Lawsuits brought by the ACLU have been influential in the evolution of Constitutional law (for list see ACLU website ‘Supreme Court’) as the ACLU provides legal assistance, and other support, in cases in which it considers civil liberties to be at risk. It is also engaged in lobbying elected officials and political activism. Although the ACLU has been critical of politicians and policies of both parties its ultra-liberal mandate aligns it far more with the Democrats than the Republicans. Its position on key issues is antithetical to social conservatism in every respect but it is also committed to protecting ‘individual freedoms’ (those words again) against overbearing government and it works toward supporting complete egalitarianism for every person. It is also involved in monitoring the US government’s compliance with international law on human rights and aims to protect non-citizens in that context.
The ACLU is active in promoting their position on (amongst others):
- Abolish the death penalty
- Liberalising laws on drug crime
- Pro-choice on abortion
- Preserving free speech
- Fighting discrimination against AIDs sufferers
- Protecting prisoner’s rights
- Ending racism
- Promoting religious freedom and maintaining separation between religion and state
- Anti technological surveillance
- Ending gender discrimination against women or gay/lesbian community
- Protect the politically disenfranchised (e.g. non citizens, illegal immigrants).
The ACLU is therefore the nemesis of the neo-conservatives – as Roy Moore (of So Help Me God fame) discovered. His vitriolic views on the organisation are personal as well as political as the ACLU famously brought the law case on the ‘Ten Commandments’ plaque which resulted in Moore being removed from office.
However, the organisation’s pro-individual/anti-government stance does not include a current remit to protect workers’ rights. This notable omission has evolved from the anti-Communist period which began in the 1940s and gained momentum throughout the Cold War (1945-1991). At the height of the US ‘collectivist’ period in the twentieth century (Progressive era to US entry into the Second World War in 1941), being a member of a socialist/leftist organisation was not demonised within American society. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ response to the Great Depression of the 1930s saw an unprecedented level of collectivism by the US government and labour movements involved in the implementation of the New Deal programmes.
In 1940, the ACLU formally banned communists from leadership or staff positions in the organisation and also took the position that it did not want communists as members. The board declared that it was ‘inappropriate for any person to serve on the governing committees of the Union or its staff, who is a member of any political organization which supports totalitarianism in any country, or who by his public declarations indicates his support of such a principle’. The purge, which was led by Roger Baldwin, himself a former supporter of communism, began with the ousting of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a member of both the Communist Party USA and the Industrial Workers of the World (source: ‘American Civil Liberties Union Records, The Roger Baldwin Years, 1917-1950: Finding Aid’, http://diglib.princeton.edu/ead/getEad?id=ark:/88435/rj430454b).
Ironically, the ACLU was originally formed by leftist activists specifically to protect aliens threatened with deportation, U.S. nationals threatened with criminal charges for their communist or socialist activities and agendas, and the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other labour unions to meet and organise. That this most liberal of American organisations continues to omit workers’ rights from its agenda is suggestive of the pervasiveness of the ‘classlessness’ of American ideology myth, and also the persistence of the exceptionalism exploited to promote anti-left sentiment as a counter to the USSR during the Cold War. A sentiment in which Cold War propaganda aligning socialism with Communism continues to impact mainstream response to federal intervention/ programmes of all kinds.