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Jewish World Review March 12, 2002 / 28 Adar 5762

Evan Gahr

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Waiting for Lefty | It was nearly 7 p.m. on a chilly night in Manhattan. "Patriot Games," a panel discussion about the war and civil liberties, was scheduled to start momentarily at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The Society's auditorium, which resembles a church complete with organs in almost every accouterment, except, of course, a cross, was jam-packed.

Even the balcony was standing room only at this star-studded February 27 conference, sponsored by the "Nation" magazine's nonprofit offshoot, the Nation Institute (which on other occasions tells Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy what to think). Very briefly, your correspondent left the balcony but placed his coat on the floor to mark his place and, more importantly, hide his book, "Perjury," an exhaustive work of scholarship that brands Alger Hiss a liar and spy. With this crowd, the book was not so much likely to be stolen as burned.

Or maybe not. The nearly all-white crowd had its share of men and women who could have been charter members of the old left, fighting for the Rosenbergs or insisting Alger Hiss had been framed. But few of these old folks can walk any longer, let alone summon the energy to burn a book. The bulk of the crowd was clearly younger, or at least hardly old enough to have remembered the Hiss-Chambers confrontation of 1948. Many were probably mere toddlers when the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Rather typical was the mangy-haired woman dressed in olive corduroy pants and a lovely black sweater to match; she looked about 50.

The conference started some 30 minutes late. "Nation" publisher Victor Navasky, joined by editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, sex goddess of the atheist left, kicked off the event with a brief history of the venerable pinko magazine's time-honored history of dissent, especially in times of crisis. Navasky described the anti-terrorist Patriot Act as a "reactionary" wish list for the Bush administration. He then turned the show over to the moderator, Phil Donahue. With dramatic flair, Donahue introduced the panelists for a conference that may very well have proved the most staid gathering of lefties in recent times.

The panelists were so mainstream they could just has well have been assembled by the Brooking Institution: ACLU president Nadine Strossen, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund director Elaine Jones, columnist Molly Ivins, and Hussein Ibish, Communications Director, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. (Couldn't they at least get a spokesman from CAIR, the AMC or other groups that, unlike the staid AADC, terrorism expert Steve Emerson has linked to Hamas?)

Still, the most curious panelist of all was Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

What was the quintessential cold war liberal doing in a place like this? The last time Schlesinger was invited to a "Nation" conference he declined, explaining that he would have to be a "masochist" to attend a conference sponsored by a magazine that had attacked him for decades.

But the world has changed. At this "Nation" shindig, the object of ire is not Schlesinger but a religious fanatic whose narrow-minded vision of the world threatens the liberties we all cherish. Osama bin Laden? Nope. Try John Ashcroft.

Sure, Osama's whereabouts aren't known, Iraq may have chemical weapons and just the other month a terrorist operative almost managed to blow up an airliner with a bomb hidden in his shoes. But if you believe the panelists -- the only thing we have to fear is the United States government itself.

It's all well and good to worry about excessive government power. But panelists acted like the FBI and other federal law enforcement entities under the auspices of the Justice Department are the only conceivable threat to American freedoms. Does anybody need to worry that one of Ashcroft's followers is going to blow up an airline?

Yes, Nadine Strossen and Elaine Jones both started their presentations by noting how close their offices were to ground zero. But a general theme soon emerged. The United States "swept away by fear and anxiety" -- as Ibish put it -- had made mincemeat of our precious liberties and subjected Arab men to racial profiling and other injustices. Strossen lamented that the Patriot Act had given law enforcement authorities too much latitude to intercept emails and other private communications. Phil Donahue complained that the concept that "a woman's home is her castle" was seriously eviscerated by the war on terrorism.

What was the proper trade off between safety and freedom? Molly Ivins objected that this time-honored question actually posited a false dichotomy, explaining it was a whole lot of "sh-t" because the country can have both. Ivins was wise enough to preface most of her comments with such disclaimers as "at the risk of being annoying" or "maybe I'm optimistic to the point of idiocy." Self-knowledge is one of her more admirable traits.

Nadine Strossen could have used a few disclaimers of their own. She never really grappled with the profound menace which Arab-sponsored terrorism still poses to the United States. She did however fret about another possible wave of "CIA harassment of [American] citizens," recalling the agency's supposed prior harassment of Martin Luther King. (Donahue quickly interjected that it was actually the FBI that hounded King; strange world when Donahue defends the CIA's honor.) More importantly, Strossen and Jones of the NAACP overlooked the plain reality that future perpetrators are likely to be young Arab men and the terrorists responsible for September 11 came from an identifiable demographic group.

The omission is rather glaring when you consider that the ACLU and NAACP are otherwise happy to play the numbers game to advance their agenda. We're constantly reminded that black men are over-represented among the nation's prison population or that minorities are disproportionately represented among crack dealers. Therefore, the relevant laws should be adjusted (i.e., liberalized) to account for this statistical imbalance.

But who is over-represented among terrorists? How should the United States government respond to this statistical imbalance. It's one thing to say that certain domestic policies post September 11 are overwrought or unfair. However, simply to ignore the true face of terrorism seems either obtuse or disingenuous.

Ivins, for example, described September 11 as the horrific consequences of "insane people with box cutters." Well, lots of crazies have access to box cutters. But only certain crazies from certain countries have demonstrated the ability to make box cutters a tool of mass murder.

Still, the evening did have one distinct bright spot. After the panel discussion, Donahue took questions from the audience because "We care about how you feel."

Alas, nobody put in a good word for the Rosenbergs. But Mario Savio, '60s free speech guru, was praised to the hilt, the war on terrorism was somehow connected to an assault on abortion rights, and "Zionist fundamentalists" were denounced, along with "Christian fundamentalists." (They're the real threat to our freedoms, in case we'd forgotten.) Actor Danny Glover, seated unobtrusively in the audience, rambled about multi-national corporations.

For the most part, the panelists used these "inquiries" to re-state their own views. However, Arthur Schlesinger took issue with an audience member's contention that U.S. bombing of Afghanistan was immoral. Schlesinger, who had been relatively quiet up to that point, responded that even if the bombing was "excessive" it made possible the liberation from the Taliban which many Afghans, especially the women, welcomed.

In response, audience members cheered. This may very well have been the first "Nation" conference where discussion of a United States military offensive overseas elicited applause.

Have these progressives finally made some progress?

Evan Gahr, JWR's Washington correspondent, is an adjunct scholar at the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, DC. To comment click here.


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© 2002, Evan Gahr. Adapted from a column on