During the 2004 Democratic convention I was on a train heading to Boston's Fleet Center. While straining to contain my excitement over the prospect of hearing presidential nominee John Kerry's soaring oratory (and seeing vice presidential candidate John Edwards' hair), I was distracted by a woman standing in front of me. She was part of a big group of very excited Democrats, convinced that their man was going to lift the dark, evil cloud that hung over George Bush's America like the shadow of Sauron over Mordor. It was, of course, not to be. It turned out that the Human Toothache and the Silky Pony were not what the American people were looking for in 2004.
Anyway, back to that woman. Her demeanor and appearance suggested that the used bookstore/macrobiotic-aromatherapy café she worked for had given her as much time off as she needed to attend the convention and save the country. And she came prepared. Adorning what appeared to be her Eastern European soldier's topcoat, she had a giant button. It read: "I do not consent to any search."
I gathered this was a reference to the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that consumed the minds of the American left, the Democratic Party and, perhaps most of all, America's librarians to an extent no rational person could explain then or now.
The Patriot Act, considerably weaker than similar laws in Europe, allowed the FBI to ask a judge for a warrant to seek third-party business records and search suspected terrorists' homes without notifying them right away. (The alternative is to tip off the next Mohammed Atta prematurely.)
Leading left-wing civil libertarians went crazy. The ACLU proclaimed that "the FBI could spy on a person because they don't like the books she reads, or because they don't like the websites she visits. They could spy on her because she wrote a letter to the editor that criticized government policy." Howard Dean insisted that Attorney General John Ashcroft "is no patriot. He's a direct descendant of Joseph McCarthy." David Cole wrote of the Patriot Act in The Nation that the law "resurrects the philosophy of McCarthyism, simply substituting 'terrorist' for 'communist.'"
My favorite response came from Jan O'Rourke, a Pennsylvania librarian who destroyed the records of all library visitors so she could prevent the G-men from finding out who borrowed "Catcher in the Rye" or surfed the Web for adoptable kittens.
Why do I bring all of this up? It's not just to point out how demented, partisan and dishonest so much of this nonsense was. But I will note that President Obama and the Democratic Congress extended the major provisions of the Patriot Act for yet another year last month, and while the ACLU worked the fax machines, it'd be a stretch to say that any of the usual suspects made much of a fuss about that.
No, the real point of this trip down memory lane is to put the conservative reaction to the health-care bill in some context. Patriot Act hysteria consumed American politics for years, even though the bill was reasonable and the number of those affected by it comparatively miniscule. No libraries were searched. Terrorists were caught. Inconveniences and mistakes surely transpired, but not on some grand scale. American privacy endured.
Now consider what the left-wing magazine Salon calls the conservative "freakout" over the health-care legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama. Unlike the Patriot Act, which passed with overwhelming, almost unanimous, bipartisan support, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was passed narrowly, against the public's wishes and in the face of bipartisan opposition. It will cost trillions of dollars we do not have. It gives the government greater say in the most intimate areas of your life, far more private than your library record. It is based on dubious constitutional assumptions.
Lots of liberals opposed the Patriot Act on slippery-slope grounds, but it's worth noting that very few conservatives said the Patriot Act was just a "first step" or a "down payment" toward an even more aggressive police state, while many hoped it would be a temporary measure. Lots of liberals insist health-care reform merely begins the process of pushing for full governmentalization of health care.
And yet the woman on that train, and those like her, were treated by the mainstream press as not merely sane and serious, but as the conscience of the nation. Those of us justifiably freaking out about this far more massive and far more outrageous expansion of the government into our lives are treated like crackpots.
Better to be a called a crackpot than be one, I say.