Continuing Degradation
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 8 2002 11:26 AM

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Dear Stuart,

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Another day. But first a few remarks on your message of last evening.

I have never thought that civil liberties were the exclusive property of either liberals or conservatives. Through the legal struggles of the 20th century to make the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech meaningful, the right for a long time was on the side of repression. I'm thinking of the jailing of Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate for president, for a pacifist speech he made during World War I. Or the prosecution of Helen Whitney for advocating "syndicalism," the jailing of many socialists and radicals of all kinds—over the protest of Justices Holmes and Brandeis. Then there was McCarthyism, another right-wing phenomenon. And so on. But in the last 20 years or so, there has been a real change. Many political conservatives have come to understand the value of "freedom for thought that we hate," the Holmes phrase I quoted yesterday. I cheered when they took on the PC outrages at universities of the kind you mention. And by the way, I was denouncing those student-newspaper-burners long before Nat Hentoff!

All of which is to say that your news about the Rutherford Institute's current activities—it was news to me—made me happy. I do not care, I repeat, whether the defense of civil liberties comes from left or right. But I wouldn't take back my description of Rutherford's role in Paula Jones' lawsuit. That was politics, not civil liberties: a worthless political lawsuit, dismissed by a judge hardly sympathetic to President Clinton.

Today's news story that seemed most significant to me was the New York Times piece on how President Bush's environment officials, most of them, are urging him to set aside a critical air pollution regulation: one requiring power plants to improve their pollution control equipment when they upgrade their operations. That proposal tells a lot about two things: the Bush administration's disregard for the environment and its manipulation by business lobbyists.

This is hardly the first move by the Bush people to degrade the environment. Over recent months we have had such things as these: 1) an Interior Department order allowing power line construction and more use by industrial vehicles in national monuments, 2) an Interior Department order weakening controls over mining permits, 3) a reversal by the Army Corps of Engineers of a policy protecting wetlands, 3) delay of a planned phaseout of snowmobiles in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone national parks. (Those and other orders were described in a Boston Globe Page 1 story on Jan. 5.) Then there is the notorious abandonment of Clinton administration rules to stop the building of roads in large parts of the national forests. And just the other day ( New York Times, Jan. 6) there was the decision, heartbreaking to me, allowing the digging of a gold mine on California land sacred to the Quechan Indian tribe. That again reversed a Clinton administration decision.

The beneficiaries of those and similar decisions are people with money and influence in George Bush's Washington: mining firms, snowmobile renters, and, notoriously, the power industry in the Middle West—which wants no controls on the poisonous gases it sends toward the Northeast. The last, the power people, have some influential voices lobbying for them, among them Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Mark Racicot, the new chairman, who is continuing his work as a lobbyist while GOP chairman.

President Bush is shrewdly trying to use the overwhelming public support he rightly has for the war against terrorism to build support for his domestic policies. In the Portland, Ore., speech that included his threat to prosecute anyone who espouses terrorist philosophy, he also said: "There is a new spirit in this country, and a unity. … And we should not respond one way abroad and have a different attitude about issues that face us at home." In other words, if you support me in fighting terrorism, you should support me in giving tax breaks to the rich and despoiling the environment.

In thinking about that, I cannot keep one name out of my head: Nader. It was Ralph Nader who allowed Bush to become president by siphoning away votes that made the difference in Florida. So, because of Nader, the prophet of environmentalism and economic equality, we have a president who is the antithesis of those beliefs.

The mention of the Portland speech reminds me to say, Stuart, that you did not get the Bush quote exactly right. The White House transcript has it this way: "And if we find somebody who wants to harm America, who espouses the philosophy that's terrorist and bent, I can assure you we will bring that person to justice." I think the First Amendment would not allow imprisonment of someone who "espouses" any philosophy, even if he "wants"—without doing anything—"to harm America."

Tony

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