There's No Room for Civil Liberties in Obama's Inauguration View of America

As the president's speech Monday made clear, the authoritarian right and egalitarian left meet in the middle on at least one issue: Neither side values the rights of the individual.

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama "offers liberal vision," and calls for "progressive values," the New York Times declares, confirming the left-of-center assessment of his second inaugural address. Democrats and progressives took heart from his empassioned commitment to civil rights and social welfare while Republicans fumed. Civil libertarians sighed, reminded that progressive values don't include individual liberty.

Of course Obama paid rhetorical tribute to liberty, as politicians always do, even as their policies assail it. But Kelly Clarkson's musical paean to liberty seemed more sincere. In the Bush/Obama homeland, when freedom rings, the security state picks up the phone, and not merely metaphorically.

Civil libertarians have been cataloguing and futilely litigating the gross abuses of post-9/11 era for years. They include, but are probably not limited to, summary detention and torture; the prosecution of whistleblowerssurveillance of peaceful protesters; the criminalization of journalism and peaceful human-rights activism; extensive blacklisting that would have been the envy of Joe McCarthy; and secrecy about a shadow legal system that makes the president's "we the people" trope seem less inspirational than sarcastic.

Precisely because civil libertarians have focused on these abuses, they're old news -- which means that progressives reveling in Obama's speech can't claim ignorance of them. When they applaud the president's "muscular liberalism," without qualification, they're effectively applauding his strong-arm security state.

That's not entirely surprising, given his many nods to important liberal causes (which, in general, I support) and given the tendency of many liberal as well as centrist Democrats to ignore, trivialize, or endorse the post-9/11 assault on liberty. When Democratic members of Congress talk about their party's values, they sound just like the president; they talk about equality, social and economic justice, and immigration reform. They rarely talk about the preservation of liberty.

I doubt that either the president or the Congressional enablers of his anti-libertarian agenda consider themselves the enemies of freedom. Instead, I suspect, they define freedom differently than civil libertarians do.

What are we talking about when we talk about freedom? It depends on who's talking:

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has one peculiar answer. "Freedom is about authority," he once perversely advised. "Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do." In another view, as Barack Obama suggested in his inaugural address, freedom is about equality. It requires a thriving middle class and equal opportunities for lower-income Americans.

When the subject is liberty, the egalitarian left mirrors the authoritarian right. For Giuliani and Obama, freedom isn't primary; it's contingent on what they value most -- authority and equality, respectively.

Listen, again, to Obama. He talks about freedom as an adjunct to equality: "When a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free ..."

Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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