Charlie Mitchell: Champions of liberty are often the worst abusers

By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – “What in the world are we doing? We look like Mississippi.”
That’s what a disgusted Gov. Beverly Perdue said last May after 61 percent of voters in North Carolina cast ballots in favor of defining marriage in the state constitution as a legal bond between one man and one woman.
The comment betrayed a sanctimonious attitude, one not uncommon among those who consider themselves to be progressive.
They value humanity.
They value their understanding of equal protection of laws, of the Bill of Rights.
So what does that have to do with anything today?
As the unfolding IRS and AP scandals indicate, sometimes progressives have so thoroughly convinced themselves of the depth of their respect for civil liberties, they feel no remorse or accountability for trampling all over them.
The popular narrative is that when Richard Nixon created an “enemies list,” it’s because he was mean-spirited, dishonest, lacked integrity. When George W. Bush indicated he was OK with warrant-based wiretaps of international phone calls involving suspected terrorists, it’s because he was slow-minded and just didn’t understand people’s privacy rights.
Nixon and Bush are “Mississippi” in this line of thinking. That is, not “with it” enough to be ashamed.
But when President Obama’s Department of the Treasury goes after tax filings of conservatives and when his Department of Justice obtains phone records of journalists, that is seen as different. The rationalization is it’s OK to violate people’s rights when you have tremendous self-assurance that you are doing it for the greater good.
The end justifies the means, in other words.
Now any reader who thinks this is a condemnation of progressives or a defense of conservatives needs to think again. Not so. The point is they may approach it from different starting points, but both camps are equally adept at abusing the public trust.
As the IRS facts unfold, the basic admission is that tax officials purposely greeted exemption applications from “Tea Party” and “patriot” groups with undue skepticism. It’s a bad thing for one political persuasion to be targeted more intently – and it is especially bad when the president is of the opposite persuasion. Using the regulatory powers of government or the public purse to reward friends or punish enemies is criminal.
As The Associated Press phone records facts unfold, it appears a prosecutor or prosecutors felt their old friend “national security” justified using stealth to find out who journalists were talking to, where leaks might have been. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Bad, bad, bad.
Surely the IRS and Justice Department officials who decided to pursue these tactics knew that, if caught, there would be trouble.
There will be a great hue and cry to tie President Obama directly to these unfortunate and illegal activities. That’s how these things play out. Some will condemn the president as a hypocrit, a master of charades who talks about respecting the Constitution – but only when it suits him. Some will defend the president, insisting that underlings may have become a bit too zealous, but certainly the president didn’t know about it and he has taken appropriate measures to make sure abuses are halted.
Where does that leave us, the citizen-spectators of such political theater?
For one thing, there should be an acute awareness that we’re being played. Mississippians, especially, should recognize what’s happening when the scapegoat or scapegoats are trotted out. We’ve been in that role many times.
For another, we should resist any temptation to cheer blindly for the administration’s critics or for its defenders.
Civil liberties either belong to everyone or there’s no such thing. Sometimes the abuses are attributed to a lack of appreciation for people’s rights. Sometimes the abuses can be traced to self-righteousness.
The real culprit, the common denominator, is the arrogance that comes with power. To assume, as Gov. Perdue did, that enlightened folks will do right and rubes will do the opposite is an appealing perspective. But it’s wrong.
Sometimes conservatives are arrogant; sometimes it’s liberals. It’s the responsibility of citizens to view violations of civil liberties not from the left or right – but straight on.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email