Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Walker reviews Kutulas, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Making of Modern Liberalism

Judy Kutulas, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 1930-1960 (University of North Carolina, 2006) is reviewed on H-Law by Samuel Walker, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha. Walker is author of a history of the ACLU, In Defense of American Liberties (1990). He writes, in part:
The relationship between civil liberties and modern liberalism is an important topic in American legal and political history. The growth of constitutional law protecting individual rights reached the point that, by the late 1970s, the United States was dominated by what some commentators call a "rights culture." Protest against that culture--over separation of church and state, pornography,abortion rights, and lesbian and gay rights--has been the mainspring of apolitically powerful conservative religious movement. Criticisms of the rights culture have also come from legal and political scholars, such as Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who, while committed to civil liberties values of free speech and equal protection, are concerned about the broader social impact of the relentless pursuit of individual rights. At the same time, there is little question that liberalism dominated American politics for a half century,from the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 until the late 1970s, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 marking the end of that era.
In this context, the relationship between civil liberties and modern liberalism merits serious examination....
In a history of the ACLU between the 1930 and 1960, Judy Kutulas makes the provocative argument that the ACLU was seduced by the lure of respectability, and as a result made significant compromises in its fight for civil liberties. By 1960, she argues, the ACLU had abandoned its earlier radicalism and become "chic," a comfortable part of the liberal mainstream. Kutulas writes that ACLU leaders "steered their Civil Liberties Union into the liberal mainstream" (p. 41).
Kutulas's book is the first scholarly treatment of a critique of the ACLU that first appeared in the 1940s and accuses the ACLU of trimming its sails during the Cold War. The signal event was a 1940 resolution barring members of totalitarian groups from leadership positions in the ACLU, which resulted in the expulsion of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Communist Party member, from the ACLU Board. Further compromises flowed from this initial compromise of principle, according to this argument.
Given the importance of the subject, it is sad to report that Kutulas's book is extremely unpersuasive. Most important, she fails to develop a substantive analysis of modern liberalism and the place of civil liberties within it. Consequently, we never know exactly to what the ACLU was allegedly striving to conform. When she refers to "liberalism," does she mean the Democratic Party or a certain intellectual school of thought? She does not say. With reference to civil liberties, she ignores some of the most important issues of the period she covers. Finally, there are some serious factual errors regarding the history of the ACLU.

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