177. "ACLU is Running a Risk: Excessive Individualism" The Miami Herald, (June 25, 1988).


John Tanton, M.D., is about to strike again. This time his target is the American Civil Lbierties Union (ACLU). He is launching a counter-organization, the American Civil Rights and Responsibilities Union (ACRRU). The ACRRU will conduct educational campaigns, draft legislation, and file briefs to help ensure that the rights and needs of the commons will not be neglected in hot pursuit of Me-ism and special interests.

Tanton is a supercharged physician from Petoskey, Mich., who launched U.S. English in a short time working with former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa. It led a drive that succeeded in 10 states to make English the official language and is leading this year in similar drives in Florida, Arizona, and Colorado.

U.S. English deeply limited the scope of bilingual education and is fighting to make ballots only in English. Wearing a third hat, Tanton is behind an organization that, in effect, seeks to limit immigration, which is easily the most controversial of his three undertakings.

The ACRRU seems well-timed, a response to a need that sociologists and other observers have increasingly recognized. While economies may thrive if everyone is just out to promote his self-interest, societies require a delicate balance between the forces that sustain the commons (commitment to defense, public safety, civic duties, morality) - the sense of a We - and the forces of individual initiatives, rights, and liberties. When societies lose balance, it is the task of intellectuals and civic leaders to make the case and build the support for restoring the I and We balance.

Forces of individualism arise

In Communist societies, from China to Albania, from the USSA to Afghanistan, the forces of individualism finally seem to be making some significant gains while oppressive collectivism clearly is still dominant. In the United States, the ‘60s and ‘70s have left a strong wake of excessive individualism.

Me-ism has been documented in many ways. Young Americans have been shown to be much more preoccupied with their rights and entitlements that with their duties and civil obligations. They insist they have the right to be tried by a jury of their peers, should the need arise, but are reluctant to serve on a jury. Americans favor defense, but would much rather have someone else serve in the Armed Forces (hence, the aversion to a draft) and are increasingly reluctant to pay for a strong defense. While the heydays of self-actualization, even at the costs of one’s family, are over, preoccupation with career combined with neglect of parenting is very common.

There were numerous specific public-policy issues that awaited the counter moves of ACRRU. None, by itself, will correct the imbalance; all will help to a limited extent, and all are opposed, directly or indirectly, by the ACLU.

National security. A reporter for the L.A. Times and an editor of The Washington Post were asked whether they would publish a report on the inner working of an American reconnaissance satellite, even if this would allow the USSR to blind it, and even if the United States depended on it for early warning of a Soviet nuclear attack. Both stated they would, because news is their duty, while security is the Pentagon’s job. An ACRRU kind of balance between the First Amendment and national security may be enhanced if the United States would enact a National Secrets Act. It would state which matters the press cannot publish, and provide a board of appeals for instances when the press feels improperly limited.

Public safety. Despite some redress in the Reagan years, the rights of criminals are still much better protected than those of the victims, or of the public. For instance, convicted child abusers, disbarred doctors, and serial killers can readily move from one part of the country to another and set up “shop” again. A tamper-proof national identification card will not solve this problem, but it is one tool used by many democracies to enhance public safety.

Public health. Requiring health professionals to inform the sexual partners of AIDS patients (but not employers), so that they will not further spread the epidemic, and requiring patients to disclose these names, is a tough but necessary step given the extraordinary nature of this modern plague.

Public education. Students in schools should be allowed to express their views freely. However, when it comes to mis-conduct, the ACLU notion of due process is misplaced. Schools cannot conduct complicated hearings and provide legal evidence before a disruptive pupil is suspended.

In short, Tanton and his ACRRU have their work cut out for them as long as they keep their eyes on the need for balance. If they come to stand for a new ultraconservative drive, out to suppress individual rights in the name of values, nation, or the commons, the much-needed corrective to excessive individualism will be lost.

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