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Charlie Mitchell: Champions of liberty are often the worst abusers


Charlie Mitchell



OXFORD -- "What in the world are we doing? We look like Mississippi." 


That's what a disgusted Gov. Beverly Perdue said a year ago when 61 percent of voters in North Carolina cast ballots to define marriage in her state's 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 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 Nixon 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 abusing the public trust from different starting points, but both camps are equally adept at trampling the Constitution. 


The IRS admissions include purposely greeted exemption applications from "tea party" and "patriot" groups with undue skepticism. It's a good thing for all of us when the tax folks guard against granting exemptions to nonpartisan groups that are anything but nonpartisan. 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. Asking questions in America is not illegal, at least not yet. 


Surely the IRS and Justice Department employees who decided to pursue these tactics knew that, if caught, there would be trouble. But, again, it's likely they convinced themselves that because they were serving a higher purpose, everything would be OK. 


There has been and there will continue to be a great hue and cry to tie President Obama directly to these unfortunate and illegal activities. That's how these things play out. Condemn the president as a hypocrite, a master of charades who talks about respecting the Constitution -- but only when it suits him. Other talking heads 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 never happen again. 


Where does that leave us, the citizen-spectators of 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. Experience tells us liberals are just as likely as conservatives to use stealth, take shortcuts, stomp on the Constitution. 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 (her residents) will do right and rubes (Mississippians) will do the opposite is an appealing perspective. But it's wrong. 


Sometimes conservatives are arrogant; sometimes it's liberals. 


What doesn't change is the responsibility of citizens -- and that is to view violations of civil liberties not from the left or right -- but straight on.



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