What happens when an organization with the express goal of defending individual rights and liberties starts silencing its own board? Lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer has intimate knowledge of such a conflict between individual conscience and group solidarity. In this concise and provocative book, she tells an inside story of the dramatic ethical decline of the American Civil Liberties Union, using it as a case history to detail the many vices of association. In Worst Instincts Kaminer calls on her experience as a dissident member of the ACLU national board to discuss the virtues of dissent itself as an essential tool for preserving the moral character of any group. If an organization committed to free speech can suffer from pressure to suppress differing opinions, and disregard for truth, this pressure must surely be rampant in other associations and corporations, as well as government. Kaminer clarifies the common thread linking a continuum of minor failures and major disasters, from NASA to Jonestown. She reveals the many vices endemic to groups and exemplified by the ACLU’s post-9/11 ethical decline, including: conformity and suppression of dissent in the interests of collegiality; self-censorship by members anxious to avoid ostracism; demands to close ranks and launch ad hominem attacks against critics; elevation of loyalty to the institution over loyalty to the institution’s ideals; substitution of the group’s idealized self-image for the reality of its behavior; and deference to cults of personality.
The ACLU has done a lot of great work, but it also has had a really complicated relationship with feminism and women’s issues. It hides the sources of its financial support, fueling the belief that it is largely funded by pornographers. In 1998 the ACLU’s ties to the tobacco industry were questioned, and there were allegations that in return for generous donations, the ACLU “tailored its tobacco-related positions to fit the industry’s interests.” The same year, the ACLU rabidly opposed legislation designed to bring transparency to the realm of political campaign donations. The organization continues to vociferously fight against any efforts to curb political lobbying, despite the distortive, and sometimes catastrophic effects corpotate lobbying may have on the democratic process.
It’s hard not to believe that the ACLU’s policy positions are influenced by people who give them money. And the ACLU receives a lot of money from somewhere. The ACLU is really two organizations, according to the ACLU website, which reports:
The ACLU comprises two separate corporate entities, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. … Although there is some overlap in the work done by each organization, certain activities the ACLU does to protect civil liberties must be done by one organization and not the other. This is primarily in the area of lobbying. The American Civil Liberties Union engages in legislative lobbying. As an organization that is eligible to receive contributions that are tax-deductible by the contributor, federal law limits the extent to which the ACLU Foundation’s may engage in lobbying activities. Therefore, most of the lobbying activity done by the ACLU and discussed in this Web site is done by the American Civil Liberties Union. By contrast, most of the ACLU’s litigation and communication efforts described in this Web site are done by the ACLU Foundation.
In 2008, the ACLU received almost 32 million dollars in direct public support, and the ACLU Foundation received almost 80 million dollars in direct public support, and close to half a million dollars in “indirect” public support, as reported here.