A Civics Lesson for the ACLU Chief
A so-called civil libertarian takes an extreme anti-democratic position.

New York City Tribune, Tuesday, July 24, 1990

"The NEA knows a lot about art. Politicians don't," writes Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an article in the latest issue of Street News, the scandal-plagued newspaper sold by the homeless.

This assertion is certainly open to debate--after all, it was the NEA's peer-review committee that recommended giving a grant to Karen Finley, while NEA chairman John Frohnmayer denied the grant on the basis of "political realities."

But even if we suppose that Glasser is right--that Finley and her ilk are fine artists whose work is just too esoteric for us common folk and our elected representatives to understand--the implications of his position on the issue are disturbing. "Art experts, not politicians, are best fit to determine what is art and what belongs in museums," he declares.

But this is a democracy, and taxpayers have a right, through our elected representatives, to determine how our tax money is spent--even if our views are considered unwise by the experts. Right?

Wrong, according to Glasser. Not only in art but "in other contexts" as well, "it is obvious that only experts in the field, not Congress, should have the authority to determine who are worthy recipients of government-allocated grants."

For example: "Loggers in the Pacific Northwest stand to lose their jobs because the Environmental Protection Agency declared the spotted own an endangered species, and prevented the loggers from cutting down the owl's habitat. But neither the loggers nor Congress have the right to tell the taxpayer-supported EPA which species are endangered."

What is Glasser thinking? The EPA, like the NEA, exists by virtue of an act of Congress. If Congress wants to pass legislation changing the definition of an endangered species, or excluding the spotted owl from that definition, it has the authority to do so.

Government agencies like the EPA and the NEA are instruments of the people, not the other way around. But for Glasser, it is very important to safeguard federal agencies from democratic influences.

Glasser is at least consistent: He even wants to shield the Defense Department from public scrutiny. "Many people consider the Stealth Bomber an obscene waste of money," he writes. "Yet those people pay to build the planes with their tax dollars. They do not have the right to demand congressional review of everything the Defense Department does with its money."

This is truly bizarre. The head of the ACLU, an organization that has traditionally been a vigorous defender of free speech, is saying you have no right to write your congressman and demand congressional oversight of the Pentagon.

Yet this is what happens when you carry the arguments of the NEA defenders to their logical extreme. If the public has no business determining how its money should be spent in the name of art, it has no business determining how its money should be spent in the name of defense or the environment or anything else, either. Perhaps Glasser would limit the role of Congress to approving commemorative bills recognizing National Digestive Disease Awareness Month and the like. Or should those decisions be left up to medical doctors?

It's odd to have to point this out to someone like Glasser, but we do live in a democracy, and that means taxpayers are entitled to a say in how their money is spent--even when it's spent on the arts. Glasser and his experts may not agree with the decisions Congress makes--but that's just one of the hazards of living in a free country.

Next article: Roseanne Barr: From Deification to Disgust (New York City Tribune, 8/1/90)

Previous article: Just Give Me That Old Time Derision (New York City Tribune, 7/24/90)

Go to main list