Feb 25, 2007

Be Careful What You Fall For: The Battle for Public Interest

Hyper-Conservatives have gotten really good at co opting good names for things, in the hope that they can reel in the uninitiated, making them think that they are in a supportive, positive space, before they slam the door and pull out the hoods. Okay, so Ku Klux Klan sounds spooky without even thinking about what they actually did. But these guys are definitely getting smarter.

Take for example, the Institute for Justice. I stumbled upon this when doing some research about eminent domain. An organization called the Castle Coalition was featuring a new piece about the impact of eminent domain on African Americans. I said right on, let me read this. Then I thought, hell, this is interesting as a group that publishes so much on this topic, so I dug further and found that it was a program of the Institute for Justice.

So then I started reading, and realized that IJ supports school choice. Well, that sounds good. But "school choice" is the code for school vouchers. And someone not doing education work, such as myself, could have easily fallen right into that trap. Then you realize that despite the glossy look that speaks of civil liberties and constitutional rights, the place is anti-government regulation to the point of saying clearly that it is against the "welfare-state." But the clincher was when I read this:

IJ sues the government when it stands in the way of people trying to earn an honest living, when it takes away individuals' property, when bureaucrats (not parents) control the education of children, when government stifles speech, and when public institutions classify individuals based on race.
Woah. Great. So in the midst of talking so much about equal protection, these guys are anti-affirmative action, and who knows what else. And avid supporters of First Amendment rights can also take the shade of hate-speech protectors, campaign finance reform opponents, and who knows what else. I definitely almost fell for it. Who knows if their legal interns understand that they are on a different side of "individual rights" than some of the more traditional civil rights/liberties groups. But I could also see very interesting/uneasy alliances between these guys and others, depending on the issue.

But this is definitely a weird trend - the Freedom-Based Public Interest Legal Movement (FBPILM). Basically, right-wing groups have been taking on the guise of public interest with a very different agenda than the standard legal aid/civil rights perspective. I don't know how I feel about this - part of me, from my obvious political leanings, thinks that this is crazy. But part of me feels like we have to delve more deeply into what is actually in the public's interest. I mean, if folks really believe that small government (i.e. decreasing or eliminating the so-called welfare state) is in everyone's best interest, then I guess this is the means by which they are pursuing that goal.

But ultimately, I guess the question is whether the different camps view "public" as meaning individuals, or our shared community as a whole. If there are principles that we believe in that extend somewhere beyond individual rights, or if we can accept that sometimes to ensure that everyone has some basic level of rights we all have to give something up, well, then maybe we can talk. But if it's all about the individual in front of them, and not the invisible many who are on the other side of the equation - if we view it as a zero-sum game with no hope of expanding the pie for everyone, well, then their perspective protects the rights not to lose to someone else (like a militia in Montana, I guess).

Anyway, for more on the FBPILM, check out Timothy Foden's interesting article, The Battle for Public Interest Law: Exploring the Orwellian Nature of the Freedom-Based Public Interest Law Movement, 4 Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal 210 (2004-05). Or you can visit the Institute for Justice, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ - clever, huh?), or one of the many other groups out there.

It's a scary field, once you start clicking around. It's not always easy to sort out which groups are aligned with your interests, and which are opposed. So beware before you click, or worse, write a check.

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