In his famous speech to the 1964 Republican National Convention, Barry Goldwater denounced “those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen.” He was referring to the advocates of the Great Society, who wanted to empower the federal government toward abolishing poverty and institutional racism. Whatever else was wrong with the Johnson presidency, those were at least noble goals. Forty years later, our political class still believes in limitlessly expanding the involvement of government in the private lives of citizens. The difference is that today, the only discernible object of such expansions is the aggrandizement of state power itself.
Just ask Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who is at the head of a bicameral effort to wipe the media clean of perceived “indecency.” Stevens is apparently unimpressed with legislation increasing fines for content violations in broadcast radio and television from $32,500 to $500,000. For him, the free speech available through subscription-only cable and satellite services is such a threat to upright society that it must be reined in (grudgingly, of course) by Congressional oversight and broadcast content guidelines.
Stevens’ charge that “cable is a much greater violator in the indecency area” is a tautology; people watch cable programming voluntarily, and if network and cable content were the same, no one would pay for cable in the first place. Stevens’ reassurance that “no one wants censorship” would be a tad more believable had he not also claimed a willingness to fight “violently” for the right of Congress to restrict permissible speech on cable, or sworn to defend that decidedly extra-Constitutional right before the Supreme Court. In most other contexts, Stevens and his fellow Republicans would be skeptical of any effort to manipulate a free market-determined equilibrium. Yet when it comes to the liberty of private citizens to choose what to read, watch or listen to, an erstwhile straight-talker like, say, John McCain, would “like to have a hearing on it.”
Needless to say, the decency crusaders don’t frame the issue as a conflict of individual rights with their own personally held beliefs; they speak of, and probably believe themselves to be engaged in, a children-of-light versus children-of-darkness battle against the corrosive, youth-corrupting forces of moral decadence. Consider the precedent set by Brent Bozell’s “Parents Television Council,” a pressure group that turned out to be responsible for 99.8 percent of the FCC’s indecency complaints last year. PTC defends its actions on the grounds that it was “protect[ing] citizens from indecent and raunchy content on broadcast television.” This fraud (for a higher purpose) is what brought about the 16-fold increase in content fines in the first place.
Of course, no one ever asked for Bozell’s, or Stevens’ or McCain’s protection. The range of available content on television and radio is not a function of some furtive elitist campaign to poison the culture, but an expression of popular demand. Sen. Stevens and his comrades can demonize broadcasters all they want, but they know whom their proposed “reform” actually targets (us), and thereby indicate precisely how much respect they have for the First Amendment and for the rights of citizenship.
While attacking free speech rights is so far a largely Republican cause, attacking rights of due process, privacy and protections against self-incrimination has become a bipartisan raison d’etre. Henry Waxman — a perpetually aggrieved Democratic congressman from California and the ranking member on the House Government Reform Committee — has, as you may have read, convened a farcical Congressional hearing compelling testimony on steroid use from several former and current baseball players. (Never mind worrying about what steroids have to do with government reform.) What you might not have heard, and what has certainly not been a focus of the media coverage of Waxman’s bizarre inquiry, is this: Along with his Republican colleague Tom Davis of Virginia, the chairman of the committee, Waxman has premised his investigation on a principle of unchecked, unbalanced jurisdictional power.
In reply to a letter from the counsel for Major League Baseball, Davis and Waxman cited a House rule to the effect that their committee “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.” Some of us might interpret “any matter” as a category restricted by the legitimate purview of the committee and by the constitutional rules governing inquisitorial conduct. Yet the Congressional subpoena extends to “documents detailing the names, disciplinary action taken and reason for suspension for all drug-related violations since 1990.” Those documents may have been drafted explicitly in order to ensure their confidentiality, and they need not have anything to do with steroid use. All the same, Congressman Waxman would like to have a look at them, and doesn’t feel that there is any restraint on his investigative power to do so.
The private records of anyone who worked for Major League Baseball in any capacity since 1990 are thus at the whim of Congress to use as it sees fit, including, potentially, to incriminate the person to whom they belong. And if Congress has such a right in the case of MLB employees, it has that right over everyone: in effect, the right to dissolve a citizen’s sphere of privacy and private life just in case some barely related investigation takes a cursory look at those with whom the citizen has freely associated. Sens. Stevens and McCain, Congressmen Davis and Waxman — and all the rest of the priesthood of state power within the government — make no secret of their belief in the precedence of state before citizen. We can prove them wrong by un-electing the lot of them.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.