YOUR FEB. 2 ISSUE suggests that the old-fashioned notion of the rule of law is out-of-fashion at Washington City Paper. One short item breezily suggests that abuse of visitor parking privileges is sort-of-cute in addition to being highly cost-effective; inconveniently, it’s illegalbut that’s the District’s problem, and who in this crime-ridden, budget-busted town is paying attention?
Then City Paper trashes the ACLU for it’sOmigod!”single-minded mission to protect the Bill of Rights.” Jonetta Rose Barras seems to believe that a black-majority District should be exempted from the Bill of Rights because we’re “hurting” (from crime, etc.), because it “thwart[s] the majority for the benefit of the minority,” because individual rights “exacerbate…the narcissism that has run rampant in American society for more than two decades,” and because it “betrays” efforts at community improvement.
This strikes me as dangerously wrong-headed excuse-mongering. First, “necessity” is always the “tyrant’s plea.” Majorities always feel justified in their oppressive enactment whether the excuse be Barras’ victimization argument, religious certitudes, racial inferiority, national security, or whatever. Second, the Bill of Rights doesn’t victimize the majority to benefit the minority; it constrains any particular, temporary majority in certain, specific ways for everyone’s benefit, because in the end a free society leaves us all better off. Third, individual rights in 1996 are no more “narcissistic” than in 1790. If, as I agree, our sense of social responsibility has declined, we need to teach civic duty as a correlative of, not a replacement for civil rights; the alternative is the argument made by the Nazis and other totalitarians. Fourth, the Bill of Rights hardly leaves communities defenseless, although it may preclude some seemingly quick, easy, “feel-good” fixes. While fully sharing Barras’ anger and frustration with conditions in the District, it is Barras, not Arthur Spitzer, who is “unrealistic” about how majorities inflamed by the outrage-du-jour will use their power.
A starting point for all of us in addressing our ills before we repeal the Bill of Rights might be to practice civic responsibility and encourage it in others, i.e., the exact opposite of what City Paper does with its story on parking.