Wendy Kaminer Gets Civil Righteous

Weighing in on the "spirituality buffet," feminism, and the left's own brand of censorship, this civil libertarian has opinions not everyone wants to hear.

By her own admission, Wendy Kaminer can't help but express her opinions. From her perch at Radcliffe, where she's been a public policy fellow for the past decade, Kaminer surveys American culture with the curmudgeonly erudition of H.L. Mencken. Though her books—including the 1992 hit I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional—are written for a popular audience, she refuses to simply go along with popular opinion. Her 1995 book, It's All the Rage, raised uncomfortable questions about Americans' attitudes toward the criminal justice system. And her most recent book, True Love Waits, collected together provocative essays she's written about issues ranging from communitarianism (she favors the individual rights model) to feminism (she rejects the focus on victimhood) to Michael Lerner's "politics of meaning" (she finds it ridiculous).

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As president of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based group of more than 40 organizations, Kaminer helps teachers, librarians, and other individuals involved in censorship battles across the country. The position draws on Kaminer's longtime commitment to civil liberties and reflects two of her burning concerns: free speech and the separation of church and state.

Her diverse range of subjects and her often contrarian view make it hard to label Kaminer either conservative or liberal. Still, there's a unifying strain throughout her work: What she really fears is the disappearance of rational thought.

Q: How do you negotiate the tension between the rights of an individual and the rights of a community?

A: I don't see a direct conflict between the rights of individuals and the rights of communities, because I don't perceive of communities as having rights in a way that individuals do. Communities certainly have interests, but they don't exactly have rights.

One of the reasons I'm drawn to civil libertarianism as opposed to communitarianism is that I don't worry so much about the rights of the majority; a majority is quite capable of enforcing and protecting its own rights.

Q: In looking over the past six or seven years' worth of annual censorship reports by People for the American Way, it struck me that an increasing number of these challenges—

A: Are coming from the left—

Q: Yes. What's going on?

A: I trace it back to the early 1980s and the rise of the feminist anti-pornography movement, and this notion that there is a conflict between free speech rights and equality rights—this notion that there's something called hate speech, and so you say, "Why should First Amendment rights have priority over equality rights?"

Then there is also this fashionable progressive notion that everything is so completely political that the idea we could have some sort of neutral legal process is practically utopian—because we all know that the more money you have, the more rights you can exercise in this society. But I don't think that you deal with income inequality by limiting the First Amendment rights of affluent people. I'd rather see people screw around with the tax code to redistribute wealth a little bit than screw around with the First Amendment.

Q: You suggest that our battles over social issues—from feminism to crime to creationism—are connected by our confusion between rights and preferences.

A: I think a lot of what I've written for the last 15 to 20 years is about emotional reactions to social change—to changing gender roles, to a great change in the media, to very important changes in the allocation of rights to women and racial minorities. We tend to react quite emotionally to these changes.

I think probably the scarcest resource these days is reason. What's certainly striking about American culture today is the great hostility toward science and the decline of respect for rational scientific thinking. People seem to think that we are ruled by the scientific method and that we overvalue reason. If there was ever a period when we overvalued reason, I think that it was probably extremely brief. What I see now is a great deal of superstition, as much superstition as there has ever been. There are probably more people who believe in guardian angels than who understand the law of gravity.

Q: There's been an embrace of a flabby spirituality that mixes up traditions—

A: The spirituality buffet—

Q: Does that sort of spirituality make us more confused about the line between church and state?

A: I'm not sure. There's a way in which all of these grazers at the spirituality buffet are performing a service, because you could argue that grazing leads to a kind of tolerance. People who incorporate teachings from a lot of different traditions into their own belief systems are going to be more tolerant than people who confine themselves within the strict boundaries of one particular religion. Does it contribute to our confusion? I don't know if it contributes to confusion so much as it is evidence of a certain kind of silliness and shallowness.

Q: What kind of role do you see yourself playing in society?

A: I don't think of myself as having a particular role. I'm lucky enough to be able to make my living essentially by expressing my opinions. But, you know, I think the world would manage quite well if I weren't doing it [laughs].

I do what I do because I have a compulsion to hold forth. I don't spend a lot of time, if any, thinking about the effect my work is going to have on the world. And I have an abiding mistrust of people who think that they're going to change the world. I think that people who think that they're going to change the world are the kind of people who put bombs on airplanes.

 

Mara Tapp is the special correspondent for WBEZ radio in Chicago.

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