Thanksgiving is a rare kind of American holiday, in that it grows neither out of religious observance nor a commemoration of violence and bloodshed. There are no made-up “wars” over its celebration, corporations don’t start pushing Thanksgiving decorations in July, and no one is excluded based on belief or heritage. It doesn’t commemorate the conquest of the New World, but rather partnership and cooperation between two very different cultures. Even if it didn’t really happen the way we’re told, it’s an American myth worth celebrating – though some Native Americans probably have understandably mixed feelings about everything that came after dinner.
The point is, it’s a time for everyone in America to pause and recognize our good fortune, and give thanks for what we have.
The ACLU lost two dear members of our family this year, each a champion of civil liberties. We remember them and give thanks for their dedication and their service: Spencer Coxe and Henrietta Hoffman.
Spencer was executive director of the Philadelphia ACLU through four decades, a board member for two, and a leader for much longer than that. He guided the ACLU through some of America’s most turbulent times, and it is no exaggeration to say that Spencer helped shape American Constitutional law. Though retired from civil liberties work, he visited our Philadelphia office from time to time, breathing life into stories from an earlier generation.
Henrietta was a volunteer in the Philadelphia office, showing up once a week for more than 20 years – longer than any member of our staff. With her regular partner Jean, Henrietta spent Tuesday mornings stuffing envelopes. If you’ve been a member of the ACLU of Pennsylvania at any time since the late 1980s, chances are it passed through Henrietta’s hands. Both she and Spencer lived well into their mid-90s. Henrietta kept her regular Tuesday shift until the very end.
We at the ACLU give thanks for the rights we enjoy. Those rights have not come to us cheaply – countless individuals through many generations have sacrificed life and liberty to defend our rights. Many through combat and military service, but many others through protest and civil disobedience, through litigation, through grassroots movements. While the list of American casualties in combat against foreign foes is far longer, the list of casualties from the enemies of liberty is no less significant. Some have famous names – John Brown, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk – but thousands of others should be remembered, including civil rights demonstrators, labor movement strikers, anti-war activists, and champions of free expression. Others kept their lives – Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Mary Harris Jones – but risked everything to do what was right.
These fights continue today, and we thank those who have risked or sacrificed not only their lives, but their freedom, their time, their relationships with family and friends, and their careers to fight for the rights of all of us.
We at the ACLU are incredibly thankful for our members, our supporters, and particularly our hard-working volunteers. These people give us their time, their energy, and their hard-earned dollars to make the work of the ACLU possible. The ACLU is not made up of the people who get paychecks and board seats – it is made up of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who give some part of themselves to keep those rights alive.
Ah, Thanksgiving…that classic American holiday in which families gather together to stuff themselves stupid, watch football, and tiptoe delicately around safe conversation topics. Inevitably, Grampa Joe or Aunt Sally will bring up the latest rant from their favorite pundit, often a criticism of some new and dastardly way the ACLU is destroying the fabric of America. Like any polite relative, you’ll avoid engaging and politely change the subject to something non-controversial – like who was on Leno last night. Right?
Ah, who are we kidding? If we were people who avoid engaging in controversial conversation, we wouldn’t be the ACLU.
So, should you decide to embarrass your poor family by going point-for-point against your misinformed but opinionated relatives, we want you to be well-armed with the ACLU member’s favorite ammunition: logic and cold, hard fact. Here are a few of the most popular lies about the ACLU, and how to argue against them.
MYTH: The ACLU is fighting a war against Christmas
Much as we’d miss our annual deluge of Christmas cards and their heartwarming holiday spirit (“Merry Christmas, you atheist bastards!”) the truth is we have nothing against people observing and celebrating Christmas. Personally, I love Christmas. Where we have a problem is where governments implicitly endorse one specific religious belief by putting on Christmas celebrations, and forgetting everyone else.
But the fact is, even when we file a suit, it’s always against a government entity and it’s against things like nativity scenes and crucifixes – stuff that represents a specific faith, not symbols of a shared cultural season like Christmas trees or Santa. We’ve never insisted anyone change the name to “holiday tree,” and we have nothing whatsoever to do with private stores like Macy’s and Walmart choosing to say “Happy Holidays.” They do that to try to be respectful of all their shoppers, which to us seems pretty in-line with “peace on earth and good will toward men.”
MYTH: The ACLU is suing to remove crosses from military cemeteries.
This is patently untrue, and was made up out of whole cloth to smear the ACLU. In fact, the ACLU believes very strongly in the right of each person to express their religion, and we would fight hard against anyone who told a Christian soldier that he or she could not choose to have a cross on his or her headstone. But don’t take our word for it. Check with Snopes.
MYTH: The ACLU sued to stop Marines from engaging in prayer.
Once again, Snopes comes in handy. Patently untrue, and demonstrates a frequent misunderstanding of our defense of religious liberty. The ACLU fights hard to defend the rights of every American to express his or her religion freely. What we oppose is government endorsement or enforcement of religion. This is why, for instance, we will defend the right of a child or children to choose to pray in a public school, but oppose the school’s endorsement of such, including any school official leading that prayer.
A recent rumor is that the ACLU is trying to introduce Sharia law into US government, which is as untrue as it is ludicrous. We defend the rights of Muslims to observe their religion as they choose, just as we defend the rights of Christians to do the same. What we oppose is the introduction of those religious laws into the government.
On a related note, there’s a great web site, The ACLU Fights for Christians (maintained by a kind supporter) to show anyone who tells you that the ACLU is anti-Christian.
MYTH: The ACLU runs the CIA
Our apologies to guests at the Bachmann Thanksgiving table, but no matter how many times you hear this repeated, it just isn’t true.
We’re not saying we wouldn’t like to be in charge – we have a lot of great ideas, like stopping waterboarding and other torture altogether, closing secret prisons and Guantanamo Bay, and respecting Constitutional requirements like due process and habeas corpus. We’ve been shouting pretty loud about all those things for a while now, as have the majority of Americans who want the same things – but they don’t appear to be charge of the CIA either.
So there you go. There are, of course, no shortage of other lies, misunderstandings, and distortions about the ACLU, but we thought we’d stick with the classics. Granted, you probably won’t win any points with your relatives for starting a screaming match. When in doubt, there’s nothing wrong with being polite – if you have to, you can always rely on the clip below. Happy Thanksgiving!
Chris in Philly
On Tuesday, Charlie Thompson of The Patriot News’ capitol press team interviewed me about the slate of anti-immigrant bills currently before the state House and the House State Government Committee. That package, which is more appropriately called the “Sabotaging Our Economy Begins at the State Capitol” package, includes a mandate for all employers to use the E-Verify national ID system, a mandate for all local police to enforce federal immigration law, and second-class birth certificates for American-born children of undocumented parents.
Here’s the front page story that Thompson wrote.
Of course, a reporter can’t write everything his subjects tell him, and I’d like to expand a bit more on what I told him that did not end up in the article.
The first question Thompson asked was, what are your concerns, broadly, about this package of bills? (That’s not an exact quote, but that was the essence of his question.) My answer? Supporters of these bills are using misinformation and stereotypes about immigrants to advance their cause. For example:
- Legitimate academic research shows that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, commit crime at lower rates than natural born citizens. And yet the primary pusher of this legislation makes wild claims about rapes and murders by “illegal aliens.”
- Supporters of bills to make English the “official language” of Pennsylvania claim that today’s immigrants aren’t assimilating. (Note that this is the same complaint that Benjamin Franklin had about the German immigrants of colonial Pennsylvania.) They never cite any research, and in fact, legit studies have shown that today’s immigrants are learning English as quickly as ever, and that previous generations of immigrants didn’t necessarily assimilate quickly.
- Supporters make certain statements about protecting jobs, but states that have passed punitive anti-immigrant laws have found that the economic results have been disastrous.
Oh, those pesky facts.
Pennsylvania’s rate of growth is one-third the national average. Our K-12 enrollment is the same as it was 20 years ago. Without immigration, the commonwealth would not have gained in population in real numbers at all over the last ten years. Philadelphia grew for the first time in several decades, thanks to its new immigrant population.
Economically, we cannot afford to do anything that scares people away from our state, as argued by Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute.
Supporters of these punitive bills don’t understand that the lines they rhetorically draw around undocumented immigrants and those with authorization disappear the minute these types of bills are enacted. When states like Georgia and Alabama and Arizona pass laws to turn our local police into federal immigration agents and to mandate the E-Verify national ID system with severe penalties, it impacts all immigrants. Why would authorized immigrants stick around in a state where they will be increasingly harassed by the police and discriminated against in the workplace? Why would any immigrant stay in a state in which the leaders of state government use ugly stereotypes about crime, unemployment, and assimilation?