A Jeremiad Against Groupthink

Tom Flynn

Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU, by Wendy Kaminer (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2009, ISBN 978-080704430-8) 160 pp. Cloth $24.95.


Beginning in 2003, Wendy Kaminer accuses, the venerable American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lost its way. Awash in financial support since 9/11 and led by charismatic executive director Anthony Romero, the ACLU voluntarily agreed to screen new hires against terrorist watch-lists while publicly decrying their use. It engaged in “data mining” in search of prospective donors while condemning the same practice by industry or government. Astonishingly, the organization widely regarded as the nation’s foremost protector of unpopular speech considered an internal gag rule forbidding members of its own board from criticizing it in public. The accusations go on, suggesting that ACLU leadership engaged in everything from misleading donors to entering civil liberties controversies other groups already had in hand, hoping by bluster and fanfare to claim credit for the labors of other, often poorer, activists.

When social critic Wendy Kaminer, a Free Inquiry columnist, tells this story in Worst Instincts, she writes from experience; at the time she was an ACLU board member who made herself unwelcome in the organization by insistently calling attention to abuses like these and demanding that something be done. At one point, she and about thirty other dissidents launched a Web site, savetheaclu.com (full disclosure: I signed its petition) before leaving the board in 2006. No, she wasn’t purged; discouraged by the dim prospects for change from within, she simply declined to run for another term.

The situation Kaminer recounts sometimes edges on the absurd. For many, the ACLU is the very embodiment of the old populist slogan “Question Authority,” and she depicts its director demanding—and getting—loyalty, obedience, sometimes even silence. Moreover, she charges, board members who had joined the ACLU out of devotion to its principles surrendered to groupthink and went along with it all.

In Worst Instincts, Kaminer offers a short but searing account of her time on the ACLU national board, intertwined with far-ranging reflections on the importance of dissent within every organization—and the sorts of social weapons that the comfortable or the simply apathetic so frequently deploy against those who raise disturbing questions.

Kaminer makes no pretense of objectivity here; in Worst Instincts she is an open partisan, telling her side of a bruising internal battle that she and her co-partisans lost. It is one of this book’s great virtues that Kaminer is able to recount this conflict incisively and to blend it with such thoughtful treatment of the larger moral and psychological questions that these situations raise. “That a group bound together by an ideology of mistrust would bow to the demand of its own leadership to ‘trust us’ is a testament to the conflict between reason and solidarity; partisanship demands irrationality when members are expected not simply to support their team but to suspend judgment of it, even within the confines of the locker room,” Kaminer writes.

The controversies Kaminer treats could stand as archetypes for countless moral choices that Americans confronted, and all too often shamefully ducked, in the cauldron of the Bush years. Worst Instincts makes for thought-provoking, rewarding, and (best of all) uncomfortable reading.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU, by Wendy Kaminer (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2009, ISBN 978-080704430-8) 160 pp. Cloth $24.95. Beginning in 2003, Wendy Kaminer accuses, the venerable American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lost its way. Awash in financial support since 9/11 and led by charismatic executive director Anthony Romero, the ACLU voluntarily agreed …

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