Topic: Professions & Institutions

Foundations, the LDF and Senator Kennedy: Embracing the Mob and the Memo

The acid test of whether someone really opposes an “ends justifies the means” philosophy comes when the objectionable means are employed in support of a goal that person holds dear. A current example is the willingness with which certain liberal-leaning groups have rallied to the support of advocacy non-profits whose “issue ads” violate the spirit, and quite possibly the letter, of new campaign finance laws. These same groups attempted to ban the very practices they now seek to protect, until those practices were adopted by political allies. Similarly, GOP leaders who fought the campaign finance laws tooth and claw are among those most vocal in attacks on liberal exploiters of the law’s loopholes.

The utilitarian ethical system does not say that the end justifies the means, but rather that the means must be appropriate to the end sought. Killing to protect world freedom may be justified, but killing to get a free SUV is not. The question that constantly faces civilizations and individuals is whether certain means should be taken out of the social, legal and political tool boxes permanently, banned as inherently unethical, never to be used, no matter what a situation requires, no matter how. Doing so is a big step, and cannot be undertaken lightly. It is seemingly an easy call to ban torture, for instance. But absolute means absolute. Would the US really eschew torture if it was the only hope left to discover the location of a terrorist-planted nuclear bomb? The hyper-active television series “24” presumed not, and I suspect the writers were correct.

Ironically, lesser outrages are easier to declare off-limits, because there are always less desperate and objectionable measures available. Thus the favorite tactic of the Chicago-based activist group, National People’s Action deserves to be condemned by left and right alike. This group, which advocates a number of measures to benefit urban poor and minorities through government programs, takes pride in its willingness to harass government officials by demonstrating on the grounds of their private residences. It recently made headlines by terrorizing presidential advisor Karl Rove’s household, angrily chanting on his front lawn and banging on windows. It doesn’t matter whether the NPA’s cause was just or legitimate. The tactic, extra-legal intimidation, is wrong: based on force and intimidation rather than reason, undemocratic, and absolutely unethical. According to the group’s web site, it receives support from the Tides Foundation, Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, and the MacArthur, Ford and Rockefeller foundations, among others. Never mind that these organizations may support the NPA’s goals. It is unforgivable that they support the NPA’s tactics. A group, like NPA, that engages in brown shirt behavior should immediately find itself off the grant list of any respectable foundation.

Another example of inappropriately withheld outrage: Senator Kennedy’s former counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee blatantly exploited a conflict of interest to advance a deeply held liberal objective, the upholding of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Olati Johnson wrote a memo that sought to delay Julia Smith Gibbons’ confirmation to that court, reasoning that the conservative Bush nominee would tip the court’s ideological balance against the university. But Johnson had come to the committee from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), where she was co-counsel for the students supporting the university’s affirmative action policy. Her memo, according to reports, was written after consultation with LDF staff.

This is not even a close call; it is a clear and egregious violation of the ethical rules governing lawyers and government lawyers in particular. Johnson should have been prevented from having any involvement with a matter so directly affecting the interests of a former client, and it strains credulity to believe that the LDF, Senator Kennedy and his staff weren’t aware of the unethical nature of her actions (the ethical propriety of the course recommended by her memo is also problematical, but more debatable.). Yet they allowed her to continue in her efforts to influence the case, because they fervently agreed with the result she was seeking. Remember, this is the same Senator Kennedy who so vociferously condemned former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt for the “conflict” of having major corporations as former clients, without any evidence that he was favoring them or was inclined to do so. This is the same NAACP Legal Defense Fund that argues for justice. Yet both tacitly endorsed cheating as a legitimate means to achieve their shared objective.

Conflicts are unethical; intimidation is unethical. Those who are ethical themselves will condemn unethical means, regardless of the motives that drive them. It simply requires the application of courage, principle, and character, which often is not so simple at all.

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