The latest lowest of the low in public conversation was struck last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, for its television commercial of spliced-together video clips of former President Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby denying their sexual transgressions and linking them to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose.
The ACLU's stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the country by the Constitution and laws of the United States," and not so long ago, the ACLU was regarded as one of the brave guardians of free speech and civil liberties, including the right to the presumption of innocence until proved guilty. But now the organization, which once stood alone if necessary to resist the hysteria that gives birth to a mob, now slides into the muck of the mob. "In Gotcha We Trust" is hardly an inspiring slogan.
It's a difficult time to see ethics at work in many of our cultural institutions. Rigor and reason have been sacrificed to partisan politics. We've always expected our congressmen (and congresswomen) to fight it out with tough words and pointed barbs, but with due respect for right and wrong. Moral distinctions cannot be heard above the din of hysteria.
Enter Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, who demonstrates a rare "profile in courage," showing rare fortitude as she delivered a speech to the U.S. Senate explaining why she voted to confirm a new justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. Her words were not addressed to those who reduce their rhetoric to 280 characters, nor to those who speak only in polarizing slogans, nor to the faint of heart when duty calls.
She was doing her job as a senator's job should be done, thinking hard, reading deeply and refusing to come to snap judgments. For that she earned metaphorical tar and feathers from a vengeful and mindless mob.
"Rape apologist" was the slogan the Women's March tweeted over Collins' photograph in an activist appeal for campaign dollars for a prospective opponent, whomever that may be, in a race to retain her Senate seat in 2020. The appeal for money was set in motion even before she cast a vote, by a crowdfunding website threatening her with early financial pledges for an opponent if she didn't vote no. Such an appeal may be a violation of federal law against extortion or be perceived as a bribe.
The down and dirty got worse when angry women sent her more than 3,000 wire coat hangers, suggesting they would be necessary for women helping themselves to an illegal abortion after Justice Kavanaugh leads the way to repealing Roe v. Wade. Ignoring the grizzly and keeping a light touch light, Sen. Collins told The Wall Street Journal that a thrift shop was happy to get the hangers: "they've gone to a very good cause."
Susan Collins is usually described as a political moderate, a rare species now in both Republican and Democratic parties. She was not timid siding with Democrats over health care issues and taxes, to the consternation of her Republican colleagues, but she has always voted to confirm Supreme Court nominations, whatever the party of the president appointing them. She didn't come to Washington on a turnip truck, so she knew that this time her vote would render her especially vulnerable among certain groups of women who sneer that she's a "fake feminist." She finds the #MeToo movement important and credits it with bringing attention to sexual harassment and assault. She says due process and presumption of innocence are important, too: "We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy."
Passions are very much inflamed. She requires a security escort to her office in Washington, to television studios and even to her home in Maine. Relief is not on the horizon it we take seriously Hillary Clinton's remark to a CNN interviewer that civility won't return to American politics until the Democrats take back Congress: "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about."
We no longer live in an age when it's easy to identify real heroes. In his book "Profiles in Courage," published in 1957, John F. Kennedy quoted Edmund Burke to demonstrate what it takes for a man to fight the good fight: "He well knows what snares are spread about his path, from personal animosity ... and probably from popular delusion. But he has put to hazard his ease, his security, his interest, his power, even his ... popularity." That applies to women fighting the good fight no less than to men, as Susan Collins has learned. We all stand in her debt.