05 October 2009

ACORN: Partisan Immunity and the "Borat Effect"

The new issue of The Nation features Christopher Hayes' apologia for ACORN in the aftermath of videos that showed employees in some local offices of the much-hated organization readily offering tax and business advice to a self-proclaimed (albeit fraudulent) pimp. Since a number of the videos have been released (Hayes claims that the provocateurs have withheld videos that show ACORN employees in a more positive light) Democrats have flung the activist group from them like a grenade with the pin pulled. Congress has stopped a flow of government money that had averaged about $3,500,000 a year. Hayes describes this as a political vendetta fueled by Republican hostility to ACORN's voter-registration agenda -- as if that explains all the Democratic votes in favor of cutting off ACORN's federal funding.

Hayes acknowledges ACORN's "manifold dysfunctions," including a million dollars worth of embezzlement by the founder's brother. He admits that some of the ACORN responses to the pimp-provocateur were "unconscionable," but tries to excuse as much of it as possible. "Mostly," he writes, "the tapes are a testament to what might be called the Borat Effect: human beings' intense socialization to be helpful and not rock the boat, even when confronted with someone doing something objectionable, outrageous or preposterous."

He is less forgiving of what may be evidence of the same effect when it comes to an entity he really abhors: the corporation formerly known as Blackwater. He notes the admittedly deplorable fact that this entity still feeds off government contracts despite revelations of malfeasance and incompetence. His implication, at least as I infer it, is that ACORN should have been given a similar pass. Hayes regards the sudden ease with which Congress cast out ACORN as a clear debunking of Republican conspiracy theories of the organization's malign power. If anything, Congress's conduct proved ACORN's powerlessness, which seemed only fitting given the group's dedication to helping the powerless of society.

This all reads like a too-late attempt by Hayes to invoke the principle of partisan immunity in ACORN's defense. "The other side gets away with stuff" is a key component of partisan-immunity reasoning, as is Hayes's effort to indict ACORN's persecutors. Because Republicans hate it, ACORN should have been protected by the Democratic majority in Congress, Hayes seems to argue. But Hayes is right about something. The Democrats' easy abandonment of ACORN belied any claim that the organization was a power in party councils or even a necessary tool of the majority party. ACORN may have been useful to the party, but it was not of the party, so the Democrats' own partisan-immunity shield was not extended to its loyal vote-recruiters.

It may be that Hayes wasn't invoking partisan immunity but an older principle that transcends partisanship: the idea that the poor and their friends are always right, or at least should be cut considerable slack when they screw up. ACORN's failings are excused, from this perspective, because of its funding troubles and because of the often-desperate circumstances of the people ACORN deals with. That's all cause for sympathy for the people who may depend on ACORN, but if ACORN employees are engaged in sleazy practices, and if that seems to be systematic, than ACORN itself should be held to account. The fact that "the other side gets away with stuff" doesn't excuse anybody and is no justification for even an implicit argument that one group shouldn't be held to account until another is, or all are. Justice is never absolute in scope or effect, and often seems unfair for that reason, but that's never an excuse for bringing no one to justice. If Hayes wants Blackwater to be held to account, let him use all his influence to that end, without using Blackwater as an excuse for ACORN.

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