Defenders of civil rights, like defenders of the environment, are at a rhetorical disadvantage. So long as they succeed in preserving the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, it will be possible to assert or imply that there never had been a serious threat to anybody’s liberty, just as the fact that nothing very dire happened at the turn of the millennium is routinely used as evidence that the preparations that prevented Y2K problems had been unnecessary in the first place. In the eras of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Red Scare, and McCarthyism, however, threats to our rights were only thwarted after a protracted struggle led by determined politicians, lawyers, and journalists who had to withstand abuse, official oppression, and sometimes violence. There was nothing preordained about who was going to win these struggles, either, as witness the fact that some of the battles went the other way as in the episode in which the South instituted the Jim Crow laws.
Whatever physics rules the history of mankind, it is rather more complicated than simple harmonic motion. Unlike a pendulum whose steady beat results from the operation of an automatic restoring force, the cycles of repression and freedom are mediated through the intelligent—or unintelligent—action of individuals. That’s a very scary fact. Blasting down Interstate 5, it’s comforting to think that the semi ahead of you stays in the lane through the operation of some sort of gyrostatic stabilizer instead of the occult operation of a human brain; but we know perfectly well that those thousands of pounds of metal would quickly veer off the road or crash into your Mustang absent the continual intervention of the driver. Of course, from a purely statistical point of view, the human nervous system is usually up to the task of steering a car. Indeed, its complexity probably makes it more rather than less reliable than a simple feedback system. Nevertheless, we prefer not to dwell on the way in which the functioning of the world depends upon the care of human beings and not some imaginary thermostat. Besides, to revert to the political sphere, the notion that excess automatically corrects itself provides an effective apology for complacency. Worse than that, it licenses those who attack civil liberties and democracy because those who indulge their sweet tooth for authoritarianism secretly believe that they’ll be restrained before they go to far.