Epitaph for Libertarianism

Before he was dumped in 1996 as headmaster of The Orange County Register's editorial page, Ken Grubbs described libertarianism, the philosophy guiding that page from the paper's inception 65 years ago, as "a firm, and, to some, offensive philosophy."

He was half-right. The Register's application of its pet philosophy was rarely firm and, so, always offensive.

So it came as little surprise that the Register, once the nation's leading libertarian daily, backed March 7's victorious Proposition 22, the ballot measure banning gay marriage.

Libertarians worship at the altar of free will ("Liberty," they like to say, "is in our name!") and abhor the idea of government telling any citizen—gays included—how to live. But even under Grubbs, the Reg drifted from cause to political cause, cutting its arguments to fit the issue, ignoring the firm warnings of its own philosophy. When Democrats in the 1980s set up an independent counsel to investigate the Reagan administration's deals with Iran and Nicaraguan contras, the Reg discerned a sinister growth of federal power. When Republicans hired independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate—at a cost to the taxpayers of more than $50 million—the sexual and real-estate habits of the Clintons, the Reg was suddenly comfortable with the fattening leviathan in Washington, D.C.

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Similarly, backing Prop. 22 was a no-brainer for the right-wingers on the Register's editorial page. "There isn't much middle ground on the subject of homosexuality," they wrote in a March 1 editorial "urging" Orange County voters to support the initiative. They concluded that minorities should not use government as a "truncheon to insist on society's acceptance" and that "the state should not be in the business of legitimizing behavior." Never mind that the state does just that when it determines that the more than 1,000 benefits attending marriage ought to be bestowed only upon straight marriages. And never mind that a real libertarian might note that the only conceivable grounds for doing so—precedent and religion—are strictly conservative and even unconstitutional.

For an honest libertarian view, you have to go to Alan Bock. A senior editorial writer at the Register, it's reasonable to assume Bock was outvoted by his more conservative colleagues on the editorial board. Interviewed before the Register published its editorial, Bock said he strongly opposed Prop. 22—and then went further to argue against state-sanctioned marriage altogether.

"The state shouldn't have anything to do with marriage," Bock said a few days before the March 1 editorial hit the fan. "It shouldn't be necessary to get a license from the government in order for two people to live together. I would get the government entirely out of the business of conferring marriage privileges." Bock predicted that his paper would offer a "lukewarm no" against the initiative.

His faith in his colleagues and in the paper's management flew in the face of years of evidence. In dozens of cases over the years—particularly when it comes to corporations, white-supremacist militia groups and conservative religious zealots—the Reg has taken the hard-line position that individual liberty always trumps any collective enterprise.

But the Reg has always stumbled most obviously where gays and lesbians are concerned. In 1993, the editorial staff noted that many movie stars at a recent Academy Awards ceremony had worn red ribbons symbolizing compassion for AIDS victims. They opined that a "conspiracy" by a "homosexual hierarchy" might be afoot.

"Once in our culture there was an accepted spiritual law, namely that compassion is done quietly, privately, never broadcast so as to draw attention to one's self," the Reg harrumphed. "It used to be that homosexuals—needless to say, the prime beneficiaries of all this attention—used to go through life with such quiet dignity."

You could conduct a college seminar on those peculiar statements. For our purposes, it's sufficient to observe that the Registerhas always struggled with homosexuality. In the early 1990s, the paper publicly accused several straight female employees of being lesbians and ended up paying an out-of-court settlement for the absurd witch-hunt. Names of gays arrested for lewd conduct have been listed by the paper while heterosexuals arrested for the same crimes go unmentioned. In 1997, the paper inexplicably cropped off the heads of two lesbians holding hands at a local gay-pride festival. The same year, a Reg employee sent a gay Weekly reporter a threatening note that ended with the hope that the reporter and "his kind" die painfully of AIDS. Register editor Tonnie Katzapparently adhering to the no-public-displays-of-compassion edict of her editorial page—couldn't find it in her heart to apologize.

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