The only socialist rag is the tired song-and-dance Skees is performing

December 2, 2021 4:34 am

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, wants to remove barriers to developing nuclear power in Montana. (Montana Legislature)

When I first heard Montana Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, wanting to toss the state’s constitution because it was “a socialist rag,” I sighed and was pretty sure I knew where the conversation was going.

The comment, first reported by the Flathead Beacon, wasn’t referencing the part of Montana’s constitution that deals with being entitled to a clean environment – air, water, land. Surely, guaranteeing such health to people seems like it could be an impediment to good capitalistic principles, and clean livin’ for everyone? Well, that sounds like an opening for state-run healthcare.

Nope. Apparently, a free clean environment isn’t part of a politburo plot.

Then, I thought about the state guarantee of access to public lands. I mean – public lands? – is there anything more socialist than everyone getting to enjoy the same land, regardless of property ownership?

Nope. That wasn’t Skees’ beef, either.

Instead, Skees took aim at the constitution’s privacy clause, which he sees as shield to protect abortion. You know, if you have the right to privacy, you have the right to make your own healthcare decisions without government interference.

For a moment, let’s pretend that there is no howling from the GOP about the government’s attempt to force vaccinations. Let’s set aside that Skees was part of a group that voted to ensure that the state government could not mandate the COVID-19 vaccination, or any vaccination, including polio, measles or whooping cough, because, it’s your private choice.

Nope, no irony there.

Journalists in Montana deal with the privacy clause of the state constitution all the time. You might think that we can hardly operate because of it, but you’d be wrong.

The privacy clause may be among the most Republican concepts in the constitution – that you have a right to be left alone and that right means you don’t have to explain yourself for wanting to be left alone. I truly cannot think of any passage of the state constitution that’s more Montanan than that. So it figures that Skees, a guy born in Florida, may not get it.

And journalists have pushed back against the state’s constitutional right to privacy, not because we’re some freedom fighters, but because there are very few rights that are absolute. Most of the cases that we’ve litigated in the media have centered on this clause. For example, when police officers in Billings were reported to be having sex on the job, while on duty, the Billings Gazette fought for and won the names of the officers, even though their privacy right was invoked. Ultimately, the courts decided that the public’s right to know what police had been doing on the taxpayers’ time and dime was more important than the officers’ individual rights to privacy. Montana courts have developed a straightforward test for balancing the competing interests in those cases, and have done an admirable job of not letting the state’s privacy clause become an absolute shield for questionable behavior.

However, Skees’ comments are indicative of a much larger problem. That the Republicans would like to rearrange and rewrite the state’s constitution more to their liking, and aren’t many seats in the Legislature away from doing just that, is yet another issue.

Not so long ago, Republicans were so in love with the concept of privacy, they wanted to ban drones and make it illegal for newspapers to publish car wreck photos because — you guessed it — privacy. Skees was a part of that Legislature, too.

Skees, in his constitutional commentary, threw out the poisonous word “socialism” – a dog-whistle to rally the base of his supporters, hoping they haven’t read the constitution or understand the most basic tenants of socialism.

I’d imagine that many of his supporters would fancy the constitutional protection of privacy.

For example, if I wanted to walk on their property. Or, if I wanted to know exactly how many guns they have. Or how much money they made when they sold their house – all of those things are protected by the state’s guarantee of privacy.

But socialism – the idea that property and rights belong to the community or society, not necessarily to individuals – is the antithesis of the right to privacy. The idea that privacy is socialism is like calling the Pope an atheist.

And while I have many critiques of socialism, especially as a journalist who depends upon the freedom of press, I don’t fear it reflexively and understand it well enough to get that privacy has nothing to do with it.

This tendency to vilify anything objectionable by slapping a label of “socialism” or “communism” on something is nothing but serving McCarthy-style leftovers. It’s intellectually dishonest even in a day of misinformation.

The only one dancing to the “Socialist Rag” is Derek Skees because the tune has never gone out of style with him and a handful of John Birch Society members.

Other publications have called on Skees to step down because he’s clearly violated his oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution. It’s hard to argue that suggesting the document be thrown out is neither.

Meanwhile, as all the fury centers on Skees for his comments, the leaders in state Republican politics remain mum, which gives me the uneasy feeling that Skees may not be in trouble for what he said, rather he may have just accidentally said what they’re all thinking.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.