Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Recent Unpleasantness Regarding the Constitution

Well that didn’t take long.

The new freshman class of Teabaggers in the House of Representatives likes to shout about how much they love the Constitution. They just adore them a heap o’ Constitution, yessireebob, and don’t you forget it. They can’t even prepare breakfast without making sure that everything on their table passes Constitutional muster – from their grits to their orange juice – and they certainly intend to follow that precedent when it comes to whatever it is they’re doing in Washington.

Orange juice manufacturers across America, stand warned.

So yesterday, in a show of just how much they want to take the Constitution home and love it and feed it and call it George, after the Father of Our Country of course (not Curious, and certainly not Boy – what kind of liberal psychos do you take them for?), these stalwart scholars staged a reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House.

That this publicity stunt cost taxpayers over a million dollars is probably just irony, given the loud screeching from the Teabaggers about how fiscally responsible they’re going to be now that they’re in charge.

Of course they’re not in charge.

They control one half of one of the three branches of the American government, which does not “in charge” make. So perhaps they felt they could hold off on the whole “fiscal responsibility” thing until they’d resolved the “in charge” thing, which will take at least until January of 2013, so batten down the hatches ladies and gentlemen because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


What bothers me about this whole craven stunt is not the costs involved – really, a million dollars for a public self-love-in is relatively cheap by modern political standards – but the sheer disrespect shown for the Constitution and for American history.

You see, in keeping with their willingness to edit the Bible to exclude those parts they don’t like in order to get to the parts they want to force the rest of us to obey to their specifications, the Teabaggers didn’t even come close to reading the Constitution in its entirety.

They left out a number of things, things that were perhaps a bit inconvenient to acknowledge, the key sections that they felt beneath their august notice being all the parts where the Founding Fathers had to work with the institution of slavery and make the compromises that allowed the fragile union to be born and then tore it apart nearly four score years later.

Because nothing came of those, I guess.

The official rationale for this un-anesthetized rhetorical surgery was that they were only going to read the sections that had not been “superseded by amendment.” Of course they read the part where voting rights were limited to men over the age of 21, and the part about taxation in the 14th Amendment that was superseded by the 16th Amendment, and they also read the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition without bothering to read the 18th Amendment that had enacted it in the first place, which was sort of weird.

In other words, the stated rationale for their censorship of the Constitution was just so much posturing.

They didn’t read the parts they didn’t like, plain and simple.

Who knew?

As a historian, one whose chosen field is the political culture of exactly the time and thinkers who wrote and ratified the Constitution, I cannot express in words how appalling, how cynical, how self-serving and how insulting I find yesterday’s performance.

I’ve read the Constitution and the debates that led up to it, surrounded it, and followed it. I’ve studied the words of the Founders as they fought over what it meant, and how to live up to it, and I know what those words meant at the time – which is often not what those words mean today. I’ve followed the history of Americans as they struggled to implement the promises in that document, and to change it when the values embodied in the Declaration of Independence – America’s secular creed – demanded that the Constitution step aside and be altered.

You cannot hope to understand American values or history by ignoring the struggles of American people to make their society what it needed to be. These are ongoing struggles. The values of the Declaration of Independence are lofty indeed, and while every step toward them is a valuable and mighty one, the fact remains that there is a long way to go before we rest and no guarantee that the next step won't be backward.

Slavery was part of the United States at its founding – a big part, in ways that most Americans today haven't ever grasped. Wishing it away doesn’t change that. Understanding the reasons why it was enshrined in the Constitution in the first place, the struggles that resulted from that in the nineteenth century, and the war that came out of those struggles is the first step to understanding what my country was then and is now.

Those struggles brought out the worst in America – the viciousness, the brutality, the venality that allowed human beings to hold others in bondage for the crime of their heritage – but it also brought out the best in America, the willingness to do what was right, whatever the cost, however delayed.

As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address,

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

The United States is saddled with a “conservative” movement that has no idea what it is that it thinks it’s “conserving” and is thus doomed to fail in ways it cannot even comprehend. This last stunt was an attempt to edit the Constitution into a political platform, nothing more.

And for that I denounce these poseurs, these pretenders to American history and values, who have cheapened the Constitution through their ignorance.

They and the horses they rode in on are cordially invited to find other tasks with which to occupy their time.


Beth said...

Hear, hear. I'm a lit person who works with non-fiction prose documents from the TransAtlantic eighteenth century. Guess what I've read? Guess what scores of my students have read, discussed and debated? Not that bastardized thing they read on the floor of the House.


The struggle to make them read and understand context continues.

(found you via Jack Lynch).

David said...

That Jack - always looking out for me. :)

Welcome and thank you, Beth! I don't know if your students have always appreciated you making them read, discuss and debate the Constitution, but I do.

Unknown said...

Well said Dave! I can't wait to show this to my conservative Tea Party supporting boss with whom I have weekly (cordial believe it or not) political dicussions.

My only criticism of your blog is the use of the term "Tea Baggers" which is as I'm sure you know is something completely different! Even if they don't do any justice the real meaning of the term "Tea Party", using the other pejorative term takes away from the point of your piece a bit.

Thanks for the ammo for my next discussion with my boss.

Take care,


p.s. I also found you via Jack Lynch

David said...

Hi Don -

Thanks and welcome! I too have friends among that political faction, believe it or not. Life gets boring indeed if you surround yourself with nothing but people who agree with you.

I disagree that the term "Teabagger" is "something completely different, though.

I use the term Teabagger because that's the name they themselves chose when they first metastasized onto the American political scene. It's not my fault they're stupid.

I know they're anxious to forget this and call themselves by some other, less meaningful term, but I see no reason to let them get away with revising their own past the way they insist on revising my country's past, and I will continue to call them by their own chosen name until such time as they stop deserving it.

It is no misnomer to describe negative things in pejorative terms.

Unknown said...

"I use the term Teabagger because that's the name they themselves chose when they first metastasized onto the American political scene. It's not my fault they're stupid."

LOL! I never new that. Learn something new every day.

Thanks !