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October 30, 2008

"Negative Attack: More Constitutional Stupidity from McCain / Palin

George Will recently penned an op-ed lamenting the various ways McCain/Palin have evinced either ignorance or indifference to the constitution (especially as Will prefers to see that document interpreted). Appropriately titled “Careless with the Constitution,” he argues that “carelessness has characterized recent episodes of faux conservatism,” citing all sorts of evidence from Palin’s apparent ignorance about the Vice President’s constitutional duties to McCain’s sponsorship of campaign finance reform (a favorite bug-a-boo for Will).

But Will also goes after other conservatives as well (“faux conservatism”), singling out, for example, Dick Cheney’s attempt to write in a fourth branch of government all for himself. Will is surely on to something here.

A particularly irritating example of constitutional stupidity came last week when an NPR interview of Obama dating back to 2001 surfaced in which he laments the way Civil Rights movement over emphasized the capacity of the judiciary to bring about social (i.e., economic) justice.

As Jake Tapper reports the interview:

Obama in that interview said, "If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement, and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples, so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order, and as long as I could pay for it, I’d be OK."

"But," Obama said, "The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent, as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it's been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that, generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted."

Obama added, "one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways, we still stuffer from that."

Once the conservative echo chamber got a hold of the interview, Obama’s words were promptly taken out of context, distorted, and out right misread to mean things that were the very opposite of what he actually said. (So much for “original intent” and textualism.). McCain, Palin, and an army of official and unofficial surrogates claimed that Obama had wished that the courts had been more willing to bend the constitution to achieve some sort of redistribution of wealth—when, in fact, he argued that the movement should have been more focused on the possibilities for social change offered by community and legislative action.

But no matter. Such distortions may demonstrate illiteracy or dishonesty—but not necessarily a fundamental ignorance of basic principles of American constitutionalism.

What really shocked me, however, was another line of attack. When disgraced former majority leader Tom Delay appeared on Hardball a few days ago to rant about Obama’s comments, he made a point of emphasizing, in sneering tones accusatory tones, Obama’s description of the Bill of Rights as “negative.” In Delay’s rendition, just describing the contents of that document as negative was apparently evidence of Obama’s disrespect for our fundamental liberties. In the day or so leading up to Delay’s appearance I had heard something of the same out of both McCain and Palin, though it seemed that they had been a little less obvious or forceful.

Well, here’s the deal: As any constitutional law student will tell you—indeed, as most Poly Sci undergrads will tell you—referring to basic constitutionally protected liberties such as freedom of press, speech, religion, and all the others as “negative” is nothing controversial. The usage simply draws attention to the fact that our rights are expressed in terms of things the government may not do to us. Alternatively, positive liberties are understood as things the government must provide us—or, as we typically call them, “entitlements.”

Now, being the kind, forgiving sort of person I am, I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. But the truth is, I have no idea whether McCain, Palin, or Delay understand the distinction. So I really don’t know what giving them the benefit of the doubt means. What’s worse? Assuming that they know more than they pretend and, in fact, are only trying to demagogue an issue of constitutional principle—or that they are fundamentally ignorant about the constitution of the nation they hope to lead?

Posted by stevemack at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2008

Americanism And Its Opposite

On a long car ride this weekend, my son and I listened to an audio book version of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, narrated by the author himself. I expected to be entertained and educated about some of the biographical details of the man who I expect will become the 44th president of the United States. What I got was considerably more.

The central thesis of the book—or perhaps its conceit—is that his father, a “mythological character” he hardly knew, was the epitome of the American dream. As the book implicitly acknowledges, the “idea” of American has from the outset been a foreign idea. It began as a vision and a promise to/by Europeans that their lives could be better in a newer world—a place where the bondage of old world prejudices and old world social and economic constraints could be broken. A world where a people could fashion for themselves a new identity out of nothing but the whole cloth of their own humanity.

Obama’s book is an elegant presentation of how that distinctly political and spiritual American myth became, for him, deeply personal and psychological—part of his own quest for personal identity, and the political template for his negotiation with the demands of racial identity.

In short, the book is one of the most elegant and compelling narrative arguments for “Americanism” I have ever read from a politician. Indeed, from anyone.

It’s in this light that I read (and watched) a headline grabbing political hack challenge Obama and other liberal Democrats on the issue of their “anti-americanism.” Such bullshit shouldn’t shock me—but it does.

As reported in Politico:

Early in the “Hardball” interview, Bachmann said she was “very concerned” that Barack Obama “may have anti-American views.”

When Matthews pressed her about the connections between liberalism and anti-Americanism, Bachmann continued to blow on the coals: “Well, the liberals that are Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, they are over-the-top anti-American, and that’s the questions that Americans have.” She grouped into this Michelle Obama’s comments that “she’s only recently proud of her country.”

Matthews kept pressing.

“I guess when I heard the word ‘anti-American’ [applied] to Barack, I wanted to see how ready she was to apply it,” Matthews told Politico on Monday. “And she was ready to apply it pretty broadly.”

Matthews asked Bachmann how many of her colleagues were “anti-American.”

“What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating exposé and take a look,” Bachmann responded. “I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America? I think people would be — would love to see an exposé like that.”

I'm not in the business of tossing about charges of anti-americanism--but only because I think such claims are themselves out of keeping with the American spirit of tolerance and democratic debate. But it is more than a little astonishing that a brash young African student whose impressions of American were established before he ever set foot on these shores--and was only here a few short years--knew more about the deep spiritual meaning of American identity than one of our own "representitives."

Posted by stevemack at 12:46 PM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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