Monday, January 10, 2011

Assassination is the Real Tyranny

Back in early April, in the disturbing aftermath of the passage of the healthcare bill, which included acts and threats of violence against members of Congress, I wrote two posts about the dangers of the violent rhetoric permeating the political culture (here and here).

And now a member of Congress has been shot.

As news personnel compulsively remind us, we don’t know the exact motives of this shooter.  We do know that he seems to be deranged.

But that doesn’t mean that this is merely a random act with no political significance.

We take it for granted that political leaders can inspire good with their words.  Many thousands, maybe millions, of baby-boomers cite JFK’s inaugural challenge (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”) as the reason they went into the Peace Corps, or the military, or some other form of public service.

No one claims that Kennedy “created” idealistic people.  But we do accept that his challenge helped channel their existing idealism into particular forms of service—because leadership matters.

Yet, when something awful happens, we suddenly resist the idea that the rhetoric leaders use can take the evil that exists in human hearts and channel it in a particular direction.  Over and over we are told that this troubled person was going to do something awful and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Perhaps.  But we do know that this particular troubled person chose a political leader to whom he had access as his target.  We know his rantings, however incoherent, had political overtones.  To pretend that the toxic political atmosphere of the last two years had nothing to do with how his derangement was channeled is the worst (and most dangerous) kind of denial.

Some people seem to get this.  Contrast the words of new House Speaker John Boehner now with his words then.  In the wake of the incidents back in March (including an attack on the offices of Rep. Giffords), Boehner appropriately said "violence and threats are unacceptable."  But he also added: "many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and angry at Democrats here in Washington for not listening."  In other words, he could not limit himself to condemning the violence; he also blamed the victims.  (Rep. Giffords was one of those Democrats who voted for the health care bill and who, in Boehner’s words, did not listen.)

Saturday, he rightly said: “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.  Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society.”  There was no “but you have to understand the anger” qualifier this time.  He should have had the same clarity back then that he belated has now.  It should not take a shooting to show “leaders” that you should never, in any way, excuse violent rhetoric and political violence in a representative democracy.

An assassination is the utter abnegation of democracy.  It is one person thwarting the will of the electorate.  It is, in that sense, the ultimate tyranny. We can only hope and pray that the demagogues and opportunists who have recklessly thrown around the word “tyranny” to describe the workings of a duly elected government for the last two years will now have the decency to keep their paranoid rantings to themselves.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Read it? Yes. Worship it? No.

So they are reading the Constitution in the House today.  And Michelle Bachmann has enlisted Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia to teach new members of Congress about the Constitution.

It seems odd that anyone could run for and be elected to Congress without already being fairly well-versed in the Constitution, but let’s grant that there may be some value in a refresher course for some of these people.

What’s maddening about this is not any of these acts, but the motive: it is an attempt to claim the Constitution for one political party.  The Constitution does not belong to any ideology.  It is our common framework of government.

But the new Republican/Tea Party does not agree.  It believes that one and only interpretation of the Constitution is valid.  It maintains the fiction that there is something concrete called “original intent” which leads to an objective truth about the constitutionality of any proposal.

The right has tried to elevate the Constitution to the level of holy writ.  Cal Thomas, in his column this week, put it explicitly: “As with Scripture, the Constitution contains eternal truths.”  These people do not see the Constitution as a great but flawed work of men—for them, it is a divine document.  And only they really understand what it means.

This is a tremendously dangerous idea.  The Constitution is not scripture.  It is not something to be worshipped.  You would think people who say they take religion seriously would know to keep sacred only that which is truly sacred.

But since they believe the Constitution contains “eternal truths,” they think if they can monopolize its meaning they can render all opposition to their ideas as inherently false.

And what meaning do they find in it?  One simple idea: “limited government.”  Thomas asserts that its “principles—like limited government—transcend eras.”  But they never stop to ask what motive lies behind that principle.  Was it “limited government” as an end in and of itself?  No. 

The purpose of limited government is to protect liberty.  When the Constitution was written, there was only one real threat to liberty: government power.  But the key political insight of the post-Civil War era has been that there are other threats to liberty. 

Slavery showed that an individual could deny liberty in every sense of the word to another human being.  Segregation showed that local and state governments could be greater threats to liberty than the federal government.  The rise of big business showed that private economic power could be as great a threat to liberty as government ever was.

By seeing the only threat to liberty as government, these Tea Party people show that they remain stuck in the 18th century.  Our problems are not the same, and our solutions cannot be the same.  Reading the Constitution and treating it as a sacred document gets us not one bit closer to solving the problems of the 21st century.  It is simple-minded posturing that masks a reactionary social and political agenda, and no worshipful reading of its text will change that.

Monday, January 3, 2011

“You can’t shoot History in the neck!”

When you know a subject well, it’s difficult to enjoy its popularization.  Last week, as I sat in a Broadway theater during the opening minutes of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” I had to remind myself to check my historian’s hat.

“Jackson was born in Tennessee …” the Storyteller began, and my inner Historian immediately interrupted, “No, he wasn’t.  He was born in South Carolina.”  “Stop that right now!” screamed my inner Theatergoer.  “You’re not going to enjoy one minute of this show if you spend the whole evening fact-checking.”

(So I tried to stop.  But the whopper about the Supreme Court upholding nullification was both egregious and unnecessary, and so must be noted.  And now I’ll stop.)

The point of the musical is not, of course, to be a historically correct presentation of Jackson’s career, but rather a commentary on American history and especially politics, so we must take it on its own terms. It portrays Jackson as the first “rock star” and uses the conventions of the rock biopic to tell his story. 

The main target is American populism, and Jackson represents the emergence of this strain of our politics.  The play does not use the term in the late 19th century sense of the word, but in the more general and generic way we refer to any movement that claims grass-roots origins and that purports to represent the regular folks in their struggle against the powerful elites.

For me, the key moment in the show is when Jackson, having been elevated to the presidency on a pledge to do the people’s will, asks “the people” what they want him to do on various issues.  The replies he gets from Average Citizens are not helpful.  Jackson ask impatiently: “You realize those two thing are contradictory, right?”

And that’s precisely the problem.  All politicians of every stripe blithely and confidently say “The American people want …” when of course what they really mean is “I (and people who think like me) want …” 

There are very few things “the American people” as a whole want, and none of them are subjects of political controversy.  Politics, almost by definition, is dominated by those things that divide us.  To govern is to choose, and when political leaders choose, they inevitably do something that some of the American people want and that some of the American people do not want.

When the majority is on our side, we insist that the will of “the people” be done.  Currently, the new Republican majority in the House is claiming a sweeping mandate and demanding that the “will of the people” (i.e., every Republican position) prevail, despite the fact that the Republican leadership spent the last two years rejecting and attempting to thwart the “will of the people” as represented by the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Americans say that they want, to use George W. Bush’s inaccurate self-description, a “united not a divider.”  But the fact is that every consequential president in American history has been divisive.  A president cannot be effective without making choices, and no consequential choice is made without creating, at least initially, division.  When we look back and decide a president was “great,” it is not because he created an instant consensus around his policies.  It is because time has vindicated the choices he made, and eliminated the stark divisions that existed at the time.

All of which brings me back to Jackson.  At the end of the show, the Storyteller tries to sum up Jackson’s legacy.  She rightly states that there is no historical consensus on Jackson.  Using the overblown hyperbole that marks the entire show, she paints the debate as between those who consider Jackson the greatest president of the 19th century and those who think of him as an “American Hitler.”  (As for the former, I think Lincoln pretty much wins that hands down—though Jackson might well be a consensus number two.  As for the latter, as is usually the case, the Hitler analogy obfuscates more than it illuminates.  As awful as the Trail of Tears was, it was no Holocaust.)

Jackson, listening to all of this, cries: “I thought History would vindicate me!”  The Storyteller, who earlier in the play had been temporarily silenced by a shot from Jackson’s pistol, replies: “You can’t shoot History in the neck!”  True, Storyteller, true.  But they do try.