Constitution Shmonstitution

This is the third in a series of posts about how people from Tea Partiers to pro-choice, anti-gun liberals invoke and rely on what they call “the Constitution,” often without being able to say anything very specific about it. The first post was on the First Amendment and religious freedom; the second was on the Second. Comments on those posts, some related off-blog correspondence about them, some related statements on Twitter, and a remark on my Facebook author page inspire this one.

But first, for context, this mess (anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen my outbursts about it):

In a piece in Saturday’s New York Times, offering perspective on the Tea Party’s reverence for the Constitution, Samuel G. Freedman wrote:

… Constitution worship has not historically been the province of any one political faction. Despite the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass intoned its language about equality and inalienable rights.

The gaffe is that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about inalienable rights or equality. [UPDATE: By “equality” I meant anything that Frederick Douglass would have been intoning; the Constitution does of course have things to say about equality in the post-Civil War amendments. But Freedman meant Douglasss’s reference to “all men are created equal.”] That language is found — and pretty memorably too! — in the Declaration of Independence.

Gaffes are gaffes. I’ve made my share. This one is painfully revealing of a significant problem in liberal thinking. [UPDATE: I think I mean “for liberal thinking.” That help?] Freedman nodded, it happens, but so did his editors. A lot of people fussed with that piece before it went out. Nor has the error been corrected since, nor do I see any uproar about it online. That means the Tea Partiers, too, though hairtrigger sensitive to NYT slight (and they would have taken Freedman’s piece as a slight), read right past it.

So what’s the big hairy deal? Why am I knocking NYT and liberals who don’t their Constitution so much harder than I knock Christine O’Donnell for not knowing hers? Or, to put it the way David Tuttle (a cousin, and nice to hear from him even in this weird postmodernist manner) put it on my FB author page: Is the Times error so much worse than what David calls the Tea Party’s effort to deny separation of church and state?

Yeah. It’s a lot worse.

In two ways. One is that the Times is the Times — and they even call themselves The Times. Self-anointed, and anointed by us all, to have at minimum the bare facts (especially when they’re known to many tenth graders) and at maximum, and far more importantly in this case, the big-enough-picture, the thematic long view, and the care, to provide well-intentioned, open-minded, reasonably well-informed readers with cultural/historical perspective on issues of the day. What the piece got wrong isn’t minor, it’s huge, especially for a piece weighing in on how people have revered and laid claim to the Constitution. The difference between the Constitution and the Declaration on equality and the source of rights has been one of the most glaring American issues for lawyers, judges, historians, teachers, and history buffs and, one would have hoped, for anyone at the Times who sees him or herself as capable of providing the kind of sober background that is NYT (already plenty patronizing) stock-in-trade.

When they get wrong one of the most important and pressing phenomena in U.S. history, as a mere aside in the process of purportedly filling us in what’s behind the matters they presume to be perplexing us, what becomes horribly clear is that nobody at the Times is really steeped in (ha!) the most salient issues they’re covering. [UPDATE: Well, not literally “nobody.” Jesus, Hogeland, slow down and lighten up. I’ve written for the Times and had great editing there. But that makes me ask even more loudly about this error: WTF? The fact is I don’t think it is, in some sense, an error. Really, it reflects something we all actually believe. Wrongly. That inalienable rights and equality were sewn into our constitutional law by the founding fathers. The Times thinks it for us and we think it for the Times. But we think wrongly.] They presume they’re competent to cover those issues because, well, they’re The Times. And that’s just what the populist right says about the Times, and about all liberal claims to superior expertise. There are days — more and more of them — when it’s hard to say they’re wrong.

Many on the religious right deny there’s a constitutional separation of church and state. Well, that’s a matter of opinion and interpretation. The interpretation may be dead wrong, but even if you can prove it wrong to your satisfaction, they’re entitled to express it (First Amendment and all that). But I don’t know how such debate can even be engaged in at all, when institutions that are supposed to provide the context for it are out to lunch on the most elementary facts — not just facts, major themes, epic stories! Glenn Beck, a TV evangelical, says we get our inalienable rights from God. The New York Times, newspaper of record, on which all informed people are forced to rely for news and analysis, simply doesn’t bother to recall the well-known fact that inalienable rights were invoked to explain our break from England, not to establish our national law, and that to ascribe equality to the Constitution misses what the Constitution was fundamentally concerned with (before the post-Civil War amendments — which language Frederick Douglass was definitely not “intoning”).

Which is worse? That is: Which is more dangerous to civilization (such as it is)? Some guy named Glenn Beck’s assertions of opinion? Or a general liberal disregard, even while maintaining an inveterate attitude of a priori intellectual superiority, for elementary, all-important historical fact, theme, and meaning (of which NYT laziness is merely symptomatic)? To my own overloaded rhetorical question, I respond: Yikes!

So now this post has gotten too long for me to respond to other comments on the bigger issue: constant appeals to the Constitution, across the political spectrum, backed more by desire than knowledge. More on that to come.

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6 thoughts on “Constitution Shmonstitution

  1. About those unalienable rights (I think that’s what it says, if we’re being pedantic), philosophically, this is the most important thing that our founding documents give us. The whole concept of “people” having rights regardless of what government du jour says.

    Gordon S. Wood (with whom I don’ always agree) talks about this at some length in his book Radicalism of the American Revolution.

    I think Meacham (with whom I definitely differ politically) also touches on this in his book American Gospel.

    The crux of the matter is this. If man has intrinsic rights given by God, nature’s creator, The Creator – e.g. something of higher authority than man or man-made institutions, AND we can get everyone to agree on that as a basis of government, THEN there are lines that the government (in theory) will not be able to cross IF everyone maintains that core value.

    Prior to the American Revolution, societies and governments were largely patriarchal. The early republics of Greece/Rome studied by Madison, lacked this fundamental concept. Therefore, what government could grant, government could take away. In such systems, there is nothing higher than government.

    So, yes, it’s interesting (and depressing) that both sides of the political debate frequently get it wrong. And I agree with you in your disgust with The Times for their lack of journalistic professionalism. In this case, Beck’s got it right, at least from what I can glean from my reading so far.

    Ideas matter. It was this seemingly simple idea, more than any other, which framed our system of government and made it, dare I say it … exceptional.

  2. New York Times average weekday circulation as reported last month: 877,000.

    Glenn Beck’s average weekday audience as reported in April: 2.1 million.

    Does holding the Times to a higher standard actually reflect its greater influence on public knowledge and opinion, or merely an old-fashioned and elitist preference for print? (And I ask that as a daily Times reader who disdains to watch any TV news at all.)

    • I take the liberty of suspecting you know your own answer to this rhetorical question.

      UPDATE. I meant: Don’t you think (he asks rhetorically) that holding the Times to a higher standard than Beck — and actually even “higher standard” understates the difference in *kind* of standard we should be talking about here, since Beck is really only opining as to the nature of man and God and law — would be crucial to any hope for the future of free debate, regardless of the numbers they each reach?

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Constitution Shmonstitution « Hysteriography --

  4. Take the NYT to task for its error. Have at it. But to suppose that error “painfully reveal[s] a significant problem in liberal thinking”? Please.

    When one legitimately points out the error and/or ignorance of others, does one thereby somehow also claim infallibility? Perhaps it is just another significant problem in my liberal thinking, but I had never supposed so.

  5. The libertarian technical term for the Constitution is Conjobstitution. It’s a statist conjob.
    Art. 1, sect. 8 is a laundry list of Big Government (read: government) monopolies.
    Lysander Spooner took the proper measure of the Conjob, even if he did favor patents and other intellectual monopolies-crookopolies.

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