Tag Archive: constitution

The following excerpts are from blog posts which have had me thinking for days.  They aren’t isolated – other bloggers, opinionators and Smart People have also been writing about these issues.  But these excerpts sum up very nicely the ideas banging around my head right now.


First up, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing about Michael Moore and Bill Mahar’s clever little quip: “I went into the polls voting for the black guy, and what I got was the white guy…”

But it really isn’t [clever]. In fact, it’s racist, and Michael Moore would do well to stop repeating it. It really is no better than the Kenyan anti-colonial bit, indeed it is a good deal worse. I said this yesterday on twitter, but it would be as if my Jewish accountant messed up my taxes and I said, "Dude, you’re Jewish, what the hell?!?!"

In fact, I’d be getting exactly what I deserved. If you paid more attention to Obama’s skin color, than to his speeches, the voluminous amounts of journalism noting his moderation, his two books which are, themselves, exercises in moderation, then you have chosen to be ignorant. 

You are now being punished for that ignorance. No one should feel sorry for you. Try not being racist.


On a different note, Steve Benen, writing about the anti-intellectualism in Rick Perry’s campaign talk, refers to something Paul Krugman wrote about 3 years ago:

What matters is what this tells us about anti-intellectualism in Republican politics today, and the fact that the Perry and Bush jokes always generate applause from conservative audiences.

Three years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a memorable column identifying the GOP as “the party of stupid.” The columnist explained, “What I mean … is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: ‘Real men don’t think things through.’”


Tacking yet a different direction, here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates again, talking about our reluctance to shoulder the responsibility for building a progressive society, and instead expecting our leaders to do all the work:

Somehow we got in our head that the Civil Rights movement happened because Martin Luther King was a really nice guy. We don’t really talk about the movement as an actual force, as applying force. We don’t think about what SNCC was really trying to do when they were risking their lives to register voters in the delta. When we think about people trying to kill them we think about evil, but we should think about power and fear.


Finally, Geoffrey Stone, writing about how our Constitution has truly progressive roots:

More fundamentally, however, the Constitution has served as the vehicle through which generations of Americans have made and remade their nation. When one steps back, as one should on Constitution Day, and considers the most profound changes in our society since 1789, it is easy to see that, by any reasonable measure, the Constitution has served in the long run as a progressive document that has enabled us to protect the rights, liberties and well-being of our people.


Though these four articles tackle different subject matter, they all suggest we really look at history, at our words and concepts, and encourage us not to over-simplify the hard work of shaping and maintaining a society which takes care of all of its citizens and the endeavors to which we put our talents.


Byron Williams wrote about something I couldn’t really put my finger in the my two posts on Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act:

Paul’s remarks, consider this coming in 2010, bear stark similarity to Southern segregationists who opposed the civil rights legislation. Do such beliefs make Paul a racist or at least guilty of latent racism? No.

But Paul’s statement does reveal the disconnect that exists whenever an individual is strictly beholden to an ideology, there will inevitably come a point where that philosophy is unable to confront reality.

If you believe our understanding of the Constitution cannot change along with society, you provide no way to legally deal with issues the framers of the Constitution could never have anticipated.  They provide no alternative but a sad nostalgia for the past.

Williams talks about adherence to strict principles in a more general sense, and goes on to say:

Fundamentalist thinking is also popular among those who advocate for “strict constructionists” to serve on our courts. They claim to oppose judges who “legislate from the bench.”

This assumes the Constitution is frozen in time. Whatever the words meant when the Constitution was ratified in the 18th century is what it must mean today. Strict constructionism is a nice, neat, and convenient thought but hardly realistic in a world that is constantly evolving.

Thanks, Mr. Williams.

So, Rand Paul spouted off with some extreme statements, and I felt the need to put my two cents in.  Good enough.  Why not?  Everybody’s doing it!

Still, why did Rand Paul’s words become something I felt worth responding to? People say crap I don’t agree with all the time.  I sit silently, in terms of writing about it, for most of it – why this?  Why did the blogosphere and webnews and talk-radio and talk-teevee all feel the need to respond?

That’s been the subject of some of the response, and I find resonance with my fellow observers:  Paul’s statements matter because he articulates something a) a lot of libertarians and others believe, and b) has farther reaching implications (see the Ezra Klein quote in the previous post) than simply the subject of this particular statement.

It matters to me because this guy would tear down what I think of as the fabric of our American community:  how we pool together while respecting differences, and how our Constitution and our state and local governments are structured to assist with our mutual needs.  Local and state governments do it at the local level, and because we … ya know… as a nation… through our elected representatives, have decided certain things should be coordinated at a higher level. 

Yes indeed, corruption and influence peddling may exist.  But we as a nation have steered our society toward greater federal oversight and support, because it made sense to us.  It was more likely to help than hinder us to, for example, provide social security, health services, a national educational system, a well funded military, etc etc etc.  We elected people, sent them to DC to implement this very stuff, and thwarted though our reps may be, we occasionally move forward and create an even better nation than we had before.  That’s why we tried George Bush’s way, and when it didn’t work out, or rather, when the disastrous results began to play out, we booted him and his GOP cronies out.  We did it from a moderate to left citizenry, and the non-intervention attitudes of libertarianism were really no where in the picture.

As in:  we had a vote.  You lost.  We’re going to use government to straighten this thing out.  Reagan was wrong. Get with the program.

Like a lot of folks, Rand Paul isn’t with the program.  He, the tea partiers, and a whole lot of other people have a dreamy-eyed optimism about the free market.  It’s an almost diametrically opposed view compared to, say, Anarchy or Communism, but all three share the same dream-filtered gloss of political philosophy, ignores how things work in the practical world. 

I like to employ a phrase more typically applied to a plate of cream-puffs, or an open bar:  All Things in Moderation.  I think that goes for politics too. 

15 August 2009

Steve Benen had a post in today’s Washington Monthly that tickled the back of my mind on an issue I’ve been pondering for months:  the issue of our General Welfare and the sheer number of U.S. citizens living today.

I’ll start with Benen’s article.  He writes about citizen Katy Abram, who faced off with Senator Arlen Specter at a Town Hall meeting on health reform.  Like Benen, I choose Abram not to pick on her, but because she is at least articulate about her concerns, rather than screaming them across a crowded room in order to drown out the opposing views; I also think her concerns typify those of a significant minority of conservative Americans.

Katy Abram fears health reform will assist in “dismantling” this country.  She was able to phrase her concerns in a reasonable if passionate manner, and asked Specter, "What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution?"  This brought applause in the Town Hall meeting, and in an MSNBC interview later, she amplified,

"I mean, I — you know, yes, I mean, there are programs in place that, you know, the — the founders did not want to have here. The — you know, I know that there are people out there that can’t afford health insurance, that can’t afford a lot of different things. And, you know, with the founders, they had — they thought and hoped that the goodness of the people would allow the people to take care of those who could — who were doing without.

While Benen’s article focused on the issue of uninformed conservative folk heroes (which apparently Abram has become) featured as political talk show guests, my interest is in this idea of Americans expressing this desire to return to some Constitutional Never-Never Land, presumably to honor our Founder’s vision, but also to return to some fantasy of a more pure American society.  Abrams was somewhat more articulate than some of the screaming Town Hall protesters we’ve seen in the last weeks, but wasn’t all that far from the woman at the Arkansas Town Hall meeting on August 6th, who sobbed “I want my America back!”

What America, I could ask?  Is there even one “real” America? and has there ever been?  But that’s another discussion.

Back to my somewhat amorphous topic.  What does the Constitution actually say about health reform or the public welfare?  Not much, but it does say this:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Emphasis mine, because this key concept in the preamble to the Constitution frames my understanding of why it is appropriate for the Federal Government to get involved in the lives of its citizens.  The general welfare, to my mind, includes the health of communities in our nation, and the literal and figurative health of its human members.  That means having the government help people from falling through the cracks.  And it’s the proper interest of the government – federal, state or local – because if too many people fall through the cracks, the local community and nation as a whole are both much less stable.  Less healthy, if you will.

When someone like Abram claims we need to get back to the way things used to be, I think they imagine something unrealistic in today’s world, that all the community’s social needs can be taken care of through volunteerism.  As she more or less said in the excerpt above,

… the founders … thought and hoped that the goodness of the people would allow the people to take care of those who … were doing without.

Now, I don’t know one way or another what the founders thought about taking care of those who were doing without.  What I do know is that however it looked in the late 18th century, the landscape of American society is very different in the 21st.

This is where a look at the numbers becomes important.

Take a community of 50 or a hundred people. When someone’s health or finances (or any number of other issues) gets rocky, it’s not too hard for their fellow citizens to step in and lend a hand, provide support, give leg-up or whatever it takes.  And I think Katy Abrams, who maintains faith in people’s desire to help, to volunteer, is right to think that we can rely on people’s good intentions to deal with those who are “doing without.”

When the community is bigger, say a thousand people, it’s still a small enough number that folks can keep an eye out for each other, but it’s a little harder to coordinate, and there are also a larger number of people in need.  But still, it’s quite possible for the community to take care of its own.

When that group jumps to a city of five or ten thousand people, things start to change.  It’s harder to see who is in need, it’s harder to coordinate, and the sheer numbers of people in need is much higher.  At that point, the citizens pool their resources through some kind of group effort organized by, say, the City Council or the Health Department or some other small government agency.  Doesn’t cut out citizen involvement, but the government backing of the effort to help the needy makes it more possible to spot the need, address it, and keep people from falling through the cracks.

When you are dealing with a major city of 100,000 or better, involvement of the government in taking care of those in need is absolutely required, or it just doesn’t happen.  No one neighborhood, church, or volunteer group can take care of everybody at that point.  It’s time for the city or county or state government to step in, not to interfere or control, but to do what it’s supposed to be doing:  provide a citizen-based coordinated effort to help the citizenry take care of its self.  The government, after all, is US, its members drawn from our own ranks, not interlopers from some other universe.

People like me and Katy Abrams and a number of other good souls can volunteer up a storm, but it still won’t be enough.  More numbers:  Let’s say in our village of 100 people, there are 3 very needy folks who just can’t do it by themselves.  That’s 3 percent of the population.  I have no idea how this relates to actual numbers of people in need, but for the point of illustration, I’ll pick 3 percent.

In the town of a thousand, we now have 30 needy people. In the town of ten thousand, we offer our help to 300 people. In the city of 100,000, that’s 3,000 folks who need a helping hand.  In a major metropolis of a million, that’s 30,000 of our citizens.

And in a country of 310 million citizens, we wind up with a very large number of people:  some nine million or better.  And I doubt this reflects the real percentage of people in need – I think I’m ballparking very low here.

We need more than volunteerism.  No doubt about it, and America has rightfully taken pride in our history of helping ourselves.  But it’s not enough.  We also need our government to step in and help us all take care of each other.  And that, I think is totally supported by the Constitution which advises us, demands of us, to consider the general welfare of our nation to be a the center of our reason for having a government in the first place.

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