When There Is No Ham in the Ham Sandwich

Here is a post that illustrates, as few other things could, the need to read our political and historical narratives in a biblical way. In this post, the author, Jada Thacker, argues that the Constitution was not about limited government at all, and that Tea Partiers and their ilk (ilk is just a great word, as I am sure you agree) are simply demonstrating their thundering historical ignorance. Anyone who attempts to appeal to our founding principles of limited government is a simpleton. That original Gadsden flag was not a rattlesnake ready to bite a tyrant’s shin, but rather was a picture of the long-prophesied reptile of peace, come to lick the wounds and hurt feelings caused by a dearth of affordable housing.

But here is the missing narrative. Thacker, the author of this piece, clearly knows the historical details, dates, and such — but he doesn’t know the meaning of the story. Reading him is like watching a movie by an obscure Chinese director who made a film about some incomprehensible war in the fifth century B.C. between Kan Chiang and Mo Yeh, without any subtitles. Depending on the director’s research and abilities, we would know everything there was to know about that war — uniforms, tactics, weapons, etc. We would know everything except what it was about. Thacker knows his onions when it comes to the history of constitutional debate, except for the whole point. Other than that, he has it down.

So here is the real point, in bare bones form. The Articles of Confederation established a limited form of central government, unfortunately too limited to perform certain essential functions of a central government. If we wanted a central government at all, we needed a bit more than what we had. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved a new Constitution in 1787, which was then presented to the states for ratification. After 9 states ratified, the Constitution took effect in 1788, when New Hampshire signed on. But an essential part of the ongoing debate throughout the entire process of ratification was the obvious need for some additional and explicit limiting principles.

The Federalists thought we were already good; the anti-Federalists wanted more protections. The Federalists lost that debate. Now looking at where we have actually wound up, buried under a rock pile of unlimited government, it appears that even the anti-Federalists were not nearly cynical enough — they were a gaggle of Pollyannas compared to what was needed. We needed many more men glaring at the whole thing, men with a disposition like Savonarola with stomach troubles.

So Thacker is exactly right that the Preamble to the Constitution, and Article I, and the other stuff in there like it, left a bunch of unlocked constitutional doors that would have gotten us unbridled statism long before we actually got it. That is why it was so controversial at the time, and that is why the debate (as represented by the mere existence of the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers) was all about how best to guarantee the protections afforded by limited government. That is what the central debate was about — how best to ensure limited government. The classic center of the debate was how — to paraphrase Madison — we could give the government enough power to govern the people and enough restrictions to compel it to govern itself.

Both sides agreed that this was a civic good. The Federalists were less cynical than the anti-Federalists, and both parties less cynical than they should have been, but their differences concerned how much rope was necessary to tie down the giant. They all agreed that tying down the giant was a good thing. And everybody was wrong about how much rope it would take.

For Thacker to act as though this was not the issue of that day is like reading a New Testament historian who thought that the Council of Jerusalem had nothing to do with circumcision, or a literary critic who thought that the prince of Denmark was a side character in Hamlet, or a short order deli sandwich maker who consistently leaves the ham out of the ham sandwich.

After the Constitution took effect in 1788, after New Hampshire ratified, one of the first things that happened was that twelve amendments (shown to be necessary by the ratification debate in all the states) were presented to the states for approval. Ten of these were eventually approved by the states, and they finally took effect when Virginia ratified them in 1791. This extraordinary process of immediate amendment showed the wariness that generation had toward centralized government, a wariness we would do well to recover.

Now here is the import of this narrative. If you take the Constitution as originally presented, the one that contains the heart of Thacker’s arguments, and allowed no amendments to it, that Constitution would never have been ratified. The Constitution as first presented was a pure Federalist document, and it richly deserved all the opposition it generated. The anti-Federalists, men like Patrick Henry, were quite right to smell a rat. Their opposition was cogent enough, and effective enough, to require the Bill of Rights be attached to the Constitution. That attachment made it a modified anti-Federalist document — not perfect, but serviceable and worthy of our respect and support. But even in that serviceable condition, the internal tensions were not removed (and power-hungry men never go far away, and they always have a genius for creative hermeneutics), and so a great civil war broke out within about seventy years over these very same issues.

So the rat-like smell is not gone, not by any stretch. We need to deal with this because the 21st century, just like the 18th century, will always have plenty of men who are ever willing to advance clever arguments in favor of slavery to the state. Object to a drone strike on citizen Smith, an individual? You will be accused of being in thrall to Enlightment individualism. Object to widow Smith having half her income taken away by the machinations of the central bank? You will be accused of perpetuating tired left/right dichotomies. Object to men with guns and letters on their jackets raiding small businesses in search of cash? You will be told that Jeremiah told the Israelites to seek the peace of Babylon.

In short, there will always be men like Thacker who believe that those who do not wish to crawl down into the maw of the state do not understand the nature of their own best interest. But they are probably reluctant — and this is merely a suggestion — because of that time they wore a tri-cornered hat to a rally held by some funny people, the one Glenn Beck spoke at.

Seriously, if you don’t understand the debate about limited government, a debate that has spanned our entire history as a people, down to the present, then you don’t understand our history at all. And the best thing to do, if you are in that sad plight, is to try to talk that Chinese director into putting in some subtitles.

Ya Think?

The first reference to the Patriot Act that I can find on this blog comes from September 2007. (I started blogging in the middle of 04). At that time it was my view that “the Patriot Act would have had Patrick Henry running to his gun cabinet.”

The next March I wrote about why patriots don’t like the Patriot Act. You can read that here.

Some thought legislation called the “Patriot Act” held out great promise for the future defense of America. I thought it was an ugly baby the day we brought it home from the hospital.

Now that said, I do hope all this hubristic spying business gets wrapped around Obama’s neck three or four times, and it looks like that is happening. Great, and yay. I confess that all these scandals plopping out of the sky have made his second term a much more pleasant prospect than I thought it was going to be.

But we must not forget to hold accountable all the Republicans who voted to leave all these doors unlocked in the first place — and who then called their criminal negligence patriotism. Those who saw the whole bad-idea-ness of the entire enterprise were apparently not patriots. Shame on them!

So as a point of personal privilege, if I may return to the old proverbial chestnut about the fox and the henhouse, I would like to ask every Republican who voted for the Patriot Act to stop going on television in order to tell us they think the fox is guilty of “over-reach.” Ya think?

Not Enough of a Chump

Having watched some (usually reasonable) talking heads go on about the Verizon monstrosity, and then the PRISM thing — Grendel’s mother — I am struck once again with how so many modern conservatives miss the point. They do not understand the central principle of limited government. They do not understand what it means to be governed by men who understand what the rule of law is supposed to mean. They do not get it — and these are the conservatives.

The point (at this juncture) is not what the government does or does not do. If our current foolishness keeps up much longer, that will become the point soon enough, but it is not quite the point yet. The point is not what the government has done or will do. Free men care about what the government is allowed to be in a position to do.

Free men don’t want a government that doesn’t get into your email. Free men want a government that isn’t in any position to get into your email.

A despot might, by the luck of the draw, be something of a reasonable man. His dictatorship might be benevolent. That has happened from time to time – look, a comet! This does not mean that the power he refrains from using is a power that he ought to have.

The fact that Bush used the surveillance state to protect us from terrorists, while Obama uses it on his domestic adversaries, is beside the point. I don’t really want to know how Bush used that apparatus. I want to know who he handed it over to, and what’s been done with it since. Assume Bush protected us from terrorists after 9-11. That is not the same thing as protecting our freedoms.

Terrorists hate us because of our freedoms? They hate it that we have to go to the airport an hour early in order to be patted down by the TSA? They hate it that the government rummages through our emails, like they were pieces of luggage at the airport? They hate it that the government monitors our phone calls? They hate how the IRS guns for the political opponents of the president? They hate how journalism has been criminalized? I hate all those things too, but I am not enough of a chump to call them my freedoms.

Bush slathered us in a mosquito repellant that has had the side effect of attracting raging bulls. I don’t want to talk about the mosquitoes, the existence of which I readily grant. But for some reason I am more interested in the bulls.

I have no objection to a war on terror – in its place. There are terrorists in the world, and we should go after them, lawfully and constitutionally. But if we are fighting this war for the sake of our freedoms, we need to have some sense of proportionality. What is the greatest threat to our freedoms? If we must fight for our freedoms, and we must, we obviously need a much bigger “war” on the federal government – on the NSA, the IRS, the DOJ, the BATF, all those alphabet johnnies.

By the way, I put the word “war” in quotation marks because I suspect that they may be something my attorney would like to have in my trial for sedition, insufficient docility, treason, rebellious thoughts writing about our federal masters using all that metaphor code.

Speaking of which, as I stood upon the sand of the sea, I saw a beast rise up out of the Potomac, having seven heads, and headphones on all of them, and behold, he was listening intently. And he had ten horns, with a crown upon each, and on his forehead was inscribed Panopticon, the name of his blasphemy.