Friday, April 11, 2014

Jim DeMint is a Blithering Imbecile

Jim DeMint, a former legislator turned think-tank president, may or may not be the most hated man in Washington.  (The competition is fierce.) He is, however, an embarrassment to Christ Church Episcopal School, Wade Hampton High, the University of Tennessee and Clemson University.  DeMint has studied at all those doubtlessly fine institutions, holds degrees from at least three of them, and nonetheless lacks the most fundamental grasp of American history.

Or, if we are mistaken about that, he is a big fat liar whose pants are perpetually on fire.

DeMint recently displayed his ignorance -- or mendacity -- on a radio program hosted by one Jerry Newcombe, in which this exchange took place:

Newcombe: What if somebody, let’s say you’re talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, ‘that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later.’

DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. 
But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.
(Quoted at Right Wing Watch

Well.  Let's think about this, shall we?

Obviously, DeMint is mistaken.  The important question is why he makes this particular mistake.

Let's start with how bad DeMint's history is.   As even a schoolboy can tell you (assuming he went to a public school and not, let us say, the Jimmie Hokey Christian Academy of Jesus), the federal government was precisely what freed the slaves.  Southern secession was a reaction against what the Confederacy saw, correctly, as Washington's plan to limit and ultimately eliminate the "peculiar institution."  Lincoln was reviled as a "tyrant" in much the way Obama is reviled as a "Socialist."  But the actual liberation of slaves, when it occurred, took place first at the hands of the United States Army acting under the authorization of a presidential proclamation, then under the direct supervision of the executive branch -- "Presidential Reconstruction" -- and ultimately in the form of a Constitutional amendment ratified in part by Reconstruction-mandated state legislatures.

The Constitution, in its original form, not only permitted slavery but rewarded it, by granting slave owners (or at least their states) extra representation in national affairs, according to the number of slaves they possessed.  Only a shocking display of leadership by two successive presidents was able to change that.

So what is DeMint up to here?

Obviously, he is trying to argue that "people of faith" -- he means Christians, although he might grudgingly admit some Jews as well -- were integral to the end of slavery.  This is incontestably true; the movement for abolition was largely an expression of Christian religious conviction.  Two things need to be added:  (1) Christianity was also invoked by the supporters of slavery, because this was the mid-19th century; and (2) it was not churches that actually freed the slaves.  It was the federal government.

DeMint's reference to William Wilberforce is telling.  Wilberforce is a "safe" abolitionist to speak about with DeMint's political base, both because he was a committed Evangelical and because he worked to free slaves through the legislative organs of another country.  Prominent American abolitionists, from the fanatical John Brown to the philandering Henry Ward Beecher, are less safe.  A few, like Brown, were what we would call today call domestic terrorists.  Many more held religious views of which American Evangelicals are suspicious -- Quaker, Unitarian, what have you.  And most, by a large margin, were what are in some circles still quaintly called "damn Yankees."  They lived in Pennsylvania, New York and New England, regions that remain deeply suspect in the minds of many Southerners.

So here is political calculation expressed as rhetoric.  DeMint's power base consists, in part, of a community in which the most enlightened and liberal members are those who can acknowledge that slavery was, indeed, wrong.  Even these bright lights are nonetheless possessed of a visceral distaste for  Northerners and the Federal government, as well as people whose religion does not closely resemble their own.  For them, DeMint has created -- or really subscribed to, since it is not original to him-- a mythology in which the abolition of slavery was not in fact driven by accomplished by just those forces.

Some people actually believe this codswallop.  We have also heard French people claim, in utter sincerity, that the Resistance was on the verge of defeating Hitler by itself.

Now, part of this phoney mythos -- in fact, its sacred writ -- is a phoney vision of the US Constitution.  Occasionally, America's Constitution-worshipping righties see it as Antonin Scalia claims to, as a comparatively narrow document which can be read only according to letter and in accord with the the worldview of its authors:
"Did the Eighth Amendment bar the death penalty?" [Scalia asked a crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently]. "Not a hard question." The people who wrote the Eighth Amendment practiced the death penalty, ergo its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" could not possibly exclude capital punishment. 
Apply this argument to slavery and see what you get.  Whatever reservations Jefferson & Co. may have had about their slaves, they certainly bequeathed us a document which preserved slavery as a legal practice.  It is hard to argue that this document was the "conscience" of our nation before the Civil War.

No, DeMint and his audience have staked out a significantly crazier position than Scalia's.  They disregard both the bare text of the document and its history, preferring instead to see in it a Platonic ideal of American society, expressed not in the letter but in the supposed spirit of the Founders.  Note, for example, that DeMint attributes to the Constitution ideas about the general equality of human beings which are explicit rather in the Declaration of Independence.  It does not matter what the Constitution says to this crowd, but only what it means -- or what they chose to believe it means.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie has a good take on the "Constitutional conservatism" espoused by people like Michelle Bachmann and Jim DeMint.  He mistakenly resents it as a part of religious fundamentalism rather than a secular analogue, but he quite correctly observes that the heyday of small-government, states-rights philosophy came under the Articles of Confederation -- a rule of government so bad it was abolished by many of its own creators.

We will concede that DeMint may not be a blithering imbecile, nor even an ignoramus.  It is entirely possible that high public-school education included competent instruction in both history and civics.  If that that be the case, though, we must conclude that he is a sleazy opportunist, pandering to the ignorance and prejudice of the masses while cynically using them to gain power in the nation's capital.

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