The Past As Spin

January 26, 2011 | By | 9 Replies More

Representative Michelle Bachman is the national voice of The Tea Party.  Recently, in speaking to a group of Iowans, she made some claims about American history that would be laughable if they had not come from someone who likes to style herself an authority of Constitutional matters.  She claimed that the glory of our country is that color and language didn’t matter, nor did class or parentage, that once people got here, “we were all the same.”

Wishful thinking at best.  Certainly that was the idea behind the Declaration of Independence, with its grand opening phrases, but like all such ambitions, it took reality a long, long time to catch up—and it still hasn’t.  The fact is, despite our stated political and social goals, immigrants have always had difficulty upon arriving here, some more than others, and those already here have always resented new arrivals.  And even for those who were already living here, equality was simply not a reality.  African slaves aside, women did not achieve equality until…well, some would say they’re still trying to achieve it, but just for one metric, they didn’t get the vote until 1921.  People who owned no property were barred from the vote for a good portion of the 19th Century and other barriers were put up here and there, time and again, such as literacy tests.  Anything to keep certain groups from being able to vote against the self-selected “true” Americans.

She went further, though, and suggested that slavery was an unfortunate holdover from colonial times and that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was gone from the United States.”  She cited John Quincey Adams, who was a staunch campaigner against slavery.  The problem, though, is that he was not a Founder.  He was the son of one.

The reality is that slavery was a deal breaker at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia.  Many of the delegates owned slaves and made it quite clear that any attempt to outlaw it would result in a No vote on any constitution.  A compromise was struck, putting the issue off for twenty years, and until then no one was allowed to even mention it on the floor of Congress.  (Interestingly, the British and others outlawed slavery and the slave trade in 1807, 56 years before we did.) This was violated by a group of Quakers who tried to force the issue in Congress in 1792 to angry denunciations and threats of secession. The Southern delegates were quite clear that slavery could not be eradicated without severely damaging their happiness and well-being.  It was openly remarked that slaves were needed for “work that white men simply won’t do.”

All of which flies in the face of Ms. Bachman’s attempted revision of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were southern slaveholders.

We should be clear about these men who established a political system which has had consequences they could hardly imagine.  Some were brilliant, all were intelligent, and most incorporated a mix of heady idealism sparked by Enlightenment thinking and the hard practicality of men determined to get something out of life for themselves and their own.  It would be easy to portray some of them as opportunistic adventurers.  For instance, George Washington and others were all frustrated and hampered by British colonial policy which tried to keep the colonists from crossing the Appalachian Mountains into territory forbidden to them because of treaties the Crown had negotiated with native tribes.  Companies were assembled of American entrepreneurs to claim and sell land in the trans-Appalachian territories, the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and even south of that—quite illegally per British law.  These men had money at stake in this and were going ahead to lay claims and make sales in spite of the British.  They stood to lose a great deal if they couldn’t proceed with these land deals.  So it could be said as easily as anything else that the Revolutionary War was fought by these men to secure future profits.

Image by Nemosdad at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

This is reality.  Not all of it, by any means, but not to be dismissed either in some spiritual reimagining of the purity of purpose and overarching genius of the Founders.  In fact, it is no shame to say that everyone who fought against British rule here hoped to gain something, and not just the intangibles of liberty—which is not all that intangible in any case.  Taxation was the war cry and what is that?  Money.  Property.

People came to these shores hoping to find land, which they could neither find nor own in Europe.  This is a fact.  Here, in the so-called “wilderness”, they thought they could do what their forebears had never had a chance to do—own something.  This meant independence.  This meant freedom.

But today, when the owning of things has a much changed meaning, freedom has a less concrete aspect.  It’s all about principles and ideals and airy things with no material substance.  We’re used to it here, you see.  Freedom isn’t so connected to things for us because things are ours by birthright.  Or so it seems.

Many of the Founders were large estate-holders, plantation owners, businessmen.  Everything they had was on the line in the Revolution.  This is no small thing.  They risked tremendously for their dream.

But we should never forget that they were also men of their time and men of the world.  Maintaining institutions that put coin in their pockets was part of who they were and it is idiocy to imagine them otherwise.  We risk turning them into Apostles and overwriting the reality of our own history to make that time some sort of Avalon.  But things aren’t like they were in the good ol’ days…and they never were.

This urge to hagiography on the part of people like Bachman puzzles me.  Collectively, they have no problem dealing underhandedly with political opponents, pushing through legislation that will benefit the propertied at the expense of the poor, treating their enemies as harshly as possible, and yet they assert that the Founding Fathers were somehow not like that.  They admire the Founders, and somehow manage to juggle the contradictions in their own actions.  Maybe seeing the Founders as they were—people— would make their own actions simply ugly and make them accountable on their own, without the defense that they’re trying to reestablish that Golden Age.

This is a real problem.  We cannot go forward unless we know where we’ve been, and we can’t go forward honestly unless we’re honest about where we came from.  Yes, this is a free country, but what does that mean in practice?  It means that we have set of standards we’re trying to attain without adding constraint to personal actions.  But unconstrained, personal actions lead not only to explosions of entrepreneurship and leadership and justice and innovation, but also to brutality and open hypocrisy and bigotry and class strife.  You can’t have one without the other, because people are not principles.

I think Michelle Bachman and her colleagues understand this perfectly well.  If they can convince people that they have fallen from a state of grace, then all the problems are the fault of the fallen, and all we have to do is put things back as they were. As they were included Robber Barons, slaveholders, political misogynists, racists.  If they can convince people that this was the state of grace, then they can carry the nation forward into a future of their conception, which will benefit them.  It would be their trans-Appalachian  enterprise.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that people like Bachman have also been at the center of the gutting of public education.  An ignorant public can be controlled.

She asked rhetorically if this was going to be the last free generation of Americans.  The torch of liberty has been passed from generation to generation and we may be the one that fails to pass it on.  She could be right.  If people don’t start filling their minds with knowledge instead of spin, the Michelle Bachmans may well stop that torch being passed.

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Culture, Current Events, Education, Fraud, History, hypocrisy, ignorance, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (9)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Why was Bachman featured other than as a freak show? What has she ever uttered that suggests that she has any command of relevant facts? That the media gave her the stage shows you what kind of media we have: They are more interested in freaks that make you mad than in giving time to people with workable ideas.

    Rachel Maddow had this to say:

    "Michele Bachmann is not the national spokesperson for the Republican Party," she said. "She is unlikely anytime soon to be chosen to be the spokesperson for her party. But tonight, inexplicably, a national news network decided that they would give Michele Bachmann a job that her own party never did."

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/26/rachel-m

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    It is a freak show that is destroying our country: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/26/sotu-bor

    Having freaks appear on news shows (or quasi-news shows) guarantees that we cannot have a national conversation about anything serious.

  3. Karl says:

    Imagine there no economies, no physical needs, no emotional needs, and especially no debts to to anyone including the government.

    The problem is the governments run by people who would never allow this.

  4. Mike M. says:

    Mark writes, "Yes, this is a free country, but what does that mean in practice? It means that we have set of standards we’re trying to attain without adding constraint to personal actions."

    I would submit that the "Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness" items below would logically appear to be guaranteed by our Constitution, yet are all illegal. So I would suggest this concept of a "free country" is spin as well.

    Currently in the United States of America:

    We are not free to use medical marijuana to alleviate the severe pain or nausea of a terminal disease, even if our doctors decide it's appropriate treatment.

    We are not free to play poker for money inside our own homes.

    We (women) are not free to be topless at the beach.

    We are not free to marry within our own gender.

    We (women) are not free to participate in military combat roles.

    We are not free to drink a bottle of wine at the seashore.

    We are not free to help a suffering and dying relative quickly and mercifully end their own life under doctor's guidance.

    We are not free to explore our own minds using historically safe and non-addictive psychoactive plants.

    We are not free to make love in a secluded area of nature.

    And the list goes on, and on…

    It is pure fantasy to believe that we live in a free country, wishful thinking, and a delusion of the highest order.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike: Excellent list of exceptions to our "freedom." I would add that we are not free to withhold our tax dollars from America's war machine. We are not free to have a meaningful vote in many elections, in that big money has pre-ordained the "serious" candidates. We are not free to criticize the government without it reading our email and listening to our calls. These are a few off the top of my head.

      America is not a terrible place to live for many of us. Many of us are living wonderful and secure lives. But we could do much much better.

  5. Mike,

    Given that rules are necessary in any community, the test of freedom comes down to whether or not the rules in question are applied evenly to all, regardless of station. If everyone falls under the same restrictions, then it isn't "freedom" at issue. But when—as you point out—certain groups are separated out for special rules, then freedom is very much at issue.

    I recall seeing an interview with a Mujahadeen fighter back when Russia was still in Afghanistan and he declared that he and his people will fight because "we love freedom so much." When you look at his definition of freedom, it seemed fairly clear that he meant the freedom to oppress according to local standards, not freedom in any absolute sense. I suspect a lot of people really mean that when they talk about freedom, and certainly a lot of people in the 1780s meant that.

  6. MikeFitz17 says:

    Agreed, Michelle Bachmann is a total freak show. So are Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and the rest of the Tea Party crowd. The fact that a major political party, the Republicans, could invest these clowns with so much credibility and influence is a searing indictment of just how far our political discourse has fallen.

    The influence of an ignoramus like Bachmann also shows how far, in our media-saturated age, you can go on the basis of high cheekbones, a bright smile, a firm handshake, self-professed patriotism and confidence fueled as much by ignorance as by ambition.

    Politicians like Bachmann and Palin, and hucksters like Beck, have gone far in life, and reaped many millions of dollars from the gullible, based on counter-factual narratives of American glory and appeals for return to a sepia-toned, halcyon Golden Age. An age when America ruled the planet, when all people knew their place, and when it was easy to tell good from bad.

    Of course, we've seen this movie before. And its star was the fun-loving and lovable Ronald Reagan.

  7. Mike M. writes:—"I would submit that the “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” items below would logically appear to be guaranteed by our Constitution, yet are all illegal"

    This may or may not be important—I think it is—but that Life, Liberty, Pursuit stuff is not in the Constitution. That phrase is part of the Declaration of Independence, and while that document is a very important part of our national heritage, it is not a law or even part of our laws—it is only a statement of intent with justifications.

    Also, it must be said that a number of prominent delegates to the Constitutional Convention were dubious about the utility of a Bill of Rights (including, I believe, Franklin). They thought the process being established within would have as a consequence the establishment and protection of "rights." Others thought it important to set out what exactly those rights are that must not be touched even by the process they were inventing. I think the latter group were correct, because the former operated under a presumption of rough equality manifest in the process. We have learned (often painfully) that this is illusory.

    All the Constitution does functionally is set out the methods by which we will pass laws and operate as a unified polity regardless who is in power. It is a masterpiece of keeping everyone off-balance and working against factions—which several Founders thought would be the undoing of everything if left unchecked—but that also presumes everyone is participating.

    The problem we have now is that too few people participate and those who do are often guided by misinformation or political venality. The Republican sweep in the last election happened with something over twenty-two percent of the vote, because turn out was only 40%. This is not majority rule but minority veto. When the Talking Heads go on about what Americans have said they want through the electoral process, they're bloviating—we don't know what The People want because we rarely get sufficient voter turn-out to see.

    That the system continues to function as well as it does in spite of this is a testament to what the Founders built. But that doesn't mean it will continue to work.

  8. Mike M. says:

    Mark, thanks for the clarification – I agree that it's a historically important distinction. In my mind I've usually envisioned the Constitution and Declaration to be bundled together in the same red-white & blue wrapped package, feeling that they "go together" in cozy symbiosis. But yes, technically, two separate documents.

    I do like to keep the concepts of 'equality' and 'freedom' independent, though, to avoid confusing and unnecessarily linking these two ideals. My model of true freedom includes having the liberty to control my own mind and body as I will, as long as this freedom does not hurt or oppress others. As a logical outgrowth of this perspective I think most US laws against victimless "crimes", with their antiquated vice prohibitions and Gov't enforced moral codes, should be vigorously renounced and discarded. And then we can all take that deep, long-awaited collective breath, and finally get on with re-directing vast resources currently being wasted into socially progressive and visionary new initiatives.

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