I’ve listened several times to Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett’s interview with Michele Norris from NPR. [There's a transcript there if you prefer to read, but I encourage you to listen at least long enough to get a feel for the tone of the thing.] Bennett’s defeat in Utah’s May 11 primary after serving three terms is credited to the Tea Party movement.
I’m struck by the confusion evident from both Bennett and Norris. They have no idea whatsoever what just happened. Norris doesn’t know how to frame her questions, and Bennett has all the answers that he knows should have worked.
There’s several illuminating passages, but what I want to write about today is an exchange that didn’t happen, the question I wanted to ask that would never have occurred to Norris.
The constituency that abandoned him comes off as ill-informed and inarticulate. It’s easy to guess that this fits with how NPR and the establishment powers view the Partiers. However, it’s also no doubt accurate; the Tea Parties are still inchoate, still fragmented, still with no cohesive, organized platform, still with no clear principles.
Moreover, our political vocabulary has become so debased that it is almost impossible to coherently criticize what has been happening for the last several decades in terms most people have been trained to understand. That vocabulary has been constructed by those we want to criticize, and it’s devilishly hard to use against them.
Which leads us to this exchange:
NORRIS: About one-third of the Utah GOP convention delegates were part of the Tea Party movement. Did you do a good enough job as a senator of representing their interest? Many of them felt like they were ignored by Washington, even by the representatives within their own party.
Sen. BENNETT: When you talk to them and said, well, what did I do that didn’t represent you, there was never – other than, well, you voted for TARP and that was unconstitutional – as I say, I could talk that one through with them, and oh, well, maybe you did the right thing. Someone would say I’m not troubled about TARP. You’ve just been there too long.
NORRIS: What do you make of that? How do you respond to someone who feels like you’ve been there too long?
Sen. BENNETT: There really is no response. Some of my supporters would report conversations they would have. One in particular said to this woman: Who are you voting for? She said: I’m voting for Cherilyn Eager. Why? Well, she loves the Constitution. All right, Senator Bennett loves the Constitution. Yeah, but Cherilyn Eager loves it more. And finally, my supporter said, well, I guess there’s nothing I can say to you. And they said no, because I want somebody who really, really loves the Constitution.
And here, I wanted to thumb the transmit button on the radio and ask, “If you love the Constitution, Senator, what’s your favorite enumerated power?”
In my fantasy, the scene changes, dreamlike, and I am now confronting a generic politician at a town meeting or Tea Party. In the minds of most politicians, I suspect, “Love the Constitution” is a meaningless phrase, sort of like, “uphold and defend” or “enemies foreign and domestic”. It’s just one of those things you have to say to take office so you can
ruleguide your flock taxpayers constituents to healthy, safe, and productive lives; get yourself some kickbacks, and maybe enjoy some of that intern nookie.
I let him stumble for a bit. He probably thinks, “the Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,” but of course he can’t say that out loud. Maybe he takes a stab at providing for “the common Defence and general Welfare”, or “securing the blessings of Liberty”, or even securing “life, liberty, and [the] pursuit of happiness” for the people.
He pauses, and I ask, “Want to know my favorite power?”
He is wary, but nods.
“The power of the people to keep and bear arms.”
“But…but…that’s not a power, that’s a…that’s why we have the National Guard!”
One of the debasements I’m talking about is the blurring of rights and powers, but what that usually does is to dilute rights and disguise tyranny. For instance, there’s the supposed right to health care, something which is really an individual responsibility, but which has been converted to an excuse to exert control. You also often hear that the police have the right to search you under various circumstances, but that’s not a right at all, it’s a delegated power. The cleverness here is that “rights” are good things. When something is declared a “right”, we automatically nod our heads.
I want to blur in the other direction, but in so blurring, reveal:
The purpose of the Constitution, as I see it, is to define the structure of our government, to define its powers, and to limit those powers, primarily in the Third through Eighth Amendments.
The first two Amendments, however, create the fourth branch of government which balances the other three: We, The People. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments bolster that branch, but those first two Amendments give us specific powers, in keeping with the overall purpose of structuring the government. They are not delegations, though; they are reservations. (To clarify: We often say that the Bill of Rights does not grant those rights, but merely protects natural rights we possess independently of any government or mere document, and that’s true, in our private lives. Here, however, I speak of The People as that virtual Fourth Branch, which must have its powers enumerated.)
We rule here, not our elected officials; they can only lead, using powers that come from us, powers that we delegate to them but do not necessarily give up ourselves, even if we only exercise them via the light reins of election.
The First Amendment is all about reserving to us, the people, the power to decide the direction of the Nation ourselves. Freedom of Religion preserves our consciences, our power to decide for ourselves in our own minds what is right and wrong; Freedom of Speech is our power to express our consciences and persuade our fellows; Freedom of Press is our power to subpoena the government and its agents and make their words and deeds public, to inform ourselves about the world at large, and to broadcast our knowledge, ideas, and opinions to an audience larger than our voices can reach; Freedom of Assembly is our power to debate and decide in aggregate, and to form ad hoc congresses and committees; Freedom of Petition is our power to grab our elected and appointed watchdogs by the scruff of the neck and scold them when they chew the furniture, piss on the rugs, bark at the moon, or snarl at family, friends and neighbors.
The Second Amendment reserves our power to shoot the damn curs when they go rabid and attack us.
When you consider the First and Second Amendments in this way, attempts by the government to limit or infringe those rights are exposed as attempts of one branch of government to usurp the powers of another. It is as if during the State of the Union address, soldiers equipped with riot gear and rifles stationed themselves around the chamber, while the President announced a list of bills he wanted passed….
In any event, the First and Second Amendments at least protect protect personal rights, and thus cannot be lightly dismissed. Instead, they have been simply redefined, and their original purposes deliberately obscured and forgotten.
The First Amendment has been debased by trivializing and debasing the activities it was meant to protect: Freedom of Religion converted to freedom from morals; Freedom of Speech converted to freedom of cussing; Freedom of Press to freedom of porn; Freedom of Assembly to freedom of riot; Freedom of Petition to freedom of whining.
The attack on the Second Amendment continued the strategy of debasement. First, it was redefined as the freedom to decorate our mantles with antiques, to punch holes in paper from yards away, and to shoot Bambi’s Mom. This last was brilliant, as it converted providing food to cruel sport (something that evil, capitalistic entrepreneurs made possible by turning food into a commodity). That approach was then extended to convert a right of the law-abiding and peaceable to an excuse for the criminal and racist, an excuse which obviously must be abolished. Meanwhile, the right of self defense was dismissed as corrupt bourgeoisie vigilantes oppressing the poor and disenfranchised. There’s also been an attempt to redefine it as the right of the State to protect itself against us, although that “collective” interpretation is beginning to crumble.
In these ways, our competency for self rule has diminished from the fundamental assumption the Constitution was meant to defend, to a fantasy that only the deranged even mention.
In these ways, language meant to protect our right to self-sovereignty has been defanged, defamed, and demolished, making it impossible to even talk about our power to rule ourselves.
In these ways, we have been debased from citizens to mere subjects.
[I really want to go through the Bennett interview line by line; it exemplifies perfectly why the traditional parties and media are so lost.]