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This review is from: Wrong and Dangerous: Ten Right Wing Myths about Our Constitution (Hardcover)
Wrong and Dangerous: Ten Right-Wing Myths about our Constitution
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012 (hardcover) (Read this in Oct. 2012)
The author describes his experience as a student at a seminar on "The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution." The seminar was organized by the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS), a creation of W. Cleon Skousen. The instructor was Lester Pearce, an Arizona justice of the peace. Pearce is brother of former Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, author of Arizona's notorious anti-immigrant law, SB 1070. The NCCS is a source of far-right-wing mythology about the Constitution. The author sees this and other organizations and individuals promoting an "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution as part of a movement to reverse progressive legislation in the United States. This progressive legislation has slowly but surely made American democracy more inclusive by extending the vote to racial minorities and women.
Chapter 1. The Right Is "Originalist" ; Everyone Else Is "Idiotic"
Argues that far-right "originalism" is an intellectual weapon designed to hide from ordinary citizens (Scalia's "idiots") what is in plain sight. Behind the myth of original intent is the assumption that there is a single "clear" intent hidden in each phrase of the Constitution. But often the wording is purposely vague.
Chapter 2. The "Purpose" of the Constitution Is to Limit Congress
On the contrary, under the Articles of Confederation the federal government was too weak. The framers wanted a Constitution that would give the government broad powers. Many of these are enumerated in Article I, Section 8. The Necessary and Proper Clause at the end of that section extends these enumerated powers greatly.
Chapter 3. Congress Has Stretched the Commerce Power Beyond Its Proper Limits
Author sees a troubling agenda behind right-wing attacks on Commerce Clause (Article I, Sect. 8, Para. 3): "destroying the federal government's power to run the national economy, provide protection of the environment, and guarantee basic equality to American citizens." He cites Justice John Marshall's broad (but not unlimited) definition of "commerce."
Chapter 4. The Constitution Doesn't Separate Church and State
Two arguments the right wing use to get people to ignore the actual words in the Constitution are that the framers desired a "Christian nation" and that the Establishment Clause does not apply to the states. The author shows how the "wall of separation" metaphor has a long history in America, going back to Roger Williams in 1644. But prominent framers, especially Jefferson and Madison, were "profoundly skeptical" of what they called "revealed religion." As far as applicability to the states is concerned, one has only to reread the 14th Amendment to see how the right wing gets this wrong.
Chapter 5. Equality and Self-Government Are "Wholly Foreign to the First Amendment"
This chapter is about the distortion of "free speech" as a weapon of social control. The culmination of this battle is the Citizens United case which gave corporations and their wealthy donors with the ability to flood the airwaves with ads from deceptively titled "issue groups" with names like "Americans for Prosperity" and "American Future Funds." Right-wing groups want wealthy donors to be able to contribute anonymously. Meanwhile, attempts to level the playing field are opposed by a conservative Supreme Court; to the conservative court the very idea of civic equality is rank heresy. I found this chapter very depressing---especially the following statement. "The result is a slow transformation of our form of government, from republic to corporate oligarchy. The rot has progressed almost to the terminal stage."
Chapter 6. The Second Amendment Allows Citizens to Threaten Government
The author cites, Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and Senate candidate Sharron Angle as suggesting that citizens have the right to resort to violence if election results do not turn out to their liking. Angle refers to this with the euphemistic, yet sinister term "Second Amendment remedies." (Of course, we have Civil War history to tell us how that works out.) The author warns though that "a society that can't regulate guns at all will soon degenerate into violent anarchy." Right wingers seeking even looser gun laws than those we already have like to bring up a quote they attribute to Thomas Jefferson: "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government." But those words came from a radical thinker named John Basil Barnhill in a socialist magazine called the National Rip-Saw in 1914. Rather than encouraging citizens to take up arms against the government, Epps says "the founders understood that gun rights had to be balanced with public safety needs." He cites two founders, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington to support this.
Chapter 7. The Tenth Amendment Protects "States' Rights" and "State Sovereignty"
Rebuts the claim that the Tenth Amendment gives states a veto power over federal legislation. This claim ignores Article VI, Section 2, which states that the Constitution and the laws of the United States are the "supreme law of the land...any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding." The author notes that nothing in the Tenth Amendment says that the powers must be "explicitly, expressly, or specifically given to the federal government." Also, the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Sect. 8, last paragraph) gives Congress the power "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested in this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."
Chapter 8. The Fourteenth Amendment Is Obsolete and Irrelevant
This chapter rebuts the claim that the Fourteenth Amendment is no longer relevant because it was written to give freed slaves citizenship. Since there are few who would now deny citizenship to descendants of slaves, the amendment is obsolete. But Epps points out that, on the contrary, the Fourteenth Amendment is the most important of all the amendments because it requires the states to observe the Bill of Rights. Some call it "the second Constitution."
Chapter 9. Election of Senators Destroys "States' Rights"
Author attacks idea "that states have `rights' that should be protected against their own people." Notes that a Fox News commentator (Andrew Napolitano) thinks the Seventeenth Amendment is unconstitutional. Like, Duh!, Andrew N., an amendment is a part of the Constitution. He notes conservatives like George Will think the Senate has gone into decline since popular election of senators began. Will claims that the old system gave us "the Great Triumvirate---Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun---and thrived." He ignores how these men either defended slavery (Calhoun) or appeased the slave power (Clay, Webster), and their actions led us directly into Civil War. Epps thinks the right wing favors repeal of the amendment because "a legislatively appointed Senate could be relied on to block progressive legislation."
Chapter 10. International Law Is a Threat to the Constitution
This chapter investigates how conservatives and the right wing loathe the idea that international law may affect our national law, especially by putting limitations on the death penalty. But as Epps points out, international law has always affected United States law. This is established in Article I, Sect. 8, Article II, Article III, and Article VI, Sect. 2 "International law, or `the law of nations,' comes from two sources: treaties and what is called `customary international law.'" There is nothing new or nefarious about our respect for international law. Without it, we could not have trade agreements with other nations, nor could U.S. corporations carry on business in foreign countries. "America's economic survival rests on a foundation of international law."
Afterword: The Battle Ahead
Epps ends this book on an optimistic note. He cites Jefferson: "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles." But it will take vigilance and work to defend the Constitution against today's witches. The right wing wields the weapon of "originalism" to distort the clear meaning of the words of the law. They claim to do this in the defense of liberty. But "the liberty the Right offers is at best the liberty to survive in the cracks of a crumbling economy, the liberty to send your children to collapsing schools, the liberty to go bankrupt when major illness strikes, and the liberty to approach old age with dread because Wall Street pirates have made off with your pension. It is the liberty to seek help that will not come from a government that does not care." What can ordinary Americans do to prevent this. He calls for five actions: arm yourself with knowledge, join with your neighbors, speak up, monitor your community, and find allies.
Appendix A. The Constitution of the United States of America
Appendix B. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union
Suggestions for Further Reading
About the Author