Basic Misunderstandings

Basic misunderstandings arise for all sorts of reasons. People misunderstand formality and respect for custom as rudeness – those French folks just won’t loosen up and smile and relax. They’re so rude. And openness and enthusiasm, and blurting out your personal business, is often seen as childishness – how most Europeans see Americans. And one man’s devout adherence to his religion is another man’s dangerous fanaticism – it is okay to kill for Jesus but not Allah, or the other way around. And another man’s concern for his family – the wife and kids – is another’s man lack of ambition, and that sort of thing shows that family man is missing that killer-instinct that assures success. He’s a loser. And there you get to talk about what constitutes success, and there are lots of misunderstandings about that, and people redefining what they’ve fallen into doing as what they actually intended to do, so it must be success. If you’ve got lots of stuff, and the proper goodies, you must be a success – or a shallow jerk. If you don’t have the goodies but have the family, you must be a success – or a hopeless dope. There’s a lots of basic misunderstanding about success. But basic misunderstanding is everywhere. If you don’t follow NASCAR you’re not a real American, or if you do you’re a Neanderthal. If you like opera you must be gay, or sophisticated. It goes on and on.

And much of it is driven by circumstance. For example, there’s the Atlantic’s new cover story, written by Chrystia Freeland, which profiles the global elite:

The rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition – and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

There’s a lot of basic misunderstand on the horizon – those folks run the world, not the nation-states. But basic misunderstanding can be minor, like Christopher Hitchens updating a classic from George Orwell:

It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.

Yes, Americans have a basic misunderstanding about tea, but the Brits have a basic misunderstanding about the proper temperature to serve beer.

And then there are basic political misunderstandings, like disagreements about what constitutes principled conservatism and what is just tin-foil-hat raving. Consider what Bruce Bartlett is now asking of Obama:

In your State of the Union address, single out and mention by name a few Republicans who have taken actions or proposed ideas worthy of consideration. Quote some conservative intellectuals who have been critical of the Republican Party’s lack of a governing philosophy or meaningful legislative agenda. This will raise the status of a better class of Republicans and create a group with whom you can possibly develop a partnership.

What I am suggesting is really just a broader version of a tactic you have already occasionally used. In November, for instance, you invited Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker to a high-profile White House meeting to highlight their support for the new START treaty your administration negotiated. That meeting led to several weeks of press coverage in which Senate Republicans who were resisting a vote on ratification were portrayed as sacrificing national security for partisan advantage. That’s the kind of pressure you’ll need if you have any hope of moving your agenda through Congress in the coming two years.

Bartlett wants Obama to imply that John Boehner, now being pushed into all sorts of nonsense by the new Tea Party crowd in the House, has a basic misunderstanding of conservatism, or has just given up on actual conservatism, and that things would go along swimmingly if that misunderstanding were just ignored. The people who actually understand things can work out what needs to be done. The others can have their rallies about shutting down the government and taking the unemployed out back and shooting them – or maybe that’s the gays, or folks who look Hispanic and talk funny. Sometimes the best way to deal with basic misunderstandings is to walk away, and do the work that must be done.

And see P. M. Carpenter on all the nonsense about repealing healthcare reform and opening criminal hearings on it and all the rest:

Make no mistake, the GOP’s boundless animosity toward Democrats’ recent legislative achievements and its upcoming caress of endless committee investigations will doubtlessly arouse its base to orgiastic heights of political ecstasy. But that base is caught in a thrasher of demographic decline; and what’s more, the larger electorate will soon sicken to the House GOP’s nauseating monotony of attack, attack, attack, while twiddling, twiddling, twiddling away any responsible behavior of actual co-governance.

There does seem to be a basic misunderstanding about what governance is – some think it’s getting things done for the good of the country, and others think it’s sticking it to the other guy. What were you sent to Washington to do?

And Andrew Sullivan says he is struck by the rather harsh tone coming immediately from the partisan right this week – “It felt off to me, politically tone-deaf … leaving Obama to play the adult conciliator and deal-maker.”

But, for the Tea Party right, making deals has nothing to do with governance – governance is heroically stopping things, and it doesn’t matter what comes next. Some think this represents a basic misunderstanding about governance – this idea that the proper role of government is to stop doing just that governing stuff – but whether that is a misunderstanding depends on who you ask. But of course these guys just want to stop runaway spending, which is a real enough problem.

On the other hand Peter Beinart in this item tells these Tea-Partiers to re-read the constitution:

In modern times, conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have tried to reconcile their efforts to rein in federal power with their support for a large military and an interventionist foreign policy. But both times, the latter has seriously trumped the former. Under both Reagan and Bush, aggressive, militaristic foreign policy produced more presidential power and larger deficits.

Tea Partiers say their movement is a response to the way government power, and government debt, grew under both Bush and Obama. But if they looked seriously at the reasons for that growth under Bush, they would see that much of what they’re upset about is the military and homeland security spending justified by his expansive “war on terror.” Anyone genuinely worried about debt can’t ignore the fact that defense constitutes a majority of federal discretionary spending. And anyone devoted to a strict interpretation of the Constitution can’t ignore the fact that America is still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Pakistan, Yemen and lots of other places, without formal congressional declarations of war, although that is what the Constitution requires.

So, if you guys love the Constitution so much, you really ought to read it.

On the other hand, Dahlia Lithwick says Read It and Weep – as the Tea Party’s “fetish for the Constitution as written” may get it in trouble.

And she sets the table rather well:

Members of the Tea Party are really into the Constitution. We know this because on Thursday, House Republicans propose to read the document from start to finish on the House floor, and they also propose to pass a rule requiring that every piece of new legislation identify the source of its constitutional authority. Even Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute… agrees that these are largely symbolic measures, noting in the Wall Street Journal that as a legal matter, “at least since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Supreme Court has had the last word on what the Constitution authorizes Congress to do.”

Nobody has suggested that legislators don’t have an independent duty to uphold the Constitution as they understand it. But that doesn’t change the fact that the courts, not Tea Party Republicans – even those with the benefit of extra-credit classes from Justice Antonin Scalia – get to make the final call.

Yes, Michele Bachmann has roped Antonin Scalia into giving brush-up classes on the Constitution to the new House members on her side of the aisle – odd stuff considering this – Scalia: Constitution Does Not Protect Women Against Discrimination. He says women’s rights is nowhere in the Constitution, so the courts can’t do anything about their rights, ever. That’s not the court’s business. At least that’s his basic understanding of the document.

Others don’t see it that way, so maybe it is time to talk about the Constitution a bit more, or so Lithwick argues:

This newfound attention to the relationship between Congress and the Constitution is thrilling and long overdue. Progressives, as Greg Sargent points out, are wrong to scoff at it. This is an opportunity to engage in a reasoned discussion of what the Constitution does and does not do. It’s an opportunity to point out that no matter how many times you read the document on the House floor, cite it in your bill, or how many copies you can stuff into your breast pocket without looking fat, the Constitution is always going to raise more questions than it answers and confound more readers than it comforts. And that isn’t because any one American is too stupid to understand the Constitution. It’s because the Constitution wasn’t written to reflect the views of any one American.

Lithwick just points out that the Tea Party’s new Constitution fetish is what she calls hopelessly selective. She points to Robert Parry – he points out that these folks who will be reading the Constitution aloud might not want to read the parts permitting slavery, or, given their position that torture as national policy is just fine, might want to skip over the part prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

And, as Michael Lind points out, they don’t get to support Madison and renounce Jefferson then claim to be restoring the vision of “the Framers” of the document:

Beginning with the adoption of the federal Constitution, some Americans have sought to promote reverence for this particular Constitution, while others have emphasized the power of the Constitution-making people. Thomas Jefferson thought that laws and constitutions should be updated frequently, while his friend and ally James Madison thought that constitutions and laws should be changed only infrequently in the interest of stability. John Adams thought that the founders of constitutions should be revered, as in ancient Greece and Rome.

Madison and Adams won the argument.

Lithwick adds this:

Either the Founders got it right the first time they calibrated the balance of power between the federal government and the states, or they got it so wrong that we need to pass a “Repeal Amendment” to fix it. And unless Tea Party Republicans are willing to stand proud and announce that they adore and revere the whole Constitution as written, except for the First, 14, 16th, and 17th amendments, which totally blow, they should admit right now that they are in the same conundrum as everyone else: This document no more commands the specific policies they espouse than it commands the specific policies their opponents support.

This should all have been good news. The fact that the Constitution is sufficiently open-ended to infuriate all Americans almost equally is part of its enduring genius. The Framers were no more interested in binding future Americans to a set of divinely inspired commandments than any of us would wish to be bound by them.

The Constitution created a framework, not a Ouija board, precisely because the Framers understood that prospect of a nation ruled for centuries by dead prophets would be the very opposite of freedom.

And she points to Garrett Epps saying that if Tea Party Republicans really listened to the Constitution, they will pretty quickly realize that “the document they are hearing is nationalistic, not state-oriented; concerned with giving Congress power, not taking it away; forward-looking, not nostalgic for the past; aimed at creating a new government that can solve new problems, not freezing in place an old one that must fold its hands while the nation declines.”

There seems to be some quite real misunderstandings here. Lithwick says that the point is that “as long as there are fair-minded judges on the bench, the Constitution will be read for what it actually says, and not what any one results-oriented group or faction wants it to be.”

And there is Michael Lind contrasting “the semi-religious reverence with which the Founders or Framers or Fathers of the Constitution” are regarded with the “endless and casual amendments to the constitutions of the fifty states.” Why do we talk about the perfection of the federal constitution and embrace the idea of workable, alterable state constitutions we can amend, or toss out and replace, at any old time?

And that gets Lithwick thinking:

That question raises another problem with the states’-rights obsession of some of the current Tea Party Republicans: Some of the constitutional rhetoric – whether it’s talk of two-thirds of the states being allowed to nullify laws or threats to repeal the 17th Amendment (which allows for the direct election of senators) – seems to confuse increased state power with greater individual freedom.

And that’s nonsense:

Taking legislative authority away from the federal government doesn’t necessarily mean freer individuals. It might just mean granting vastly more authority to the states – which already have far broader police powers than most of us would care to admit. “Most of the regulation in our lives comes from state regulations over health, education, safety and welfare,” explains Lawrence Friedman, a professor at New England Law, Boston. “We have this idea that if the Congress can’t do it, no one can do it, but it’s not clear that the states wouldn’t do it, and do a worse job.” State governments are as likely to be corrupt, bankrupt, and beholden to special interests as the federal government. The only difference may be that state constitutions don’t prohibit state legislatures from making you do things you’d rather not do.

And there’s this:

Prof. Robert Williams of Rutgers University School of Law, Camden, notes that states have what’s called “plenary authority” over much of what isn’t spelled out elsewhere, which explains why Massachusetts can force you to purchase health insurance and why some states have much more stringent environmental regulations than the federal rules would require. As a political matter, this might not be worrisome if you live in, say, Idaho, where overregulation is not a concern. But as a constitutional matter, that’s an enormous amount of potential authority the Tea Party is willing to shift to the states.

Real libertarians would acknowledge that dysfunctional state legislatures pose as great a threat to individual liberty as a dysfunctional Congress. But this point is frequently elided in discussions about the urgent need to restore state’s rights in order to make us all more free. Partly that’s because the goal here is to thwart the federal government, period. And partly there is some confidence that if red states ultimately get redder, everyone is going to be freer. Try telling that to a woman seeking reproductive freedom in Virginia. To be sure, the question of federal/state authority to regulate is a complicated one. But shifting vast regulatory power from Congress to the states isn’t necessarily the shortest path to individual liberty.

It seems there’s a whole lot of basic misunderstanding going around, and Lithwick wraps up with this:

Reasonable people can differ about constitutional values and systems. There’s probably no better evidence for that than the Constitution itself. But it doesn’t get less nuanced or complicated just because you’ve read it aloud. It merely gets harder to hear the other side.

But that’s the way with all basic misunderstandings – they’re so basic there’s not much way to change them. It’s impossible to hear the other side – it always is. And that means that Lithwick and all those cited above are doing no more than whistling in the dark.

Yes, you can say this or that – whatever it is – is just plain wrong. But it won’t change a thing. Basic misunderstandings are too basic. And thus this column itself walks up its own asshole and disappears. The best you can do is say look, this is what people believe is so. Isn’t that interesting?

And of course Hitchens will never get a good cup of tea on this side of the Atlantic.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Basic Misunderstandings

  1. Rick says:

    Most people don’t realize that the Constitution doesn’t call for the establishment of an Army. Oddly, they do allow Congress “To provide and maintain a Navy,” apparently to defend the coasts from invasion. But no Army. You can look it up. Or else you can wait and listen as the Republicans read the document on the floor of the House.

    Yes, it mentions, when speaking of the Chief Executive, that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” You could say that last phrase — “when called into the actual Service of the United States” — just applies to the “Militia of the several States,” but that might be just an assumption — and a wrong one at that, considering that almost all the founders, if not all, seemed to hate the idea of their nation maintaining a permanent “standing army,” which is one thing they faulted the British for doing. There was a basic assumption back then, although not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, that the state militias would “hold the fort,” so to speak, during an invasion or whatever, until an army could be raised. And after the crisis had passed, the army would be disbanded.

    So should we abolish the Army, since the Constitution doesn’t specifically create it?

    By the way, many conservatives like to point out that nowhere in the Constitution does it say this country is a Democracy. Does this mean we’re not one? And if not a Democracy, what then are we? “A Republic,” they like to answer. Okay, well then, where in the Constitution does it say we’re a Republic?

    Answer: Nowhere.

    That’s something else to listen for — and won’t hear — during the upcoming Republican reading of the Constitution, which I’m pretty sure will be the first reading of it for many of them.


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