Disrespect for a Sacred Document

Those seeking the perfect cautionary tale about the dangers of hyper-partisanship need look no further than the truly disgusting display in the last couple of days by the Democrats and liberals who criticized, ridiculed, mocked and derided the decision to read aloud the nation’s founding document, the Constitution, at the commencement of the new Congress.

Thank goodness seven-year-olds don’t read the New York Times or watch CNN, for they would be left with  the impression that one large segment of the American media and political class has a cynical disregard for the document that underlies America’s values and culture, and that made the nation’s astonishing success and achievements possible. What were these people thinking? I hope they were not thinking at all, and that this was just an outburst, a childish, petulant one, of frustration and resentment against the Tea Party-led Republican House majority that will be making Barack Obama’s next two years a living hell. If the sentiments they expressed this week go deeper than that, then I will have to retract my criticism of the culture warriors of conservative talk radio like Monica Crowley and Marl Levin, who rant daily that Democrats and the liberal media actively dislike the essence of the United States.The ranters may be right after all.

I still hold out hopes that the rampant disrespect for the Constitution was only disguised partisan dislike, stunningly stupid and ugly that it was. The New York Times, in its lead editorial yesterday, seemed incapable of comprehending that having the Constitution read in the House was not a private screening for Republicans, but a gesture on behalf of the entire Congress. Do the Republicans think they are the only ones who care about the Constitution?, the Times sneered, calling the ritual meaningless theater. Then the Times repeated the ridiculous complaint that has become popular among some on the Left, that the courts, not the Congress, are responsible for determining what is Constitutional, suggesting, fatuously and incredibly, that the Constitution is not the legitimate concern of the body created by it! Do the Times editors really not see how dumb this argument is? It is like arguing that the courts, not citizens, are responsible for deciding whether personal conduct is illegal of not, so people don’t need to try to avoid breaking the law.

The Times had lots of company, however. New York Congressman Gerald Nadler expressed amazement that Republicans were treating the Constitution like it was “a sacred document.” Gee, imagine that. I don’t think “sacred” is a bad description of the document that has restrained the abuse of government power while protecting such rights as speech, the press, assembly, and worship. Slate editor Dahlia Lithwick was more offensive in an MSNBC interview, in which she repeatedly described the G.O.P. focus on the Constitution as a “fetish.” Hey, what’s this crazy obsession these lawmakers have with the law of the land? Is this nutty, or what? I mean, come on…get over it!

Refocusing elected officials on core constitutional principles isn’t just a good idea, it is an essential act, and if partisan hatred blinds some from recognizing it, it reflects badly on them. Arrogant disregard for the, yes, sacred document has been escalating in recent years, with plenty of culprits in both parties. The excesses of the Patriot Act, G.O.P. efforts to have Congress intervene in the private Terri Schiavo affair, the signing statements used by Presidents Bush and Obama to selectively ignore the provisions of duly-passed laws, the current White House’s delegation of authority to shadowy, unconfirmed “czars,” and the unprecedented requirement in the new health care law forcing citizens to purchase private insurance are examples, and far from the only ones. It is in the interest of all citizens that our leaders be reminded as often as possible that there are limits to their power, and that they owe loyalty and respect to the document—and the principles that are so eloquently articulated within it—that has brought us so far and served us so well.

The leaders and journalists who can’t comprehend this should be looked  upon with pity, disapproval and suspicion.The kindest interpretation of their attitude is that they are consumed with partisan bile. If they really have as little respect for the Constitution as they sound, however, they are not just irresponsible, but dangerous.

15 thoughts on “Disrespect for a Sacred Document

  1. I realized in college that liberals hated the United States. That is why they love the courts. You can do whatever you want and the courts can then declare it constitutional if challenged. You can also declare anything your opponents do unconstitutional. I know it isn’t supposed to work this way and many people claim it doesn’t, but that appears to be the attitude and sometimes it does seem to work that way. You can’t think this way if you actually care about the United States or our system of government.

    If you doubt my interpretation of liberal attitudes, there are half a dozen liberal groups currently suing my state’s government claiming that a state constitutional amendment is unconstitutional (violates the state constitution). The previous attitude is the only way you can get to that line of reasoning.

  2. Oh please. The GOP read the constitute entirely to make a partisan political statement. There is no question that what they were doing was itself disrespectful to the Constitution. On the other hand, the tone of the Democratic response was, as you suggest, also quite out of line, and suggested that it is inappropriate to read the Constitution in Congress for any reason. I certainly would have preferred a more nuanced response from the Democrats.

    This was a very cynical move by Republicans, and a very classless response from the Democrats, whichi s exactly what I expect from the House.

    • Noah, you’ll have to explain to me why or even how reading the Constitution can be a cynical partisan act. Just because a GOP majority decided to do something that would have been completely appropriate any time since the first Congress was convened doesn’t suddenly make it cynical. It belongs to every American, and it was read in Congress, by Congress. What’s offensive about it? I really don’t see the logic. I think the Democrats are jealous they didn’t do it first.

    • Actually Noah, the act of reading the Constitution is part and parcel of what the GOP campaigned and won the November elections on. You call it a partisan political act, I call it listening to the people who elected you — clearly the ethical course of conduct.

      Jack — Wonderful analogy regarding citizens’ personal conduct and the legislature!

  3. Noah — One other note. The reading turned out to be bipartisan with Nancy Pelosi and many other Democrats reading sections of the Constitution. May both sides of the aisle remember from where, and the limits of, their authority. Is this something on which we can agree?

  4. Ironic that the Times objects. For as long as I remember–maybe since the 1800s–the Times has run a full page copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. I read it every year and I love it.

    P. S. For Michael: I’m a liberal and I love America. I love Americans, too.

  5. For the record, I did not say that what the GOP did was “offensive” (as Jack seems to attribute to me). I don’t find it offensive. On the whole, I really find it somewhat unremarkable. And I do find the response of a few of the Democrats to be offensive, particularly some of Gerry Nadler’s comments.

    Nor do I think that there’s anything inherently inappropriate about reading the constitution in Congress (which was the implication of my criticism of how some of the Dems responded to the reading).

    That, however, is wholly separate from the question of whether the GOP started the reading for purely cynical end. Kurt is absolutely right that reading the Constitution is part and parcel of the GOP’s November campaign (or more accurately, the Tea Party’s November campaign). Of course, the Tea Party’s campaign was one of the most cynical events in the history of our country, led by people focused more on ad homonym attacks on our nation’s leaders and unsubstantiated (and unable to be substantiated) claims of “socialism,” “anti-Americanism,” and the like. The message the GOP sought to bring by reading the constitution was that only they are real Americans and only they believe in the Constitution (which is surely a partisan view). There is an implied argument in what the GOP is doing that their differences with the Dems are not reasonable differences of opinion about what the government may and should do; rather, they believe that they have a monopoly on what’s right for America and on what our law means. The cynicism is the refusal to acknowledge that there is a reasonable debate to be had here, and it’s embodied here by the political strategy of reading the constitution. (Not incidentally, this type of conduct is in no way unique to the GOP, and I have just as much of a problem with it when the Dems do similar things, even if I tend to be more aligned with their ends.)

    As for the bipartisan reading, I don’t see how that changes anything. It’s like the USA flag lapel pins. There is, of course, nothing “un-American” about not wearing one, but because a few politicians started wearing them, not wearing them was (for some time) branded as un-American. In other words, the Dems had little political alternative but to join in this cynical endeavor.

    • The flag pins are a decoration—they are not even a flag—and a pompous affectation. Bad analogy. The Constitution belongs to everyone. You theory seems to be one of extreme Cognitive Dissonance—if you dislike a group enough, then anything that group approves of is automatically suspect or permanently linked to that group. That is certainly the media’s attitude here, and it is nonsense.
      This wasn’t a bi-partisan reading…it was an official reading on behalf of the Congress, the country, and the public. The reaction of people like Barney Frank and Dahlia Lithwick shows why reading the document was a great idea, and long over-due. The Tea Party-ites like it? So what? I like it. My father would have liked it. James Madison would have liked it. Anyone who wants to stop states from outlawing native-born citizenship should like it. Abortion advocates, torture opponents, porn makers, street musicians and homeless people—and history teachers should like it. Americans should like it. Anyone who doesn’t approve of having the Constitution read at the outset of a new Congress has serious problems. So the Republicans, who are not all tea party admirers by any means, did something for everybody that makes the Tea Party happy too. The horror. Nothing cynical about this at all. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

      I think it is amazing that you can write about Tea Party claims of un-American-ism being “unsubstantiated” in the context of so many Democrats literally mocking the Constitution. This is selective perception if I ever saw it. From Michelle Obama’s absurd and offensive declaration that Barack’s nomination was the first time in her adult life that she ever felt proud of America—and this was not a slip of the tongue, and no, she should never be able to live it down—to the public statements of several of the White House’s “czars”, to the explicitly anti-American rants of Obama’s “spiritual advisor” to Obama’s ill-considered “apology tour,” there has been plenty of substantive ammunition for anyone inclined to think the current crop of Democrats has an anti-American tinge—and now they are saying that the Constitution is a quaint old stunt.

      I don’t believe the Democrats are anti-American, any more than I believed the SDS demonstrators who wrecked my first and third years in college were anti-American—I just think they are ignorant and disrespectful of core American values, symbols and traditions, and I think that is, as Tom Cruise would say, galactically stupid.

      • Ignorant and disrespectful of core american values? Like what? A strong and free press? No, that’s the tea party. Separation of church and state? No, that’s the religious right. The nation as a melting pot? No, that’s most of the right.

        The right to disrespect symbols and traditions IS a tradition of the United States. I’d say it’s one of the core values of the the U.S.

          • Members of congress took an oath to defend symbols of the U.S. and U.S. traditions? I did not know that. I thought they just took an oath to defend the constitution and the U.S. itself.

            • Nit. The Constitution is both a symbol and a tradition. It embodies all of this. Do they have to respect all symbols and traditions? Maybe not—but yelling “you lie!” during a presidential address disrespects the House, the tradition of the speech, and POTUS, and I would have thrown Joe out of Congress. A higher standard. We can’t respect a government that won’t respect itself.

  6. Amen, Noah. The Republicans are already showing their true stripes by reneging on their promises to allow amendments to bills and cut spending to pay for their repeal of the health care law (according to the CBO, not me, an American-hating liberal). These people who make up the Tea Party, who I disagree with but believe love America just as much as I do, have a big surprise coming given the number of insiders and lobbyists that are already making up the staffs of our new Congress. They have been duped. Reading the Constitution was done for show and no other reason.

  7. Gee, what actually happened the first time the Constitution was read in Congress?

    I don’t really care about the slips by the readers, which anybody could find a political motivation for if they wanted, but which are much more readily explained by the difficulty of coordinating such an event and the document’s 200-plus-year-old language and diction.

    But according to news reports, the House chamber was nearly empty during the reading. Very few members, either Republican or Democrat, bothered to show up. Even John Boehner, the Republican who was elected speaker of the House on Wednesday, left the floor of the House to hold a press conference. I remain unpersuaded that the reading had much value, either educational or symbolic.

    A couple of other observations:

    (1) The resolution adopting the House Rules is always new every year. The one for this year (H. Res. 5, 112th Cong., 1st Sess.) says that “the Speaker may recognize the reading of the Constitution on the legislative day of January 6, 2011.” If any future Congress, no matter which party leads it, concludes that this was a bad or silly idea, nobody says they have to do it again.

    (2) The provision was part of the entire package of rules proposed by the new GOP-controlled house. It was adopted on a 240-191 vote. H.R. 5 is 34 pages long and contained hundreds of provisions, many of them new or modified from last year. It’s impossible to know how many Members liked any specific provision.

    The bipartisan thing to do, of course, would have been to float the Constitution idea as a separate rule. That would invite the minority party to get involved, build consensus, and reduce both suspicions of overpoliticization and temptations to make intemperate remarks.

    I will now return to my home planet.

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