The education of Michele Bachmann...

>> Monday, August 08, 2011

I really would love to just include a short quote instead of this lengthy excerpt from Ryan Lizza's profile of Michele Bachmann in the August 15th New Yorker, but there's no way to do it without leaving out something essential:

But, on the plane’s television, Sean Hannity, of Fox News, was discussing the latest Bachmann controversy: an interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which she defended an earlier statement that the Founders worked tirelessly to end slavery. Even though Hannity reliably supported Bachmann, David Polyansky, the deputy campaign manager, groaned. "I wish he wouldn’t replay it," he said. O’Donnell, the speech coach, nodded. The campaign veterans did not see the benefits of their candidate chatting about American slavery. But Bachmann was still not convinced that she was wrong. Someone had sent her research to back up her claim. "Did you get that e-mail saying that there’s more of them that we can talk about?" she asked, from the front of the plane. Polyansky and O’Donnell glanced at each other, but neither of them responded.

Bachmann’s comment about slavery was not a gaffe. It is, as she would say, a world view. In "Christianity and the Constitution," the book she worked on with Eidsmoe, her law-school mentor, he argues that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams
"expressed their abhorrence for the institution" and explains that "many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves." They didn’t free their slaves, he writes, because of their benevolence. "It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible."

While looking over Bachmann’s State Senate campaign Web site, I stumbled upon a list of book recommendations. The third book on the list, which appeared just before the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, is a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins.

Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. This revisionist take on the Civil War, known as the "theological war" thesis, had little resonance outside a small group of Southern historians until the mid-twentieth century, when Rushdoony and others began to popularize it in evangelical circles. In the book, Wilkins condemns "the radical abolitionists of New England" and writes that "most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a sufficiency of goods for a comfortable, though—by modern standards—spare existence."

African slaves brought to America, he argues, were essentially lucky: "Africa, like any other pagan country, was permeated by the cruelty and barbarism typical of unbelieving cultures." Echoing Eidsmoe, Wilkins also approvingly cites Lee’s insistence that abolition could not come until "the sanctifying effects of Christianity" had time "to work in the black race and fit its people for freedom."

In his chapter on race relations in the antebellum South, Wilkins writes:

Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.

For several years, the book, which Bachmann’s campaign declined to discuss with me, was listed on her Web site, under the heading "Michele’s Must Read List."

-Ryan Lizza, "Leap of Faith:
The making of a Republican front-runner"
The New Yorker, August 15th, 2011

Bachmann has been criticized for claiming the Founding Fathers worked to end slavery (as opposed to punting the problem to 1808) and for signing a "defense of marriage" pledge that claimed African-American children were better-off when enslaved (she subsequently claimed that statement wasn't in the pledge she signed and stated that she thinks slavery was "a terrible part of our nation's history"). Those statements were widely derided as gaffes or for demonstrating a terrible level of ignorance, but when you read the above portion of Lizza's piece, you have to wonder if Bachmann's statements were something much worse: maleducation, as opposed to ignorance.

It is, after all, quite one thing not to know something and quite another to know things that aren't true. Fred Leuchter isn't uninformed when he claims that Nazi death camps were merely fumigation centers and the claims of a Holocaust are exaggerated or part of a propaganda campaign; rather, Leuchter is full of "information" that is untrue, incorrect, falsely premised and/or falsifiable. He is wrong, and it's hard to conceive that his wrongness comes from somehow not knowing any better. Leuchter is an illustration of "garbage in, garbage out," not "404, page could not be found."

Herein is a difference between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, if you were looking for one. Palin is a woefully undereducated, uninformed, lazy thinker who isn't swift enough on her feet to lie and say she reads the Wall Street Journal when an interviewer lobs her an easy, completely predictable soft pitch. Palin's gaffes come from not knowing what she's talking about. Bachmann, on the other hand, is rather well-read and can spout off what she's been perusing lately, and some of it is material that is, in some sense, academic--they are things that writers have put much thought into and spent a fair bit of time marshaling arguments and... "facts"? "Ostensibly factual claims"? "Bald-faced lies"? It's hard to know what, exactly, to call them, actually, because it's not always clear whether all of these people intend to deceive or if they, in their turn, are snorting their own merchandise. But Bachmann's "gaffes", unlike Palin's, aren't "mistakes" in the sense that Bachmann doesn't know what she's saying or what she's talking about--she knows many things that aren't true, and can swiftly trot them out when the subject comes up. She's even spent time as a graduate student helping her mentor assembling "data", apparently.

It's too perilous a time to assume that anything goes without saying, so let's say it: pernicious beliefs about the facts surrounding American Civil War, slavery and the Reconstruction era ought to disqualify one from holding elected office in this nation. There are plenty of things in philosophy, ethics, politics, morals, etc. that reasonable people might differ on. We might argue about when life begins or how it ought to end, we might agree to disagree about the role of government in funding the arts or have to reach a mutually-unsatisfying compromise regarding how to allocate funds between the military, schools, highways, etc. But these things ought to be beyond doubt: that slavery was a moral failure on the part of early Americans and an evil that caused incalculable death and suffering; that the Southern states didn't embark on a noble crusade, but that they committed treason and broke the Constitutional compact so that a wealthy few could cling to the privilege of degrading human beings and treating them as chattel; that the nation that was formed out of the spastic fit of 1861-1865 was indeed a more perfect Union; that the Civil War was a tragedy that might have been averted had the principles of the Declaration Of Independence actually been implemented in the Constitution instead of purposefully kicked down the road to be dealt with by a future generation.

Furthermore, evil is or isn't, regardless of where it may fall on some imagined continuum of lessers and greaters. It is not a defense of slavery that some masters only beat their slaves on alternating Wednesdays. Less facetiously, it does not make slavery less demeaning to its victims or their heirs that some slaves were allowed to take Sundays off, that some slaves were allowed to have little farm plots of their own, that some slaves were allowed token possessions; note that all of these things are still things done to slaves--they were allowed these supposed privileges, meaning that their essential state remained that these supposed privileges were constantly at another man's whim. Nor is it a defense of slavery that the ancient Romans owned slaves, or that some African cultures practiced something along the lines of slavery, or that there were whites who entered into indentured servitude during the early years of colonial North America; even assuming these practices were comparable to forcibly abducting people, stacking them in a reeking ship's hold for a deadly ocean passage, auctioning the ones who survived into generations of abuse and forced labor--even if these things were actually analogues, so the fuck what: so other people at other times were also evil, so there ought to be others added to the miserable list of people who perpetrated wickedness against their kin in the great extended family of Homo sapiens sapiens.

Gods help the party of Abraham Lincoln if they anoint an apologist for slavery their contender for President in 2012.


David Monday, August 8, 2011 at 4:26:00 PM EDT  

Gods help the party of Abraham Lincoln if they anoint an apologist for slavery their contender for President in 2012.

The irony of the current incarnation of the Republican Party is just sickening, isn't it? If only most Americans weren't immune to irony.

Well said, Eric. Well said.

Steve Buchheit Monday, August 8, 2011 at 8:54:00 PM EDT  

The problem is the general public is not paying attention right at the moment. So when the election gets to be two months away and the electorate starts thinking, "You know, I need to figure this one out," and someone brings this up, the campaign will be able to say, "Old news, we dealt with that long ago," and skate on by as their candidate whispers sweet nothings to the center.

This is the time you hear about people's wackiness, their appolgentics for historical travesties, but it's all noise to most people. And when it gets to the point where people are ready to look at the candidates, all of it will be long gone. Reagan started his campaign in Philadelphia MO and made a speech that basically said, "We'll roll back those Civil Rights you all hate by taking our country back." But, after the debates he was all "congenial grandfather" and nobody talked about the early campaign.

Sort of how Rick Perry is burnishing his "no separation of church and state" credentials, but nobody is pointing out that just three years ago in response to the question of "how his religion informed his governing" and he said, "Not very much."

The only good thing I see so far is that it's always the person who isn't in the race that is the front runner. Once they get in, they all do a repeat of Fred Thompson. Michelle Bachmann is surging because of the overwhelming prevalence of Social Conservatives in Iowa.

Tom Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 2:11:00 PM EDT  

When you are used to thinking in a maleducated way, how can you form educated opinions about real life? Everything you think about is colored by the fact that you never learned to think. That's when you start to believe that God "called you" to show these poor heathen liberal Americans the right way to live.

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