Sunday, May 11, 2008

A More Perfect Union

Via Dunker Journal, a conservative COB blogger, I came upon this post by UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge. If you want to see a text-book example of proof-texting, cherry-picking a quote to prove a point while taking the quote completely out of context, this is it. Proof-texting is usually done by people who quote passages of the Bible out of context, but in this case Professor Bainbridge does it with a speech by Barack Obama. Here is the cherry-picked quote from the speech:
I believe in our ability to perfect this union because it’s the only reason I’m standing here today.
This is from a speech delivered by Obama after the most recent primaries where Obama won in North Carolina and Hillary won in Indiana.

Bainbridge uses this quote to launch into a commentary about the imperfectibility of humanity because of the biblical doctrine of "the fall." Nowhere is this more true, he says, than when we are talking about the appropriate role of government; government should not be in the business of perfecting humanity:
The Framers therefore created a system of government replete with checks and balances designed to ensure not that our nation was eventually perfected, but that it would survive the imperfections of its leaders and people...

Finally, all too many people who talk about perfecting a society strive to do so through the vehicle of government. Personally, I do not believe the government can make people, institutions, or societies better—let alone perfect. After all, government is itself comprised of fallen men and women whose imperfections are precisely the reason good government is shackled with checks and balances. Unconstrained, government attempts to create a “Great Society” destroy communities, disintegrate the little platoons that inculcate virtue, atrophy both man’s ability and desire to control their own destiny, and limit choice.
But wait a minute. What did Obama really say in the speech? Read it yourself. Here are a few addition quotes not mentioned by Bainbridge:
The people I've met in small towns and big cities across this country understand that government can't solve all our problems – and we don't expect it to. We believe in hard work. We believe in personal responsibility and self-reliance...

I trust the American people to realize that while we don't need big government, we do need a government that stands up for families who are being tricked out of their homes by Wall Street predators; a government that stands up for the middle-class by giving them a tax break; a government that ensures that no American will ever lose their life savings just because their child gets sick. Security and opportunity; compassion and prosperity aren't liberal values or conservative values – they're American values...
Does Obama see value in a larger role for government than the professor? Undoubtedly. But the professor completely ignores the more nuanced argument that Obama makes in this speech about the role of government. He finds a quote that suits his purposes and runs with it. Context be damned.

It is worse than that. Obama has been using the phrase "a more perfect union" in many of his speeches, particularly his race speech given in response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy. His use of the phrase in this latest speech - without the "more" - needs to be seen in the context of the overall narrative of his campaign where he has been using the phrase repeatedly. Obama is really not arguing that government can make us perfect.

And as the professor certainly knows Obama is simply drawing on the words from the preamble of the US Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,[1] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Apparently the founders the professor refers to in his blog post seemed to think it was a pretty good choice of words to use to introduce the founding document of our government. Again, context is important.

I also want to take issue with this quote from his post:
As a Christian, Obama should be aware of the full implications of The Fall. He should know that government is not a vehicle for perfecting humanity or human institutions, but rather a vehicle for ensuring that the baser elements of human nature are restrained. If government does that, it has done all that we can expect of it.
First of all, the professor might want to consult Calvin or Zwingli about this sentiment. There have been plenty of Christian thinkers who took seriously the doctrine of "the fall" and who also had much more confidence than did someone like Luther in the appropriate role of government. There has never been one simple take-away about what "the fall" means for the role of government.

Secondly, the professor ignores an event in recent American history that proves that government can be a vehicle for perfecting ( as in moving towards a more perfect) humanity, the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's (Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965). Prior to the passage of these bills the practice of segregation was the law of the land in the south. Behind the practice of legal segregation was institutional racism, fear and hatred of blacks codified into law, justified on religious grounds, naturally.

The Civil Rights movement raised the consciousness of the nation about the immorality of racism and segregation, but the legislation signed into law by LBJ forced an end to segregation in the schools and at the ballot box. Of course, you can force a person to do something against their will without it having an effect on their heart and mind. And there is no doubt this was the case for some whites who remained, and remain to this day, racists. But can any serious argument be made that on the whole this legislation, forced unwillingly on people, led to a change of hearts for many. Government was most certainly the vehicle for bringing about a more perfect union. Thanks to this law many people stopped being racists; a change forced by law led to a willing change of heart. Just ask former Alabama Governor George Wallace (OK he's dead but he is exhibit A).

Finally, just a word about the awful attempts to create a "Great Society" mentioned by the professor that "destroy communities, disintegrate the little platoons that inculcate virtue, atrophy both man’s ability and desire to control their own destiny, and limit choice."

It is a common refrain of the right that the LBJ's Great Society was bad for America. But for whom? Ask the blacks who were enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act, which was part of the Great Society. Ask the millions of seniors who are guaranteed basic medical coverage under Medicare. Ask the millions of Americans who breathed cleaner air and drank cleaner water thanks to environmental legislation passed as part of Johnson's Great Society.

Was it perfect? Of course not. The War on Poverty did not end poverty. It created its own problems, including in some cases dependency on government. But as one of Johnson's aides, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., has countered, "from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century."

For many millions of American's the Great Society made it possible for them to more fully exercise their individual freedoms, by addressing one of the most pernicious aspects of "the fall," the human tendency to ignore the suffering of fellow humans or worse, to justify it on the grounds of racism or Social Darwinism. Government leveled the playing field.

No, government cannot perfect us (and I don't see anyone saying it can) but it most certainly can help us form a more perfect union.

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