In my freshman year of college my friend Bob Crumlish and I were sitting in the college cafeteria doing what 18 year olds were doing in cafeterias the length and breadth of America, namely, screwing around. In our case, we were using teaspoons to catapult elements of a fruit cocktail through the air and onto friends of ours at the next table. To great hilarity, may I add. Two passing sophomore girls, wearing sweater sets and tweed skirts, if memory serves, scowled at us and told us we were acting like children. This was a correct estimation, as was evident even then, but being eighteen year old college freshman, we could not quietly accept their snooty reprimand in graceful silence. “Come on, Jamie,’’ Bob said to me. “Let’s go home and practice having our shit not stink.’’
An elegant though vulgar comeback by my friend Bob: it nimbly side-stepped our culpability in the matter of the peaches in Mary Ellen Ivers’ hair, while accusing our accusers of being blind to their own imperfections.
In watching Michelle Bachmann this week—a woman I can easily imagine wearing a sweater set and tweed skirt—I began thinking of her as an apostle of a stinkless America. Here is part of her conversation earlier this week with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News:
GS: Earlier this year you said that the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence worked tirelessly to end slavery. Now with respect Congresswoman, that’s just not true. Many of them including Jefferson and Washington were actually slave holders and slavery didn’t end until the Civil War.
MB: Well you know what’s marvelous is that in this country and under our constitution, we have the ability when we recognize that something is wrong to change it. And that’s what we did in our country. We changed it. We no longer have slavery. That’s a good thing. And what our Constitution has done for our nation is to give us the basis of freedom unparalleled in the rest of the world. . . .
GS: But that’s not what you said. You said that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery.
MB: Well if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, that’s absolutely true. He was a very young boy when he was with his father serving essentially as his father’s secretary. He tirelessly worked throughout his life to make sure that we did in fact one day eradicate slavery….
GS: He wasn’t one of the Founding Fathers – he was a president, he was a Secretary of State, he was a member of Congress, you’re right he did work to end slavery decades later. But so you are standing by this comment that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery?
MB: Well, John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.
It is, of course, painful to hear the noble John Quincy Adams, as stalwart an abolitionist as ever walked this land, being described as a Founding Father, which is a phrase normally reserved for the men who guided the nation through the revolution and who wrote the Constitution. Adams, born in 1767, was nine years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed and twenty when the Constitution was adopted. The fact that he wore knee breeches and a waistcoat doesn’t qualify him as a founding father.
But it is also painful to hear her say that our Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery. Many of them owned slaves, and their struggles to justify their rhetoric with their behavior is both poignant and instructive. It is not easy to do good. We do not descend from perfect men. Washington held slaves all his life, and though he freed them at his death, he had to sneak their manumission into his will to avoid the angry reaction of family members who expected to inherit this human property. Jefferson held slaves who were his biological family, and freed only some at his death. He said all men were created equal, but he feared releasing the tiger of slavery that the country held by the tail. In other words, he acted more in fear than in courage. In Michele Bachmann’s America, however, the founders are stinkless.
It is also hideously painful to hear Bachmann jabber about us having “ the ability when we recognize that something is wrong to change it. And that’s what we did in our country. We changed it. We no longer have slavery. That’s a good thing.’’ Yes ma’am, it is definitely a good thing that we no longer have slavery, but otherwise I would give this synopsis of the Civil War, during which time the Constitution failed and 620,000 soldiers were killed, a failing grade. We ended slavery not through enlightened awareness but through the barrel of a gun. The Civil War represented the failure of our system, and the century of Jim Crow that followed represented a humiliating exercise of injustice, and only if you believe in a stinkless America do you believe otherwise.
The point is not to dwell on the failures of the past. The point is to avoid appealing to some not idealized but falsified view of the past to guide what we think and believe today. Someone who has such a gigantic capacity to rationalize the errors of the past cannot be depended upon to accurately decipher what is happening today.
And here is proof. Michele Bachmann is a leading member of the Tea Party, which is, it is fair to say, against a great many forms of government spending. According to the Environmental Working Group, the Bachmann family farm in Wisconsin got $251,000 in federal handouts from 1995 to 2009. Yeah, says Bachmann, but she and her husband didn’t get a dime from the farm. It went to her late father-in-law, she says. And yet, every year that she has been a member of Congress, she listed herself and her husband as financial partners in the farm, and then reported on her Congressional financial disclosure forms that she had “farm income” of up to $102,500 from the Bachmann limited partnership.
Which version do you believe? The one she wrote when she didn’t think anybody was watching, or the one she’s come up with since she’s been getting so much scrutiny?
Look, here’s the bottom line: Crumlish and I were wrong to be flinging fruit cocktail around the cafeteria, and truth be told, I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it since. But nobody in a sweater set should run for office promising to “take back our country’ when she has such a poor idea of where our country has been, or should denounce excessive government spending while pretending that she herself is not lined up at the trough. Someone who pretends about the past and who pretends about the present can’t really be depended upon to have an enlightened view of the road ahead. And someone who whitewashes the transgressions of the past will almost certainly whitewash her own.
[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]