Lessons Unlearned

Monday, October 30, 2000


ith all our looking back at the twentieth century, we have missed some of its most blatant and most horrifying lessons. The worst horrors of the past century, under both the Nazis and the Communists, came from concentrations of political power, brought about by heady rhetoric, powerful visions, and emotional manipulations. Yet we remain as susceptible to all these things as if none of these horrors had happened.

The constitutional barriers that stand between us and the tyrannies that have swept over other peoples around the world are treated as things to be brushed aside or finessed when those who are skilled with words manipulate our emotions.

The Constitution’s proclamation of “equal protection of the laws” for all Americans is swept aside by saying the magic word “diversity,” while creating preferences and quotas for some at the expense of others. Cry “Big Tobacco!” and due process of law vanishes into thin air. The First Amendment to the Constitution says that the right of free speech cannot even be infringed, but that is all forgotten in the stampede for “campaign finance reform.”

There is nothing wrong with changing the Constitution, which itself prescribes procedures for doing so. But we are playing with fire when we simply ignore the Constitution or find clever ways around it. Without a Constitution, we are at the mercy of whatever phrase or fashion sweeps across the political landscape.

The constitutional barriers that stand between us and the tyrannies that have swept over other peoples around the world are too often treated as things to be brushed aside.

Even Supreme Court justices, who are supposed to be guardians of the Constitution, have often treated it as a nuisance to be gotten around or, worse yet, as political cover for using their power to advance whatever ideas they personally want to impose on the country. The federal government has only the powers specifically granted to it in the Constitution, but many judges feel free to grant it more power when they happen to agree with its policies.

In a recent decision, Justice David Souter upheld campaign contribution restrictions on grounds that big contributions create “the perception of impropriety.” Where does the Constitution give the federal government the power to stop anything that creates the perception of impropriety? If it did, then any of our freedoms could be abolished just by using this magic phrase. Indeed, this decision opens the door to such an erosion in the years ahead.

Particular bad policies are the least of the dangers created by playing fast and loose with the Constitution. Lawless power is the far greater danger—and has been for centuries, though its worst horrors seem to have been reserved for the twentieth century. Yet our judges, politicians, and the intelligentsia play with fire as if they had never seen the conflagrations of the last century.

The Constitution is only the most visible part of a cultural heritage that has given us freedom that hundreds of millions of others around the world do not have. But dismantling that heritage is something that is being done every day—whether in anger or in fun—in our schools and colleges across the country, by people who congratulate themselves on being agents of “change.”

Traditions distilled from the experiences of many generations past are treated as just somebody else’s opinion, while we have a right to our own opinion, even when we are not yet a decade old. Children are told to discover their own ways of doing mathematics or of using the English language. They are encouraged to respond emotionally, rather than to analyze logically, on issues ranging from the environment to homelessness. “Public service” assignments give them emotional experiences without either the knowledge or the mental discipline to see below the surface.

Without the Constitution, we are at the mercy of whatever phrase or fashion sweeps across the political landscape.

In short, we and our children are being trained to be sheep and to respond automatically to words that strike an emotional chord. We are being set up to be played for suckers by anyone who wants to take up where the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century left off.

The very tactics of those totalitarian movements—intimidation, demonization, and disregard of all rules in favor of politically defined results—have become hallmarks of political correctness today. Some people think political correctness is just silly. But many people thought Hitler was just silly before he took power—and demonstrated how tragically mistaken they were.

Probably most of the people who go along with the destructive and dangerous trends of our time are no worse than the “useful idiots” who made totalitarianism possible. But that is bad enough.