By Ken Trainor
Last week, I endorsed a couple of ideas that riled up the reactionaries:
1) Anyone who opposes federal funding of National Public Radio should be forced to listen to it, and
2) Tea Party members should be required to take a test on the U.S. Constitution.
Judging by the responses, my comments warrant further explanation.
One person wrote, "You choose to get your news from PBS, I choose FOX. My source is able to survive without tax support, yours demands that I finance opinion that I disagree with. How is that fair?"
I've seen FOX, so I know it's biased. But I'm betting most conservative critics have never listened to NPR shows like "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered." If they did, they would know that NPR has very little, if any, perceptible bias. They've been listening to Republican rhetoric too long. That's why NPR's opponents should actually tune in to judge for themselves. You can catch Morning Edition at 91.5 FM from 6-9 a.m. and All Things Considered from 4 to 6:30 p.m.
Some may think any news outlet that doesn't reinforce their biased view must, by necessity, be biased in the opposite direction. But that just isn't true. Really, listen to these shows some time. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by how informative and even-handed they are.
The other comment bragged that "my score on the Constitution test would beat the pants off of yours." Possibly so, but I wasn't proposing a competition. I've never pretended to be a constitutional expert — in contrast to Tea Party members who present themselves as know-it-alls. Since they seem to look down their noses at the rest of us, I just thought we should call their bluff.
Tea Partiers also fancy themselves spokespersons for the founding fathers. They toss around quotes such as, "The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself," attributed to Ben Franklin, and "The issue today is the same as it has been throughout history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite," attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
The problem, as Thomas Frank demonstrated in this month's Harper's magazine, is that neither statement, nor anything close to it, was ever uttered by either man. If Tea Partiers misquote the founding fathers, how reliable could they be on the Constitution?
Yet they act as if they can divine the framers' "intent." It's right there in the words, they lecture us, if only we took the time to read them. So I looked at the wording of the Second Amendment, which begins, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State ..." and I see their point. If the founding fathers were concerned solely with the right to keep and bear arms, they would have skipped that entire opening clause. But they went to all the trouble of including words like "well regulated." If you buy into the "originalist" philosophy, you have to assume the framers had a specific intent in mind. Clearly, then, the right to keep and bear arms was intended to be "well regulated."
The Tea Party also seems to overlook Article V of the Constitution, which states that "the Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution ..." Evidently, the founding fathers did not intend this document to be set in stone. Instead, they made provisions for it to change and evolve. That is not the impression given by the Tea Party — or by its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party.
As I said, I'm no expert on the Constitution, but if I could submit one question for a test that would verify the Tea Party's undying devotion to our founding document, it would be this:
"What are the 15 most important words in the Constitution?"
Give up? In my humble interpretation, it would be the first 15 words:
"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union ..." Notice that they didn't say, "We the founding fathers ..."
Judging by their demonstrated passion for divisiveness, I'm guessing most Tea Party members would come up with some other answer. The Tea Party wants to freeze this country in the late 18th century. But I believe the "intent" of the framers was that "we the people" should keep striving — together — for an ever more perfect Union.
One last thought: Given a choice between Tea Party "experts" and our current president, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, who would you rather have interpreting the Constitution?