After coffee and before exercise, I spent a delightful ninety minutes yesterday morning and intermittently the rest of the day fighting rightist journalists, their minions, and sundry trolls on Twitter. I went after Erick Erickson, an unlettered windbag whose self-professed Christianity is unleavened by imagination and empathy — a redundant phrase, for empathy requires imagination. Infuriated by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a prodigious journalistic feat about which amateur historians can argue in good faith; yet Erickson and his toadies, together with National Review editor Rich Lowry, questioned its very existence.
I will not link to their nonsense. Indeed, one can have an estimable debate about the degree to which slavery repulsed the Constitution’s authors enough for them to restrict its spread. Jefferson came up often, inevitably. His oft-expressed disgust with the peculiar institution did not extend to calling for its elimination in letters or public addresses beyond denunciations of the African slave trade at the time when Virginia was at the apex of its influence; Jefferson, let us remember, would not have become president in 1800 had the Constitution omitted the three-fifths clause. at best Jefferson, who had hoped that slave owners would wise up or something, underestimated how entrenched slavery would become in the South. By the time John C. Calhoun entered the Senate, the South would devolve from feeling guilt about slavery to mounting full-throated defenses. Bearing the seeds of its own destruction, the Republic ambled from compromise to accommodation such that a civil war was an inevitability, as Lincoln’s second inaugural address laments — and also accepts.
But Twitter, bless its creators, is not the place to discuss the Northwest Ordinance and Alexander Stephens. It took only twenty minutes for a wonderful creature to declare DEMOCRATS ARE THE REAL RACISTS GEORGE WALLACE ROBERT BYRD DON’T YOU SEE (You can read the exchanges on Twitter; I won’t link to them). Which exposes the critics’ comical pathology. To secure originalism as a viable prism demands fealty to the Constitution as written in 1787 — the one in which its writers used weasel words instead of “slaves” or “slavery.” What the Framers intended — even here we must pause, for “Framers” metonymizes everyone from Madison and Hamilton to Adams and Jefferson, the latter pair not even in the United States in 1786-1787 — was to accept slavery as an evil that they hoped would die, in large part because many of them were slaveholders (even Benjamin Rush owned one). “If that intent was profoundly shaped by their racism or self-interest as slaveholders, then this way of seeing the Constitution is troublingly myopic,” VOX’s Zach Beauchamp delicately writes. To put in the most general terms: the Bill of Rights limited the powers of a central government by enumerating the fundamental rights of man; the Reconstruction amendments expanded the powers of a central government to secure those rights. Conservatives of all kinds — in 1868 they mostly called themselves Democrats — have had big problems with the Fourteenth Amendment and how legislatures, state and federal, have interpreted it.
For my Twitter critics, though, what mattered was the way in which the 1619 Project attacked their notions of America’s inviolability or, to be charitable, America’s capacity for improvement. Beauchamp again:
For conservatives, being a patriot means believing that America is an essentially good country; its sins are aberrations rather than central to its history. There is no room for a nuanced patriotism that sees a nation with racism as a central part of its DNA, but also a nation that can be improved through constant struggle and work. It is the “America: Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker, expressed in more florid prose.
A couple of hours ago I saw a black SUV driven by a sexagenarian Cuban man with an American flag flapping on its left side. I bet this no doubt decent man would wince at the thought of putting a MY CHILD IS AN HONOR ROLL STUDENT AT EVERGLADES ELEMENTARY sticker on that meticulously washed bumper — “What’s the point? That’s showing off.”