GELFAND’S WORLD - CBS ran some previously aired footage on 60 Minutes the other night in which members of the Oath Keepers were interviewed.
Remember that the Oath Keepers is a sort of militia group that has recruited from among law enforcement and military veterans. They were involved dramatically in the January 6 Capitol takeover. The 60 Minutes interview revealed some schisms between the group in Phoenix who agreed to the interview vs. those who were arrested and charged over the rioting. Even then, the more reasonable members -- or so they presented themselves -- had some scary sorts of comments to make.
Paraphrasing their remarks, we're in a war. But it's domestic. As one man pointed out, the country is divided down the middle, and the Oath Keepers talk about defending the Constitution. When I hear such remarks -- suggesting that they believe they understand what the Constitution actually says -- I'm reminded of that oft-quoted line from The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Indeed. The original Constitution and its Bill of Rights was short enough and simple enough that it could be understood by an eighth grader. I had a semester (a required course) on the Constitution in the eighth grade, so I'm not making this statement lightly. Yes, there are aspects of that document that are a little hard to understand and there are some 18th century word usages (emoluments anybody?) that require the help of a textbook. But this fetishization of the Constitution is not actually reflected in its content or in legal precedent. Rather, it is merely the fevered imagination of people who don't accept any concept of government regulation over their lives. The U.S. government has the right to pass and enforce the Affordable Care Act, the regulation of some firearms, and lots of other things, whether or not the Oath Keepers and their ilk want to argue for some personal fantasy of a nation that never existed.
Indeed, it would sometimes seem that Constitutional originalists really want to go back to the originalism of the Articles of Confederation rather than the actual Constitution, because they don't seem to accept that the founders, convened in what is now known as the Constitutional Convention, opted for a strong central government rather than wholly independent states that could be picked off one by one by any hostile foreign power. Every textbook going back to the one I used in the eighth grade talks about the need for a unified central government.
But of course, a rigorous adherence to Constitutional principles is not exactly what these folks are talking about because they are not legal scholars or philosophers of governance. The important issue is that they think they are in a war. You might ask who their war is against, but the answer would be that it is the rest of us. All you have to do is look at the Biden vs. Trump vote totals and you can see the relative numbers and the identities of the two sides.
One side is the self-identified, self-organized groups who follow right wing organizing principles. They are mainly motivated by an emotional antipathy to political groups and parties that they think are trying to turn the country into a socialistic hellhole.
Now I know lots of liberals and a whole lot of people who would probably describe themselves as moderates. I even know a few conservatives. And out of that whole mass of people, I don't think I know even one who would fit that ugly old Bolshevik stereotype. In short, the entire right wing militia view of its opposition is based on a massive misunderstanding.
This isn't to say that we don't have our differences. It's just that where the right wing militia types see attempts at gun control as the attempt at a new communist revolution, I tend to see gun control as something that was the recognized law, practiced in lots of places, through most of American history. No, attempts at developing some rational level of gun control are not attacks on the Constitution in my view, and at this point in our history, the Supreme Court has expanded gun rights further than they have ever been expanded before. Some revolution, eh?
But this is precisely the point: It would be perfectly Constitutional for the congress to pass more restrictive restrictions on gun possession and for the Supreme Court to uphold them. That's what it means to be a Constitutional republic. But the militia types won't accept even that strict an adherence to the Constitution.
There are of course several more topics other than gun control. Some of them come and go about as quickly as Fox News and talk radio can dust them off. One recent topic is something called critical race theory. Until a few weeks ago, I don't think I had ever heard those words spoken together in that order. During the many years I listened to activist members of the Democratic Party speak about things, I never hear the phrase from so much as one of them.
I'm guessing that there are upwards of nine million registered Democrats in California (in other words, all of them except maybe a dozen) who also had never heard those words spoken like that. Why should they? As far as we can tell, it is a fairly arcane academic topic that was invented back in the 1980s by a Harvard Law School professor for the simple reason that it had been overlooked and needed seeing to. Like, if your legal system is founded on fundamentally racist structures (the Constitution allowed the importation of slaves into the United States for the first twenty years of their existence) then perhaps you ought to consider what the ramifications are. You might think of it as an attempt to get people to stop looking away from the uglier side of our history, at least once in a while.
Or, to put it more bluntly, if you believe that critical race theory has nothing to teach us, then look up the fugitive slave clause (Article IV in the original Constitution) to see what the argument is about. (Basically, that clause obligates free states to deliver escaped slaves back to their original owners in slave states -- really, that's what it says!)
Of course if you are on the other side of the racist divide, as our former president surely is, then the antipathy towards speaking the truth -- especially to school children -- is something that comes naturally to you. Hence the right wing fervor against critical race theory and the development of a following among those who worship at the altar of talk radio.
The angers and gripes build up. Those of us of a certain age remember exactly this sort of sentiment among those who opposed desegregation of American schools and those who wanted our public school systems to continue to impose a narrow Protestant religious doctrine on elementary school children through prayer in school. We still hear surrogate arguments about the War on Christmas.
Maybe we should take note of what the Oath Keepers were telling us Sunday night and recognize that we are, indeed, in a war.
It is a civil war, but unlike 1861-1865, it is more on the order of a Cold War.
It's curious that the older right wing fantasy was of communist subversion (which existed to some extent) and of a communist takeover as depicted in the movie Red Dawn. It's not surprising that self-identified conservatives even now use the words socialist and communist as their epithets of choice. They are stuck in a logical conundrum ever since their god emperor made nicey nicey with Vladimir Putin. It should have taken a lot of the wind out of their sails. Apparently, at least for some, it didn't.
So here we are, a divided country in which one half buys ever more weapons and studies guerilla war, while the other is trying to pay the bills and, at best, improve on the American system of delivering medical care. The one side has an entrenched propaganda apparatus with Fox at the top and hundreds of right wing talk radio shows in support. The centrist-left faction hasn't even figured out how to combat the message put out by that propaganda machine.
It looks like we are going to be in this situation for a long time, and that it will be fought with words, television, and the occasional right winger mass shooting event. What else would you call it except a Cold War?
There are news reports that our firefighters and police are way below par in their rate of vaccination. You can see one such story here. If this story is accurate, then the people who like to brag about being our protectors are, in this case, being hypocritical. In a word, those who remain unvaccinated yet deal intimately with the public are endangering the public health and safety. We may legitimately ask why such hesitancy? I find it hard to believe that all those tough people are just scared of that little needle -- so what is it?
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])