The automatic, programmed, resort to citing “The Founding Fathers” as if the words, real and invented, were infallible writ, is ubiquitous in political culture these days. In just about every case the citation of “The Founders” is supposed to be taken as the authoritative settler of arguments, sort of like the Guinness Book of World Records was intended to be in an only slightly different context. Questioning the wisdom of worshiping the “founders” will be met, mostly, with confused bewilderment, of the kind that you meet whenever you question a socially received bit of common consensus. If you press the point, you will eventually get an angry reaction, the emotion that is the most handy replacement for a rational argument.
Why a group of white, male, aristocrats of the late 18th century is supposed to govern our lives, in an entirely different world, more than two centuries later, is a question that isn’t raised nearly as often as it should be. Why should they govern us today? After all, the “founders” themselves, were revolutionaries, overturning established governments, cutting ties to previous foundations of government and law – as deemed desirable by themselves . Why that morality of that break with the past isn’t seen by today’s would-be Federalists as more potently instructive than the alleged teachings of those revolutionaries, is an issue that should be pressed. They changed things through violence, a war in which many people died, people were attacked and dispossessed. In contrast, just about every change to the, mostly mythic, Federalist order that has come about in the history of the United States, was done through non-violent change. The great exception was, of course, the Civil War, the origins of which were found in the glaring faults of the Constitution and the financial interests of the Founders, themselves.
Anyone who has been a witness to the past fifty years, the years when the cult of the Founders has flourished in all its dishonest, hypocritical and inconsistent vigor, might well consider it to be an emotional campaign waged by those who want to overturn civil rights progress, first and foremost, but also to reassert the control of an aristocratic oligarchy, such as the one which wrote the constitution and which was only gradually, and unfortunately, temporarily suppressed by those favoring egalitarian democracy. The slogans, icons and catechism of the Founders cult, are not the tools of reasoned consideration, they are more George M. Cohan who said, "Many a bum show has been saved by the flag."
Racism and other forms of bigotry are inseparable from the Founders Fetish, the contemporary assertion of “states rights” and a host of other Federalist bromides having gained their most ardent advocates among the neo-confederates. Another line feeding into it is the opposition to the Income Tax and regulatory agencies. As seen in a large number of instances, such as DOMA, when it is in their interest for the federal government to usurp powers granted to states, they’ve, mostly, not had any problem with violating the sacred writ of the Founders. It’s telling that the instances in which they are opposed to this have included the federal protection of individual liberties and their endorsement of federal encroachment has usually been in favor of quashing state protection of rights and liberties.* And it’s the rarest of right wingers who opposes taxes when it’s for the military or other things they support.
The malignant, irrational and dangerous right has taken the Founders Fetish into ever more bizarre territory, connected to neither history nor reality, in ever more dangerous ways. The tea party cult, with its viciously bigoted and racist verbal eruptions is followed by ever descending, more bigoted, more violent manifestations of militias and the “sovereigns”. Much if not just about all of the armed right, with a history of murder and maiming, will make some appeal to “The founders” for their motivation and their justification.
One of the more dangerous conglomeration of this are the “soverigns”, an al Qaeda type, loosely constituted bunch which are armed and murderous.
At its core, the current sovereign belief system is relatively simple and is based on a decades-old conspiracy theory. At some point in history, sovereigns believe, the American government set up by the founding fathers - with a legal system the sovereigns refer to as "common law" - was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Some sovereigns believe this perfidious change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933, when America abandoned the gold standard. Either way, they stake their lives and livelihood on the idea that judges around the country know all about this hidden government takeover but are denying the sovereigns' motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces. Under common law, or so they believe, the sovereigns would be free men. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way.
As the piece by J.J. MacNab, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows, it’s far from innocuous. It is an irony that the victims of much of this kind of right wing violence are police officers, forest and park rangers, and others, the nurturing of the paranoia that fuels the far right by the side pretending to be for law and order is even more so. Why police unions and organizations aren’t more vocal in their opposition to the Federalist establishment which, through numerous campaigns and court rulings, have put them at even more risk, is something that their members should press.
The history of the United States, the gradual expansion of rights for women and minorities, workers --hard fought and at great sacrifice, the construction of public education, public institutions, and a huge range of other events and thinking, has taught us things that the late 18th century never knew. Those have led to a far more democratic and just society than they seem to have imagined. But Americans are taught to ignore that history which has produced enormous good for the majority of people in this country. I don’t think that campaign of collective amnesia is unintended but if it is, it should be resisted.
History is taught in the wrong direction, it should be taught from today back, the most relevant lessons for us to learn from being those which are closest to us, the events of recent history still being the ones with potency in our lives. But that recent history is the most dangerous to the status quo, the least likely to lead to quaint, distracting, antiquarianism. “The Founders” in the imagination of those most devoted to that cult seem to be about as real as celluloid cowboys are, the results share the dangerous fascination of macho violence. It’s time to take history out of the hands of the mass media and the federalist hacks.
* I do not trust Ted Olsen’s motives in the case to overturn Prop 8. I don’t trust him but will be glad to acknowledge if there isn’t another shoe to drop in his case.