By Mohammad T.
On January 20th, the instructor of my constitutional law course opened up the hour-long class with a discussion of the significance of the inauguration vis-a-vis the issues we have been and will be discussing throughout the semester. During the conversation, when my classmates were discussing their impressions of the inaugural speech, one particular comment struck me, and compelled me to respond: a woman sitting three rows behind me remarked that she thought it refreshing to hear Obama talk about, in a new way, American values, American freedoms, and the vision of the founding fathers, particularly in these troubled times. She noted that even though such rhetoric doesn’t appeal to her often, Obama’s displayed unique and powerful touch in describing the values espoused by the founding fathers, and his command of language enabled her to connect in a new way to this old vision of America
To which I raised my hand and responded, “The inaugural speech gave me diarrhea.”
I qualified my statement, and thought I would share it with you. Frankly, the rhetoric employed by Obama is nauseating in its treatment of the Constitution, its treatment of the vision of the framers, and its implications for the American polity. I find that all too often we forget that words, by themselves, have no meaning; they are only the product of the intellectual investment we, as practitioners of language and rhetoric, make in them. Put differently, we bring to words our own meanings. What, then, of the words in the Constitution? This is not a radical concept, yet I find that all too often we lose sight of this particularly in the context of political rhetoric.
How are we to understand the text of the Constitution as scholars of constitutional law, political science, or as members of the civic community? On a most basic level, the Constitution means what we want it to mean: the words are purposely broad-based, painted with a broad brush so as to allow between them meanings, values, ideas, and pressures that we bring to bear on them. There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, this is precisely how we interact with language. All we can do is recognize this, and make this fact apparent – recognize that, in fact, we project our own notions of liberty, equality, “natural law” and divine morality into the document. I find that all too often we do not make this disclaimer, and do not make clear that we are imbuing our own values into what would otherwise be a stale document. That’s what, after all, makes it a vibrant text, and that’s what allows the re-articulation of its values from those espoused by 18th-century slave-holders to those of a million women and men marching up and down Washington in 1963.
But all too often I find that we do not, in fact, recognize this projection of meaning in texts we interact with. In fact, quite the contrary; the ideas we intuit from these words are made de facto truths, born between the words of the document and holding some inherent place in the document. This was the nausea of Barack Obama on January 20th.
By invoking the name of the founding fathers, Obama attempts to tell us what the founding fathers envisioned in the United States. Obama attempted to connect our contemporary, so-called “American” values with the ultimate vision of George Washington et al. Instead of recognizing that we are the ones that give the Constitution meaning, the suggestion was that the founding fathers were the soothsayers, the philosophers, and the craftsmen of our 21st-century Meaning when, in fact, they are affirmatively not. Instead of being the harbingers of freedom, democracy, social justice, and that illusive “American promise,” they were, among other vices, the crafters of a new kind of state-sponsored white supremacy. Ironic given the historic moment that January 20th was. As political philosopher Charles Mills writes, the architects of the Constitution created a document built on top of a foundation of racism, and that their supposed appeals to Enlightenment notions of equality, justice, and freedom were simply the rhetorical equivalent of coating a poisoned apple with sweet caramel. This racial contract, as he puts it, of white supremacy undergirds the entirety of the Constitution, and any appeals to the visionary message of American freedom espoused by the founding fathers must face the brick wall of slavery and racism. When Obama conjures up the name of the framers of the Constitution, and describes of Washington’s stay at Valley Forge as a shining example of American resilience, he nevertheless conjures up the same profoundly disgusting American history that these men represent. And that’s just race – their profound distrust of “mob” democracy (try looking for that word in the Constitution), their bourgeois disregard for the working class, the complete erasure of women from the polity, their not-so-cordial relationship with Native Americans, just to start.
Ultimately, this rhetoric is at best intellectual flippancy; at worst, a profound dishonesty about the creation of these United States. This is the nausea of American political rhetoric, that we manage, at every turn, to rewrite the history book, to paint over the bullet-holes, to erect on top of our ancestors’ graves monuments to our own self-righteousness. And, as it were, to defer the day of reckoning we must eventually have – nay, we need – with ourselves. Until then, the language of American jingoism (albeit recast in the dialect of Hope) and the language of exceptionalism will prevail, along with the soft perfidy of January 20th.