Friday, June 04, 2010

American History Before America (The 1689 Rule)

cross-posted at Dagblog

Ta-Nehisi is running some excellent comment threads about how deeply torture runs through American history, prompted by George W. Bush's appalling endorsement of torture. In those threads, I realized something about my own perspective on American history: because my academic work is on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I see the Founders not so much as founders but as people responding to their own ugly history. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not starting points, but pointed replies; not abstract term papers for some philosophy class, but a practical summary of the history that the Founders did not want repeated.

So, when a lot of Ta-Nehisi's commenters see the United States as a country which has always officially disavowed torture but often tacitly permitted it, and point to a long, compelling trail of evidence, I see a country taking the step of officially disavowing torture after centuries in which torture was an official part of the judicial system -- hell, after centuries in which public torture was considered morally edifying. It's certainly true that various kinds of torture have flourished without legal sanction in this country, but that comes after hundreds of years of mind-boggling cruelty perpetrated by the law itself. I'm talking about courts sentencing people to bodily mutilation, confessions being extorted with the strappado and the rack and the wheel, defendants being crushed to death under heavy weights if they did not enter a plea. That the Founders explicitly rejected that history makes a difference. An America that lives up to its ideals and an America that only pretends to live up to its ideals have never been the only choices. We could have had, could have, an America that pretends to no ideals at all.

I have a classroom rule that I phrase as a joke: I don't discuss current events in class, and my definition of "current events" is everything after 1689. In part, I began blogging in order to have a venue for the strong opinions and the partisan politics that would be inappropriate in my classroom. When I formulated the 1689 Rule, only six years ago, it seemed perfectly safe to me. The great political-philosophical questions of my period were thoroughly settled. Obviously, the 1689 Rule would always keep me well out of whatever cable-news debate was raging at the time. Nobody could still have hard feelings over the execution of Charles II. But gradually, to my real horror, I found that the 1689 Rule no longer worked completely, because American conservatives began to reopen debates that had been settled three hundred years before.

One day, delivering a brief lecture about Christopher Marlowe, I mentioned that some of the scandalous accusations against Marlowe can't be taken as completely reliable, because they were obtained by torture. And I saw a strange expression, a flicker of deliberate self-control, cross a student's face. I realized, suddenly, that he thought I was politicizing the class, taking a stand on a public debate. Obviously, I was commenting on the Bush/Cheney torture policies. But just as obviously to me, I was not. I hadn't formed my opinion about Elizabethan torturers because of Bush, or Cheney, or any of their minions. I'd come to my understanding of that question before Bush ran for President; statements taken under torture are essentially dictated by the torturer. (I've seen cases where this becomes obvious even on the grammatical level, as the document shifts back and forth between first and third person.) I hadn't broken the 1689 rule. 2006 had.

Over the past few years, modern "conservatism" has kept encroaching on my 1689 boundary, turning questions I had considered entirely non-controversial into objects of partisan debate. Once they got around to habeas corpus and the right to a jury trial, I realized we weren't even back in the 1500s anymore. Our contemporary political debates had taken us back to 1214, to a world without a Magna Carta. I couldn't say that I was avoiding current debates by sticking to my field; the arguments had moved back to centuries before my field.

My goal in the classroom is to offer students tools for thinking questions through on their own, and not pre-fabricated conclusions. I avoid bottom-line statements about current events because that doesn't teach them to think. But our degraded national discourse has put me in a position where I can't teach sound thinking skills without taking a position. I can't pretend that the words in a document are a self-evident "fact" when they were extracted from a man hanging from the ceiling with dislocated shoulder blades. I can't responsibly teach students to ignore that context. If I did, I would be actively making them stupid. And that brings Bush and Cheney and John Yoo into my classroom when they don't belong there. I can't keep contemporary debates out of my classroom because so-called "conservatives" are bent on disputing the foundational truths on which America was built.

So what worries me these days is not the dark underside of American history, but the dark preludes to that history. Most progressives still frame the debate as a choice between the ugly parts of the last two hundred years and the possibility of a better future. But the alleged conservatives are no longer confining themselves to that debate. They aren't satisfied with America's original sins any more. They want to go back to earlier darkness and chaos, to crimes and abuses that the Founders renounced in horror. It's no longer a choice between a nation that gives lip service to basic rights and a nation that genuinely honors them. It's becoming a choice between a nation that expresses certain fundamental values and a nation that openly renounces them. When George W. Bush boasts of ordering torture and brags that he would do it again, he is declaring that torture is an outright good, that it is an expression of justice. And it puts the lie to the pretense of Constitutional "originalism." What part of the proscription against "cruel and unusual punishments" is unclear? What phrase would allow drowning a man until he almost dies, over and over again? Bush is not committed to our nation's origins. He is essentially post-American: no longer believing in this country's foundational principles or feeling obligation to them.

That is not merely evil, but folly. The Founders were not infallible oracles or prophets, God knows. They did not perfectly foresee America's future or its future challenges. But about the past, their own historical past, they were very, very shrewd. Their response to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century history is the fruit not just of reason but of hard, bitter experience. The Constitution is a map to places that the Founders could still see in the fading distance, and to which they never, ever wanted to go back. On that, we should trust them.

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