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Memphis Flyer The Enemy Within

The People vs. the U.S. Constitution.

By Leonard Gill

NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government by Garry Wills (Simon & Schuster), 346 pp., $25

There are, in A Necessary Evil, exactly seven figures out of the whole of history demanding, on one essential point, your attention; one character out of all classical literature demanding, on that same point, your understanding; and one author out of your very own lifetime proposing at the most a few hours of your time. Those historical figures are: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, David Hume, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. The fictional character is Sophocles' Antigone. The author is Garry Wills. As for the "rest" in this, Wills' 22nd book, you can have them, use them according to your own perverse misreading of history, ignorance of the facts, and dependence on myth -- but, for the time being, only after Wills has had at them.

Who are these "rest"? Those Americans who would hold the country's own Constitution in contempt, and by extension, the very idea of good government. Where Wills sees an exceptionally well-thought-out, well-crafted document balanced between the rights of the individual and the duties of the state, it is the "rest" who are fixed on the former and hell on the latter, yes on the primacy of the indidual will, no on the primacy of the commonweal.

How screwed up can the thinking get? Very -- from political to philosophical to philological short-sightedness, un-mindedness, open prejudice, stupidity, and sheer criminality, and it goes not only for individuals (among them, as Wills points out, some of our very own Founding Fathers) but also such glorious past and present outfits as the Minutemen, 19th-century utopians, the KKK, hippies, the NRA, murderous anti-abortionists, home-spun militias, and, in one fell swoop, the planter-minded, still-minded South.

On the individual front, though, consider and try to combine, as Wills persuasively does here, Henry David Thoreau, Ronald Reagan, David Koresh, John Locke, a duo of influential and truly dangerous Constitutional theorists from Yale named Bruce Ackerman and Akhil Reed Amar, Henry Adams, Charleton Heston, Thomas Jefferson, H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Timothy McVeigh. Try but allow Wills to make it easier for you by spelling out what he calls the "value clusters" that give these individuals a platform upon which to mount their biggest fear: big government. What they share is a laundry list of attitudes and attributes -- provincial, amateur, authentic, spontaneous, traditional, populist, rights-oriented, religious, and voluntary -- as opposed to the dependably mistrusted bugaboos -- cosmopolitan, expert, authoritative, efficient, progressive, elite, duties-oriented, secular, and regulatory. The former, in the high minds of some of the Constitution's framers and the low minds of today's front-page scoundrels, sound good. Consider, though, as Wills does over the course of some 350 pages, the possibility that such admirable impulses, the terms of that first list, in fact, suck. Why? Because of the naked self-interest and selfishness backing them.

Wills won't bring himself to use the word, good historian that he is, but the end here points to one end and it's a moral one: sinning. And sinning is exactly where A Necessary Evil leads us without forcing it down our throats. A writer who writes that "the state makes love itself possible" is not writing in the same universe occupied by George W. Bush or most any other winning politician today or ever. But Wills isn't a politician. He's a thinker, and he's also a believer: in the good and the good that government can do. Unfortunately, the author all but buries that belief in A Necessary Evil, but you can unearth it on page 21. Here's the point, though, the higher goal, as Antigone understood it, Augustine preached it, and King lived it. Apropos the Oklahoma City bombing, Wills writes:

"Much of what those groups [inspired by the likes of David Koresh, Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge, and nutcase Oliver Stone] said was just the equivalent of the Jefferson tee shirt worn by Timothy McVeigh .... But the real victims of our fear [of government] are not those faced with such extreme action -- not even the 168 people killed ... by McVeigh. The real victims are the millions of poor or shelterless or medically indigent who have been told, over the years, that they must lack care or life support in the name of their very own freedom. Better for them to starve than to be enslaved by 'big government.' That is the real cost of our anti-government values."

McVeigh's T-shirt, by the way, read "Obey the Constitution of the United States and we will not shoot you," and if that doesn't scare the bejesus out of you, even a Garry Wills can't help.

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