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Garry Wills' 'A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government'

By Steven Robert Allen

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  From left to right across the political spectrum, a widespread distrust of government has become one of the most recognizable characteristics of life in modern America. This distrust may as well be part of the fabric of the American flag itself, it is so crucial to our sense of national identity. Americans simply love to hate their government.

Most Americans believe that the Founding Fathers deliberately created an inefficient government with its various constitutional elements in perpetual conflict with each other. They did this, the thinking goes, to prevent the potential for tyranny. The idea was to cripple the central government so that it could not wield too much power over the people. Pretty much every contemporary political debate -- from term limits to campaign finance to welfare to environmental protection to gun control -- is fought out in the context of a governmental system which supposedly acknowledges that it is nothing more than a necessary evil.

Renowned historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills has put together an impressive work designed to illustrate how this distrust came about and why it so frequently results in corrupted, bastardized views of American history and government. Of course, a healthy skepticism is a crucial part of every democracy, but Wills illustrates how American distrust of government all too frequently has unfortunate consequences, in far too many cases leading to a bizarre romanticization of guerrilla warfare, political assassination and terrorism. This trait was evident in the leftist Weathermen of the 1960s just as it is evident in abortion clinic bombers and right-wing terrorists like Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s.

A Necessary Evil manages to bring disparate historical material together with grace and insight. The book does an excellent job of examining the roots of our mistaken understandings of American history and constitutionalism. Wills also manages to humanize some of the Founding Fathers, showing the unfortunate ideological inconsistencies that eventually led to many of these misunderstandings in the first place.

A willingness to distort history seems particularly prevalent among gun enthusiasts. The most laughable, and dangerous, example of this distortion comes by way of the National Rifle Association and its sympathizers. Though the Supreme Court and all respectable constitutional law experts long ago showed that the Second Amendment wasn't created to prevent the federal government from regulating private arms, a popular mythology surrounding the Amendment persists to this day. Wills spends many pages detailing how gun enthusiasts of various stripes bombard the unwary with carefully selected quotes from Antifederalists like Patrick Henry to support a right to bear arms that simply doesn't exist in the Constitution.

The book also takes a look at 19th-century dropouts like Henry David Thoreau and the hippie commune dwellers of the 1960s. Wills examines the slanted scholarship of academic radicals as well as the forces behind the civil rights and anti-war movements. He shows that the most successful social transformers -- like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- succeeded in their aims not by denouncing all government, but by protesting specific injustices within government.

A rabid hatred of government in general frequently results in a frightening militancy and readiness to support violent means to "fix" governmental problems. Of course, as Wills says, "There is ample reason to fear and distrust government, to probe it, make it come clean, demand access." Yet from the Ku Klux Klan to Lee Harvey Oswald, a lot of nut cases have taken their distrust too far. They have denounced government as a necessary evil, when for all its obvious flaws and inconsistencies, it is actually a necessary good. Wills also points out that the real victims of anti-governmental sentiment in America "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.'"

In general, A Necessary Evil is a fine study of an important aspect of American history and culture that needs to be examined and diffused before more people die, whether from bombs or neglect. The potential cost of ignorance, in human terms, is simply too great to not take these sobering arguments seriously. (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, $25

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