Wednesday, October 20, 2004
Kerry's Real Gaffe
Did you catch John Kerry's gaffe in the third debate?
No, not the one about Mary Cheney being born a lesbian. That abusive and cynical outburst produced gasps in living rooms around the nation and certainly cost Kerry votes.
But there was a more serious gaffe in the debate. It revealed how Kerry's vision of government is at odds not just with that of George Bush but with that of America's founders. In answer to a question about gay marriage, Kerry said: "Because we are the United States of America, we're a country with a great, unbelievable Constitution, with rights that we afford people, that you can't discriminate in the workplace. You can't discriminate in the rights that you afford people."
"A gaffe," as columnist Michael Kinsley once wrote, "is when a politician tells the truth." In this case, Kerry's gaffe is an inadvertent statement of what he--and many on the left--believe is the truth but is actually false and dangerous.
The key phrase was "rights that we afford people." This was no mistake. He said it twice.
Kerry believes that the United States government, through the Constitution, "affords" rights to Americans. My dictionary defines "afford," in this context as "give, grant, confer." In other words, we fortunate, benighted Americans have a country, a government that grants us rights.
That's an utterly inaccurate reading of the great documents of the founding of this nation. Our government does not grant us any rights at all. On the contrary, Americans start off with rights, and it is we who grant the government certain limited powers to protect those rights.
Where do our rights come from if they don't come from government? They come from God--which may be why John Kerry doesn't get it.
The Declaration of Independence makes the relationship between citizens and government crystal clear. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," it says, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." (In other words, God gives us rights that can't be taken away.) "Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--which is to say, everything.
Now, what's the job of government? The Declaration says that it is "to secure these rights." And, to make sure there's no misunderstanding, the document emphasizes that governments "are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Our rights derive from us. We, the people. In fact, the 10th Amendment specifically states, in elegant simplicity:
"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Jefferson rallied the troops with references to unalienable rights endowed by the Creator. But when it came time, 13 years later, to devise a form of actual government, the Founders looked within ourselves.
First time that was ever done. Ever. Remarkable & precious. And you caught a man who is even odds to becoming President not understanding that basic concept.
But I think what we do see here isn't just some agreed on consensus of relativism, but a feeling that these rights are natural. Inherent. Basic to humans and ought to be respected, and that the governments we organize should be not to restrain our freedoms, but to clarify and guard them - government OF the people, which means its validity stems not from the rights of kings, but from the populace itself, by the people, for we are a republic, for the people, for the common good and defense and protection of all of us.
This to me is the rock bottom basis of the American view on things, born in a time where the concept of the social contract had come to play, perhaps somewhat Lockian in its shaping, but still understanding the idea of natural law.
Being rather devout, I see natural law as based on God, but above all, it's not a relativistic idea. It doesn't flop in the wind. That's why I liked this piece.