I just received a letter in the mail from Tim Wildmon, President of the American Family Association. I get a little cheer in my heart when such letters come. For one thing, I know that the fundamentalist and theocratic AFA just frittered away a little bit of its budget on printing and mailing costs. For another thing, I get an opportunity to learn a little bit more about what makes the fundamentalist theocratic heart beat as it does.
In today’s letter, Mr. Wildmon declares that in a 2001 “radio he bemoaned the fact that the Warren Supreme Court ‘never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth.’”
The “he” in that sentence is President Barack Obama. I happen to have previously transcribed that 2001 interview, a joint interview by Chicago Public Radio moderator Gretchen Helfrich of both Illinois state senator Barack Obama and constitutional expert Dennis Hutchison. You can listen to the entire interview here if you don’t believe me.
This is actually what Barack Obama said:
Dennis Hutchinson: The federal constitution doesn’t provide any warrant for intervention.
Barack Obama: Exactly. So, what’s interesting is that suddenly, a whole bunch of people start bringing these claims to state courts…
Dennis Hutchison: The idea that you could use the due process clause for redistributive ends, socially, that would be stable I think was an astonishing assumption in the mind of litigators about what they could accomplish over time, and it just didn’t last very long.
Barack Obama: And it essentially has never happpened. If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples. So that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.
But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society, and to that extent as radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren court interpreted it in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can’t do to you, it says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.
One of the I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change and in some ways we still suffer from that.
In that quote Barack Obama does not bemoan the fact that the Warren Supreme Court “never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth.” He used the word “ventured,” to start off with a triviality. More substantially, Obama bemoaned that activists spent their energies trying to get the Warren Supreme Court to do so, rather than engaging in grassroots activism to enact change outside the courts, which he thinks would have been a better idea. Barack Obama’s 2001 idea regarding the Supreme Court and redistribution of wealth was actually the opposite of what Tim Wildmon says it was.
If you don’t get the point yet, let’s look at what else Barack Obama said in the very same interview:
Moderator Gretchen Helfrich: Let’s talk with Karen. Good morning, Karen, you’re on Chicago Public Radio.
Karen: Hi. The gentleman made the point that the Warren Court wasn’t terribly radical, my question is, with economic changes. My question is, is it too late for that kind of reparative work economically and is that that the appropriate place for reparative economic work to take place?
Helfrich: You mean the Court?
Karen: The Court. Or would it be legislation at this point?
Barack Obama: You know, maybe I’m showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but I’m not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. You know, the institution just isn’t structured that way.
You just look at very rare examples during the desegregation era the court was willing to for example order, you know, changes that cost money to a local school district. The court was very uncomfortable with it. It was very hard to manage, it was hard to figure out. You start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues, you know, in terms of the court monitoring or engaging in a process that essentially is administrative and takes a lot of time. You know, the court’s just not very good at it and politically it’s very hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard.
So I think that although you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally, you know, I think any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts, I think that as a practical matter our institutions are just poorly equipped to do it.
If you had any shred of a doubt about what Barack Obama meant, he cleared it up for you in that exchange, declaring that the Supreme Court is not structured to bring about redistribution of wealth, that the court would not be good at it, that politically such a move would be very hard to legitimize and that even if you wanted such a thing the Supreme Court would be poorly equipped to do it.
Tim Wildmon’s assertion about Barack Obama’s 2001 radio interview is clearly, demonstrably wrong. Speaking of “wrong,” there’s something that the Bible declares to be wrong. Exodus 20:16 states it flat-out: “Thou shalt not bear false witness”.
Either Tim Wildmon never actually looked up the quote he inverted, in which case he is bearing false witness against Barack Obama by falsely asserting himself to be knowledgeable on the matter he uses to condemn the president, or Tim Wildmon actually did the research, came across the words you just read above, and knowingly twisted Barack Obama’s words to falsely condemn him. In either case, Tim Wildmon has committed a sin against his own purported value system.
Which value does Tim Wildmon hold more highly? The value of scoring political points against a partisan opponent, or the value of being truthful in accusation?
Let’s find out. Today I’m sending a letter in the mail directly to Tim Wildmon. It reads:
July 6, 2010
Dear Mr. Wildmon,
In an “Action Letter” dated July 2010, you wrote of Barack Obama in 2001 that “in that same radio interview he bemoaned the fact that the Warren Supreme Court ‘never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth.’”
This is a false accusation. The radio interview (which you may listen to or read an online transcription of via http://wp.me/pdWLh-4VX) actually demonstrates, in no fewer than three passages including the very one you partially quote, that Barack Obama articulated the opposite position. The then-state-senator declared in the radio interview that due to practical difficulties, political considerations and constitutional restraints involving the separation of powers, it would have been a bad idea for the Warren Court to have “ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth.” Far from bemoaning the Warren Court for failing to redistribute wealth, Barack Obama bemoans the strategy of activists who tried to convince the Warren Court to redistribute wealth.
Exodus 20:16 reminds Christians that “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
I hope that you have not made this false claim knowingly, although in such a circumstance you have made the false assertion of having the authority to make such a factual assertion. I encourage you to issue a public retraction of this false claim at the earliest opportunity and to all those who received your accusation in the mail or otherwise.
This would be the Christian thing to do. I look forward to your response.
I’ve just put the letter in the mail, and I’ll share with you not only any response I receive, but also whether Tim Wildmon chooses to repent for his episode of bearing false witness.