On Feb. 9, Esquire Magazine political blogger Charles P. Pierce reviewed the documentary film Nullification: The Rightful Remedy, a full-length movie produced by the Foundation for a Free Society and the Tenth Amendment Center.
At least that’s what I think he reviewed. He called the film Nullification: The Original Remedy and claimed Citizens United produced the documentary. The fact that we showed the movie in the Citizens United Theater at CPAC apparently confused our fearless reviewer.
In his online bio, Pierce claims he “has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America.”
Perhaps things have changed since 1976, but when I attended journalism school a few years ago, my professors put a lot of emphasis on getting basic facts correct. You know; things like the title of the movie you’re reviewing. And the producer. Granted, sometimes ascertaining facts can prove difficult. It takes a little effort and research. In journalism 101, I learned the importance of talking to people involved in my story to gather information and confirm my assumptions.
For instance, if I were reviewing a film, I would want to talk to the director or perhaps a cast member from the movie. In fact, Pierce had that opportunity, as Jason Rink, the director and producer, Michael Boldin, the executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, and I were all in the room and accessible during the entire showing of the film.
To his credit, Pierce did issue a correction and an apology. You can read it here.
But Pierce’s intellectual sloppiness rivaled his journalistic sloppiness.
He excels at the straw man argument, and he sets up two in the opening paragraph.
“You really have to give them credit for what they’ve built — a completely self-contained universe with its own laws and its own history, eminently comfortable and eminenly (sic) seductive. Nowhere is this more obvious in their tacit devotion to the government of the Articles of Confederation. You see, all of them here are devoted Tenthers, which is better than calling yourself a ‘states-rights person,’ because that still has some unpleasant resonance with events in Mississippi in 1962, although it’s coming back into vogue.”
First, he sets up the Articles of Confederation straw man, and then hands the scarecrow a race card. He revisits these ideas throughout his piece. At one point, Pierce quotes Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on separation of powers and then quips, “And thus do New York and New Jersey once again stare daggers at each other across the Hudson because of import duties.”
The comparison is absurd. The framers included interstate commerce regulation among Congress’ powers specifically to prevent import duties. No Tenther would ever deny the federal government’s role in that area. Pierce cleverly torches the straw man – a government under the Articles of Confederation, but fails to address the actual assertion – that we believe the framers meant what they said when they claimed they were creating a federal government of specific, limited powers. We don’t devote ourselves to the government created under the Articles of Confederation, but the federal government promised by Madison in Federalist 45.
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce; with which the last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.”
Speaking of Madison, we find Pierce’s most legitimate intellectual achievement in his pointing out that the fourth president tried to scurry away from his support of nullification later in life. Basically, he was for it before he was against it. But does his later vacillation invalidate the soundness of his earlier reasoning? Were there political considerations that led to his public backtracking late in life? And did he completely repudiate the principles underlying nullification? (Hint, he did not.) Pierce fails to address these questions. As for Jefferson’s unwavering support of nullification, our fearless journalist brushes off the author of the Declaration of Independence as “a bit of a wackadoo.”
Pierce wraps his second straw man up in a KKK robe, implying that nullification must be racist because John C. Calhoun defended it during the tariff crisis between 1828 and 1832. But Calhoun did not advance the doctrine on behalf of slavery. In fact, his slave holding, while morally repugnant, has nothing to do with nullification whatsoever. Pierce uses an ad hominem attack on Calhoun to prop up his straw man. As Pierce himself alludes to in his review of the movie, northern states nullified fugitive slave laws, which seems a powerful endorsement of the doctrine. Ironically, abolitionists actually USED Calhoun’s nullification arguments to justify their actions on behalf of fugitive slaves and cited him by name. And while we’re on the subject, staunch opponent of nullification, Pres. Andrew Jackson, was also a slave-owner. So it logically follows that his arguments against the doctrine of nullification aren’t valid, right?
Or perhaps I should give Pierce the benefit of the doubt and assume his desperate need for me to address Calhoun comes from his sense that the nullification crisis of 1832 represents the pinnacle of failure for the doctrine. But does it? Ultimately, the South got some tariff relief when all was said and done. One could argue that the outcome speaks to the effectiveness of state interposition.
Truthfully, I am probably being too generous, because Pierce repeatedly returns to the racism meme.
“But what is truly missing from the film, in which nullifiers are anti-slavery heroes,is (sic) the use to which nullification was put in the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Martin Luther King specifically cited it in his speech on the Mall in 1963.”
Yes, bigots used the notion of “states’ rights” to advance the cause of segregation. There – I said it. But can we take a moment and step away from the emotional appeal of Pierce’s argument and think a little deeper? Does the fact that some people applied the idea in a nefarious way invalidate the entire principle? Does the fact that murderers sometimes use hammers to kill people negate the tool’s value in pounding nails?
Here we have one instance of a gross use of nullification. Opponents relentlessly pound the race straw man until the stuffing pops out. Yet lovers of big powerful central government fail to ever mention that nullification was used in defense of free speech, to protect immigrants, to advance economic freedom, to fight involuntary military conscription and to battle slavery itself.
At its core, nullification is about decentralizing power. And while proponents of big-government can point to the civil rights era as a great victory, on balance centralized power has decimated minorities. Doubt me? Ask the Ukrainians under Stalin, the Jews under the Nazi regime, Armenians under Ottoman rule and Cambodians under Pol Pot.
Or Japanese-Americans under Roosevelt.
No, Mr. Pierce; nullification is not about slavery. We are not racists. We simply believe that the federal government should remain, as Jefferson put it, bound by the chains of the Constitution. Pierce can paint us as extremists all he wants, but it seems to me the true extremists are those who insist the federal government should remain free to do whatever it damn well pleases.