This weekend an MSNBC host made one of the more staggeringly dumb statements you will hear all campaign season. In doing so, Melissa Harris-Perry embarrassed herself, the esteemed universities that bestowed a degree on her, and the proud university where she currently teaches.
The standard of reasoned discourse at MSNBC is, like its ratings, decidedly low. Thus, expectations for its bullpen of commentators must be accordingly limited. However, Ms. Harris-Perry holds credentials well beyond the likes of a Keith Olberman, an Ed Schultz, or an Al Sharpton. Educated at Wake Forest University and earning a doctorate at Duke, Harris-Perry has taught at the University of Chicago and Princeton and is currently on the political science faculty of Tulane. In short, she should be among our “best and brightest.”
Like most of her MSNBC colleagues, Harris-Perry sits far on the left of the American political mainstream as evidenced by her courses and writings. Harris-Perry is affiliated with, and serves on the boards of several groups ranging from Planned Parenthood to People for the American Way to the Century Foundation. Preaching to the MSNBC audience, she predictably would not have a favorable opinion on Congressman Paul Ryan, the newly named Republican candidate for Vice President.
Reacting to the selection of Ryan, Harris-Perry took exception to the Jefferson-quoting Congressman. From the stump, Ryan had the temerity to cite the opening lines from the Declaration of Independence. Here is the Harris-Perry quote in its entirety.
“The thing I really have against him is actually how he and Gov. Romney have misused the Declaration of Independence. I’m deeply irritated by their notion that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ means money for the richest and that we extricate the capacity of ordinary people to pursue happiness. When they say ‘God and nature give us our rights, not government,’ that is a lovely thing to say as a wealthy white man.”
“When you sit in a body like mine as an African-American woman, you know that God and nature have in fact made us — inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we could not have them until there was a Civil War that allowed the federal government to impose those nature and God-given rights would actually be respected by our government. And I think that they cannot continue to go down this line on the Declaration of Independence.”
This statement is either embarrassingly ignorant or a pathetic attempt to smear. In either case its own internal logic contradicts her conclusion. It would be a stupid statement for a high school senior. From a tenured faculty member who studied at prestigous universities, this comment is downright scandalous.
First Harris-Perry criticizes Ryan for suggesting that our rights are God-given, only to acknowledge in that next sentence that our fundamental rights do stem from God. Then, she says that “we [black persons and women] could not have them” until the federal government was allowed to “impose” (which seems a strange choice of words) those rights.
She is correct to state that natural rights are bestowed by our Creator – as cited in the Declaration of Independence – and also to note that some people could not enjoy those rights for a long time. She egregiously fails to acknowledge the reason some could not enjoy those rights was that the government actively pursued policies to cut off those rights.
This is important because you must accept that rights stem from Heaven, and therefore political denial of the rights is illegitimate, thereby accepting that the concerted effort to secure the rights is indeed a moral act. This is American History and Political Science 101. Americans, like all people, are born with rights. Any outside force (ahem, government) that moves to deny those rights is wrong in accordance with natural and moral law.
Without this understanding Harris-Perry reduces abolition, suffrage, and the civil rights movements to common political exercises no different than one over highway expenditures. With hopes of aggravating Harris-Perry allow me to offer another quote from the “wealthy white man” Thomas Jefferson.
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” said the sage of Monticello. Jefferson understood that man is born free and deserving of liberty, but it is government that relentlessly grows and, by doing so, diminishes liberty. Knowing this Jefferson’s protégé’ James Madison wrote a Constitution that did not bestow rights on the populace, instead it acknowledge the pre-existence of those rights and clearly set forth limitations on government.
Madison explained years after the drafting of the Constitution that “in Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example of charters of power granted by liberty. Obviously Paul Ryan recognizes this. The professor of MSNBC does not. Duke University should ask her to return the doctorate.