Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 22, 2015

We, the People, and political correctness

The notion of political correctness became popular on college campuses about a quarter-century ago and is now grossly overused as a put-down to almost all serious and responsible suggestions made in the public discourse. In all of their debates, the GOP candidates for the Presidency have connected political correctness to virtually all issues, including immigration, terrorist attacks, Planned Parenthood, gun ownership, Muslims, education, the media, health care and climate change. “Political correctness is killing people” Ted Cruz said in last week’s debate and Ben Carson warned of a conspiracy “to give away American values and principles for the sake of political correctness”.

Then, the mother of all such statements came from Donald Trump when he appeared on “Fox and Friends” a couple weeks ago and said:

“But we’re fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump added. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

In short, Trump is advocating the use of terror and murder on the men, women and children that constitute the families of Muslim communities promoting terrorism. He believes that this is the “logical” response to the terrorism presently being carried out by some sectors of the Muslim world and that the only reason we are not doing it is because of an unwarranted dose of political correctness.

Upon thinking about Trump’s proposal, I suspect that many of us will instantly be repulsed at what he is suggesting and might have a strong “gut feeling”, at least, that no, “we Americans” should not do that sort of thing. In this post I would like to explain why what “we Americans” should think in this instance is based on more than our “gut feelings”.  It is, in fact, firmly based on our Constitution.

Let’s start, however, by admitting that the United States of America has, indeed, often done exactly what Trump now proposes during its 240-year history and we have no further to look for an exceedingly clear example of this than to reflect on what the USA did to its native populations. Many tribes throughout the USA were beaten and starved into either extinction or reservation confinement and even those terms of confinement were repeatedly reneged.  Even in my relatively progressive state of Minnesota, a bounty was placed on the heads of Sioux caught off the reservations they had been confined to in 1862.  Period newspapers recorded the delivery of many Indian scalps for which $200 each was paid by the state.  In 1863, Nathan Lamson of Hutchinson “bagged” the famous Chief Little Crow who was traveling with his family from Canada to visit friends on the Minnesota reservation.  Nathan received a bonus ($500) for that service to his country.  Little Crow’s scalp and skull hung in the Minnesota Museum of Natural History until 1911 when it was properly interred with the rest of his body.

And stories like this go on and on: At the very beginning of the 20th Century, the United States of America declared the Filipinos fighting for their independence in the American-Philippine War to be savages and imprisoned, starved, and killed over 200,000 of them, the majority being women and children, in a brutal war of attrition and summary executions with carpet bombing of vast areas and communities. Then throughout the 20th century, the USA continued the subjugation of many other cultures throughout the world by its support of myriad dictatorships whose only tie to us was its friendliness to American Corporations (and, of course, the dictators’ ubiquitous claims to be against all things communist).  Examples of such places are Iran, Chili, El Salvador and numerous other countries that became the “beneficiaries” of US foreign aid.

So, yes, Trump’s “logic” is not in conflict with the historical behavior of the USA. But nevertheless, I still believe that it is in conflict with my original statement – “we Americans” should not to do that sort of thing and the reason we shouldn’t is precisely because it truly and thoroughly is “Politically Incorrect” in terms of the Constitution of the United States.

OK, now I have to explain that last sentence – which should be done with a degree of “legal correctness” that is somewhat beyond my own abilities. I had the good fortune, therefore, to note an article written by Danielle Allen of Harvard University for the Washington Post a few days ago which provides the explanation I am seeking.  Her article can be seen at

The history lesson Allen provides centers on James Wilson, a lead author of the US Constitution. Wilson argued that the Founders of 1776 had erected a government based on the “people”, and not on the states or even the United States. Wilson is the reason that our Constitution begins with “We the People of the United States” and not “the United States”.  We ought, he said, to raise toasts to the “People of the United States” as the true object of our efforts and affections.  This, he said was the correct way to begin a country because it captures the right way of thinking about the relationship between people and its government.  “A State”, he cheerfully admitted, “is the noblest work of Man: but Man, himself, free and honest, is the noblest work of God”.

As the keynote speaker on July 4, 1788, at a celebration of both independence and the new Constitution, Wilson said “if the people, at their elections, take care to choose none but representatives that are wise and good, their representatives will take care, in their turn, to choose or appoint none other than such are wise and good, also. … On the faithful and skillful discharge of it (voting), the public happiness or infelicity, under this and every other constitution must, to a great measure, depend. For, believe me, no government, even the best, can be happily administered by ignorant or vicious men”.

I will finish here with Danielle Allen’s concluding sentence: “Given the poll numbers for the leading Republican candidate, it appears that the problem is with us, the people, and not with this or that candidate.  Wilson was right.  We, the people, are the foundation of democratic government, and the quality of our government stands or falls before us.”

And a summary of my own: Whether we use our country and its people to address real threats to humanity, such as climate change, or the imagined ones, such as the terrorists, the communists, or the Martians hiding under our beds, depends on the basic decency and wisdom of the representatives we vote for.  I know this to be true. My Constitution tells me so.


  1. Eric,
    It is not often that I agree with you yet the brutality of slaughtering the families of ISIL soldiers is repugnant. Clearly Donald Trump wants to attack non-combatants as does Ted Cruz with his “Carpet Bombing”.

    We applied that level of brutality in Vietnam and in WWII when we killed more than 50,000 in single bombing raids (Dresden and Hiroshima).

    I contend that those barbaric acts would not have been necessary if we had deterred aggression much earlier.

    Thomas Jefferson was compelled to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates:

    Jefferson was buying time to build the US Navy to the point that it could deliver marines to the “shores of tripoli”. He knew that the pirates would not stop unless we attacked them where they lived.

    Nothing much has changed in 210 years…….we are still dealing with Barbary pirates who will not stop until we hit them where it hurts. Forget the Bush idiocy of “Nation Building”. Destroy the cancerous growth that is ISIL, root and branch. A limited brutality now will avoid a much greater brutality later.

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