Constitution Day controversy

Grayson Pearce

Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day, is a celebration of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the longest operating, written constitution, as well as a celebration of those who have become citizens of the country. Thus, Constitution Day must be a patriotic, uncontroversial celebration, right? Wrong. It’s never that easy in today’s climate of “politically correct McCarthyism,” to reiterate a phrase first coined by Michael Anton.

Washington and Lee’s celebration of Constitution Day included a lecture from Anton, a former Trump administration National Security Council staffer and speech writer for George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani. His appearance was controversial because of his conservative views, of course. These views include his belief that Islam is “a militant faith,” that diversity is a “weakness” of the U.S. because it leads to “tension and disunion” and that the 14th Amendment was not intended to guarantee birthright citizenship.

Disagreement with Anton’s views prompted a university philosophy professor, Melina Bell, who also co-directs the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, to organize an alternative event at the exact same time for students wanting to celebrate Constitution Day without the oppression of the right looming down upon fragile students. There was no need for the organization of this event whatsoever, and there was no need to beat the drum of liberal animosity on our campus simply because a conservative came to speak about his originalist view of our great Constitution.

It is necessary to understand that Michael Anton came to our campus in the context of Constitution Day—a day intended to recognize our Constitution. His views of our Constitution are very much mainstream for the most part. During his lecture, Anton described how he has tried to determine the meaning of the Constitution: by trying to find what is, in his words, “underneath and behind it.” He generally defined the Constitution as “a bulwark against tyranny.”

Specifically, Anton described the three main principles of the Constitution: it establishes representative government, limited government and the separation of powers. His case for representative government is that it “blurs the distinction between the rulers and the ruled,” making them interchangeable and making government a product of all. Since Americans surely do not want to be ruled by a tyrant, the Constitution also ensures a limited government by enumerating the powers of each branch of government. And by separating the three branches, Anton claims it leads to a division of labor and a specialization that makes each of the branches more effective.

Nothing about these views is contentious or controversial, and Anton’s lecture did not necessitate a professor’s attempt to shield students from his views. In fact, this attempt to shelter students is much more dangerous to our institution than anything Michael Anton could have said about the U.S. Constitution. Protecting students from ideas that challenge their own does those students an immense disservice, and it is a direct contradiction of what our institution of higher education strives to achieve. Walking into a university without expecting your views to be questioned or challenged is like diving into a pool without expecting to get wet.

Insulating students from views that challenge their own also directly contradicts the university’s Statement of Commitment to Diversity.

The first sentence of that statement reads, “Washington and Lee affirms that diverse perspectives and backgrounds enhance our community.” Thus, a “diverse [perspective],” no matter how conservative, “[enhances] our community,” and a different perspective, no matter how extreme or controversial, will always enhance students’ minds if not by informing them of what to believe, then by informing them of what not to believe.