Bench Memos

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A Blot on Liberty’s Escutcheon


A few years ago a friend gave me a membership in the National Constitution Center.  Not knowing much about this relatively new museum near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, I was interested to visit it at the earliest opportunity.  When I did finally get there, the main exhibits struck me as informative but fairly shallow, and afflicted with what one of my old teachers calls “gloryspeak,” a narrative of self-congratulation about our inexorable rise from the unenlightened murk of our ancestors to our present sunlit uplands of freedom.  This was a strange impression to receive from a museum ostensibly designed to celebrate the founding of the American constitutional order.  But I supposed that while moderately educated adults would find little to learn there, it might make for a useful field trip by middle school students.  When they were older they could learn some truer, more instructive lessons.

With cautious hope, I kept up my membership for a few years, but let it lapse when more and more of the programs and events seemed to focus on topics, like sports and popular culture, that had no apparent connection to the Constitution or its history.  The Center kept me on its e-mail list, though, and today came word of an event that can only be called disgraceful.

On September 18 (the day after Constitution Day), the Center will be the scene of the presentation of the 2008 Liberty Medal to Mikhail Gorbachev.  Yes, the Liberty Medal, of all things.  And it will be presented by former president George H.W. Bush, who should be ashamed of himself.

The Center’s announcement of the ceremony tells us that Gorbachev is to be honored for “his courageous role in ending the dangerous, decades-long Cold War and in giving hope and freedom to millions who lived behind the Iron Curtain.”  Wait, there’s more: “Ultimately, his policies created the environment which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989.”  Yes, well, these lines represent one interpretation of the flopping-like-a-trout-on-the-dock Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Not, I think, an interpretation that is true to the historical facts.  (David Pryce-Jones, call your office.)

Look at the past recipients of the Liberty Medal on the page linked just above.  (The history of the medal seems to be longer than that of the Center; it appears the medal was once given by something called the “Liberty Medal International Selection Commission,” whatever that was.)  Notably, it was never given to Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II while either of them lived, and it has never been given to Margaret Thatcher (calling John O’Sullivan!).

What are we to make of a Liberty Medal being given to a man who did his damnedest to prevent liberty’s eruption, and failed only because he didn’t have enough fingers for every crack in the dike?

If I hadn’t already let my membership lapse in the National Constitution Center, I would certainly do so now.


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