Universal Translator

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Constitution: We're Working on It

"I love my country."

That is what you get to hear, right before the speaker rips into it.  And that is what I propose to do – rip into and talk a bit about how flawed and imperfect is the United States of America.  I mentioned, elsewhere, that I am not a big fan of jingoism, or even nationalism, but I am a big fan of patriotism.  I am a patriotic man, because when I think of the United States of America I think of our ideals, our struggle, and our goal to be a better country, a better people.

One thing that not many people think of these days is how audacious the United States were, when they were wielded into a single country.  For the first time a new nation was born, riding the wave of the Enlightenment.  John Locke, David Hume, these were our progenitors just as surely as were Madison, Jefferson and Washington.  For the first time a group of men (and, yes, they were all men) gathered together and thought:  how best might a people govern themselves?

It is important to note the time.  The Thirteen Colonies already had thrown off Britain’s yoke.  And they had been operating for some years under the original Articles of Confederation, which had proved inadequate for the task.  A new union was needed, a stronger union was needed, and yet no State (and they were States – no longer Colonies – by then) wanted to give up too much sovereignty.  So a congress was called to debate and to hammer out during that debate a new Constitution for a new nation.

I love that, that audacity.  For maybe the first time in the history of Western Civilization a whole bunch of people got together to try and find a way to live together as easily, as equitably, and as justly as possible without resort to any “revealed truth” of a religious text, and without thinking of a “divine right” of kings.  We were the product of the Enlightenment, and we believed in Reason.  We believed – with no historical tradition whatsoever to back us up – that we were capable of this monumental task.

And we fucked it up.

But we knew we were fucking it up when we did it.  Our Founding Fathers were so enamored of the idea of Reason (and its burgeoning sister, Empiricism) that they couldn’t have helped noticing they had fucked it up.  That, after all, is the entire point of the Constitution’s Amendment Clause.  What the Founders were saying with that is quite simple: 
Look.  We know we didn’t get everything right, here.  We are sure that this thing is gonna have to be changed.  We did the best we could, with what we were given, but we aren’t perfect, and this thing won’t last forever.  Change it as necessary to keep this Idea alive.  We trust in you.

And for more than 200 years, we’ve kept that trust.  It hasn’t always been easy.  We saw the world’s first modern war – brought about with the world’s first modern, machine-tooled weapons – that found us killing each other in record numbers to keep the Idea of our united people alive.  It was bloody and it was violent and it still scars the soul of this country.

But . . . . still, it made us a little better, because it brought us – late to the party, but still willing to dance – to the abolition of an inhuman institution.  The Civil War was not the end of an unjust way of life, but it was the end of that injustice being formally recognized by our country’s governments.  When a whole large group of our brothers and sisters said, in effect, “We would rather not live with you than give up a way of life built on the degradation of others,” the rest of us replied:  “You don’t get to make that decision.  The country will stand.  And slavery will not.”

I am a Southern man.  I still live in the South, only 20 miles away from the town I was born in.  And I’m proud to be an American.

Which is why I never have thought to fly the Confederate Flag.

* * *

And maybe it is just because I am a Southerner and the Civil War still echoes in my ears where I live, but I understand the dream and promise of America to be one of greater and greater enfranchisement.

When the Constitution was first hammered out, African-Americans – slaves – were counted as 3/5ths of a person.  This is one of those icky facts that the Republicans preferred to gloss over when they took the House last year and read out the Constitution as a sort of badly-played piece of performance art.  And who can blame them?  It must be terribly difficult to be a Conservative these days, demanding that your political opponents acknowledge that the original Constitution was perfect in every waywhile having to elide over the bits that don’t fit well in the 21st Century.

(And God knows how they hope to claim perfection and infallibility for our Founding Fathers and our Founding Document while at the same time arguing for a Balanced Budget Amendment.  It’s perfect! . . . . except for this small thing.  No, not the slaves, they’re fine.  It’s that thing about taxing rich white people that gives us a stomach-ache.)

So I keep in mind the Amendments that increased that enfranchisement.  The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that (legally, if not actually) enfranchised black men.  The 19th Amendment that enfranchised women.  The 26th Amendment that gave 18 year olds the right to vote.

And I mind the 17th Amendment, which altered the Constitution so that people could vote directly for their Senators, instead of having those Senators elected by aristocrats in their state legislatures. I understand that Rick Perry thinks this is a bad ideaPerry often seems confused, but it is important to recognize what this tendency is:  sheer fear by the political elites that The People might gain too much power.  And it isn’t new.  In fact, it is enshrined in our Founding Document, the Constitution of the United States.

Remember . . . for all of their talk about “self-determination” and “democracy,” our Founding Fathers were taking a huge leap of faith when they decided to entrust the safety of their new country to . . . . well, to us really.  Nothing like this had ever been tried before, and they were trusting that ordinary people (well, y’know, at the time, some ordinary people . . . not women, or indentured servants, or slaves, or recent immigrants, or native Americans but, you know, real people:  middle-aged white men who wore wigs and leggings and probably liked show tunes) that they’d be able to carry the weight.

Except, they didn’t really trust us all that much.  Not really.  So they created a system that was intended to see as little change as possible.  They created a tri-partite system of governance consisting of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches – each to act as a check on the other.  The Congress – which was to wield the greatest power – was further divided into two separate chambers.  The House of Representatives would be the “people’s House,” but they would be switched out every two years in endless elections.  The Senate, on the other hand, would be elected by the ruling aristocrats of each State’s legislative body (this was pre-17th Amendment), and keep an eye on the rambunctious House.  (Not good to let the hoi polloi start too much trouble, dear chap.  Give the people a vote and let them pretend to have a voice, and we’ll get on with the real business of governing over here, where they aren’t looking.  It still works this way.)

But the Idea of America proved too powerful for the staid and timid waistcoats of our Founding Fathers, and more and more people were enfranchised to vote for how they wanted the country to be run.  The early part of the 20th Century saw the rise of workers’ rights, and protection for unions – despite people being machine-gunned to death for demanding those rights.  The 60’s saw people literally dying to make sure that African-Americans in the Jim Crow South could cast a ballot and seek representation.  When 18 year olds were allowed to vote and afforded the opportunity to protest what they perceived to be the illegal acts of their own government, they were shot dead at Kent State.

But for the Idea of America none of that mattered, not ultimately, not really, because the voices were never silenced.  And because those voices won and are still winning.

* * *

As always, America fails greatly in its endeavors and often falls short of its mark.  It certainly is not the first country to espouse ideals that it doesn’t really believe in at the time.  But the Idea of America – self-determination, equality before the law, the dignity of the individual person, freedom of conscience -- . . . . the United States of America still makes Ideas like these sing.  The United States of America gave these Ideas life in a way never seen before in the world, and we would be fools and cowards to abandon them now.

I look around me at my country, and I can see how badly its Idea has been betrayed.  But I never stop remembering that it was still and ultimately my country that helped make the Idea something people could believe in.

And I have to think we can do that again.

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