Monday, January 02, 2012

Holy Scripture

If you're a Christian, it's the Bible. If you're a Jew, it's the Talmud. If you're a Muslim, it's the Koran. If you're a Sikh, it's the Granth. If you're one of the two or three remaining Communist purists in the world, it's Capital, by Karl Marx.

And if you're a hard-core American conservative, it's the Constitution ... whether you really understand what it actually says or not.

As we look back at the past year of political gridlock in Washington and ahead to the raucous clown show of the presidential election, one of the things you'll be sure to hear a lot about is The Constitution. And one of the things you'll be able to see is that many of the people who shout loudest about The Constitution and whether or not something is constitutional have only the merest idea of what they're talking about.

I don't pretend to be a Constitutional scholar. I've read and studied the Constitution (much more so in the last two years), which - obviously - doesn't make me an expert on the subject. But I do think I've got a bit better idea than many people who treat the document as holy scripture of what it says and ... to the extent that we can interpret the thoughts of the Framers who wrote it in 1787 ... what it means.

The US Constitution is both the oldest (written in 1787) and the shortest (4400 words ... 4543, if you're counting the original, unamended version and the signatures) written Constitution in the world. The fact that it is so short is both a good and a bad thing ... good, because it was written to allow flexibility of interpretation (and sidestep difficult political and social issues like slavery); bad, because flexibility of interpretation leads to ... well ... differing interpretations.

You can see how the problem of differing interpretations manifests itself every day as Congress wrestles with how to avoid solving the nation's problems. What does it mean for a law or position to be constitutional? What did the founders really mean when they wrote the Second Amendment? Is a document written at the end of the 18th century still a viable guide to government at the dawn of the 21st?

The ongoing Constitution Cafe project tries to envision how the Constitution might be rewritten to meet the needs of a world very much different from that of the Revolutionary era. The Constitution Cafe website asks the question this way:

"What if we engaged in a 'constitutional thought experiment'? What if we held a ‘new’ Constitutional Convention of sorts, and acted as if we were the Framers? Using existing constitutional articles as the starting point, would we come to a more profound understanding of and appreciation for the amazing document created by our Framers -- even or especially if we decided to redo the articles? Would we be able to practice imaginative reasonableness, careful listening and equal recognition as we scrutinize a wide variety of proposals, inviting compelling objections and alternatives? Would we be able to reach creative compromise and consensus or even achieve a higher ground?"

This is a very interesting and profoundly important set of questions that goes to the very heart of our system of government and our ability to keep the freedoms and the representative democracy that set us apart from most of the rest of the world. As we take a deep breath and plunge into another acrimonious election season, and as Congress gets ready to come back from its recess and continue to do not very much other than generate hot waste gas, we need to think about the Big Picture. What kind of country do we want? Is a constitutional guarantee of unrestricted freedom more important than an emphasis on shared responsibilities? Should the Constitution be amended or completely junked and rewritten? In a time of such political divisiveness, could we even decide?

I'll be blogging about this topic quite a bit over the coming months. For the record at the outset, I don't believe it's realistic to even think about a wholesale rewrite of the Constitution. I don't think that in the current political atmosphere of my way or the highway we can display the imaginative reasonableness, careful listening and creative compromise envisioned in the Constitution Cafe project. But we can and should engage - to the extent we can - in a calm and rational debate over the direction in which the country needs to go and the best way to get there.

How would you amend or rewrite the Constitution? I have my own ideas that I'll trot out in this space, but I'd like to know what you think.

Let's have that responsible, respectful debate, because thinking and discussing is what we haven't been doing too much of over the last few years. We've been shouting and accusing, which isn't the same thing.

Have a good day. Let's talk about the country we want when the intellectual bloodletting of the election is over.

More thoughts coming.



allenwoodhaven said...

Deep thoughts to start the new year! It would be great to get our elected representatives to calmly and reasonably discuss what we want our country to be and how our government should help that happen.

As a starting point, I think that the government should do what we individuals cannot do alone. That includes providing for national defense, regulations to control corporations (or individuals with lots of power/money) from destroying the environment or taking unfair advantage of workers, and promoting the welfare of citizens through a health system that treats everyone and provides education through quality public schools and higher learning assistance. I believe these things would promote our country by promoting our citizens.

Ideas should be evaluated not on who says them or how much money promotes them but on the reasonableness of the ideas themselves. Budgetary constraints are obviously crucial, but revenues should be raised to meet obligations. Corporations/people with wealth should all share in this without exception. Some programs can be too expensive for what they provide so should be scaled back or eliminated IF they are not worthwhile. (As an example, I think many developmental defense weapons programs could reasonably be scaled back or eliminated but food stamps should not.)

This was a long comment, but you asked for it...

Mike said...

Back in the good ol' days after the shouting was over they could go back to their farms and forget about government for awhile. Try that today.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Mike is correct: today we have a careerist class of politicians who look at politics as their primary or sole occupation.

Another similarity between views of Scripture and the Constitution: there's a tendency to interpret both out of context. Look at the First Amendment, with the two clauses regarding religion: the establishment clause and the exercise clause. In fact, er can have some places where they seem to conflict, like whether a student might pray in public schools.

Or the Second Amendment: is the Right to Bear Arms solely to provide for a Militia (e.g., National Guard)?

Greg said...

Been absent for a long time, but this coming year will be a defining year in the evolution of what we call the United States. Bill has done plenty of the heavy lifting for all of us. I'd just like to remind all of what the Founders had in mind when they were busy framing the Declaration, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. They were fighting and coming out of the throws of over reaching Governmental control. They had the idea that the people had as good an idea of what was best for them as some central authority. I totally share this concept. Be careful in your thoughts about what you accept as the 'truth', as each of us must. I've been practicing environmentalism since I was 5 years old as taught to me by an outdoors woman who loved to hunt and fish, but fought the strip mining coal industry to the point that she has a forest named for her in Central PA. When an idea has merit, I accept it, but concepts such as global warming have not been proven, nor have the facts produced to date provided any foundation for its theory. I'll save further comments for the future, as I intend to enter 2012 with an open mind...for what is best for the individual citizen.

Banana Oil said...

The Funding Fathers put together the Constitution in its original form in 1787. They could not have conceived of all of the changes that were to take place over the next 230 years -- so the Constitution would have to serve as a rough outline, to be modified with more modern times.