Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The American Constitution- Propaganda?

As I listened to the historical reading of the Constitution at the opening of the 112th United States Congress last Thursday, I couldn't help but think of the stifling conditions of the summer heat that must have been present in 1776 as the founding fathers struggled to come to agreement on our Declaration of Independence, a document that would ultimately lead to adoption of our Constitution and would create a truly republican form of representative government that in the history of the world had never been successfully instituted in any lasting form.  I also found myself asking what the framers of our Constitution would have been thinking as this foundational law of our democratic Republic was read on the House floor for the first time in American history.

I highly doubt they could ever have conceived it would be such a controversial event; in fact, I find myself continually amazed as to why it has taken so long for Congress to return to our constitutional origins, (perhaps a sign of the times and its penchant for downplaying the Constitution's importance to the modern age and the continual drift away from the intentions of our Founding Father's).

I also can't imagine that they wouldn't also have expressed some bewilderment at why it would have even been necessary. I mean, why would informed citizens ever elect someone who is ignorant of our governing document's contents, let alone who expresses utter disdain for its reverence and views it as something of an obstacle rather than the revered and proper foundation for our government that it is?

But that's exactly what they would have observed before its open reading in Congress last week. Representatives like Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) protested the reading and referred to constitutional amendments with contemptuous words like “deletions” meant to bring into question our Constitution's continued relevance and authority.

Even worse, in a moment of incredibly irony that could only occur in the insular city that is Washington, D.C., the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), publicly decried what he termed its "ritualistic reading" by claiming that "They [the Republicans] are reading it like a sacred text," and referring to the practice as "propaganda" and "total nonsense."

For representatives like Inslee and Nadler, it appears that the “imperfections” in the foundational document of our lasting and democratic republic render it unworthy of being openly read on the House floor.  (One shudders to wonder if they would hold in equal contempt other foundational documents of our civilization such as the Holy Bible upon which they swore under oath to uphold the very Constitution they now deride when they assumed office, or whether even quotes from Shakespeare or other authors influential in Western culture and penned by "dead white men" would pass muster in their eyes).   

Indeed, to such political partisans, rather than seeing the necessity for the Constitution's being amended from time to time in our great Nation's history to address matters such as slavery and the right of women to vote proving its genius and ability to be both relevant and live up to its founding ideals in the face of societal change in our Republic's history, such amendments are seen as “flaws” that somehow justify downplaying the Constitution's role in our modern and "enlightened" times.

This, to us, seems to miss the forest for the trees.

Eleven years after our Declaration of Independence from Britain due to the oppressive practices of King George III, and in his typical wisdom, Ben Franklin stated upon adoption of our Constitution, "I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

Moreover, it is perhaps instructive to note that when compared to the instability of other countries' governments and the bloody revolutions that historically have accompanied their "amendment" process-- if they even have one-- and/or change in various European Constitutions over the last two hundred years, (The French and Russian “revolutions” come to mind), it becomes obvious that the process laid out in ours is much preferable, (at least if you're judging from body counts). 

This, plus the fact that the very first thing our founders did was to amend the Constitution to include our Bill of Rights, argues strongly for the fact that rather than indicate “fundamental weakness or inequity” in our Constitutional framework, it rather belies its enduring strength and value.

Perhaps the founders could only partly understand the full ramifications of the important compromises and conflicting policy interests that at that time were present and in some ways necessary for our founding document's birth when the revolutionary thought that coursed through this document was fresh in their hearts and minds. 

Indeed, while the Founder's, as all of us, were undoubtedly to some extent limited by the context of the social mores in which they were raised and could not see to just what extent this great document would liberate thousands of future generations, (both here and around the world who have clamored for a chance to come to our shores to partake of this grand experiment called “freedom”), they understood what those that think reading it is a waste of time do not: That although times may march forward in ways that may make it appear in retrospect and to our modern sensibilities “flawed,” the very fact of its ability to be peacably amended to expand liberties clarion call to the ages represents certain moral absolutes, immovable ideals, and the “inalienable rights endowed by our Creator” that make most of the world's governments throughout history look primitive in comparison.

Further, most politicians have lost sight of the fact that the purpose of the Constitution's creation was not so much to slap-happily “meet all our desires and needs,” but to set up a framework by which we could prove worthy to responsibly govern ourselves in the pursuit of our and our nation's long term betterment and establish a liberty that would endure, both now and for generations of posterity to come.  Indeed, the comment of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin upon conclusion of the Philadelphia convention are telling: When asked coming out of the convention what exactly it was the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had wrought, whether Monarchy or a Democracy, Franklin astutely replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Moreover, as another of our Founding Father's, Patrick Henry wisely noted, "The constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government."

So although the founding fathers may have shook their heads in wonder at the necessity of reading the constitution from the floor of Congress in the modern age, I cannot believe that they would not be pleased that our elected leaders, and indeed, all in our Republic, might affirm its relevance and the need for our Constitution's continued existence and the grand freedoms it guarantees to all its citizens, both now and in future generations. In short, the hope that we the people, and in turn all our elected leaders, would not lose sight of our Constitution's enduring promise that, in the words of 31st American President Abraham Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, would not perish from the earth.”

And that, my friends, is a thought worth celebrating as, through our elected Representatives to Congress, we affirm the continued validity and importance of our Constitution in our modern age with its enthusiastic and public reading.  

Propaganda?  Not on your life!  LA with jp

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