Friday, June 29, 2012


I've gotten in trouble over the years for saying the US Constitution (not to be confused with the USS Constitution) is just a piece of paper. It's an important piece of paper, but it concerns me that so many speak of it with reverential tones, often more reverential than we speak of scripture - as if the Constitution was somehow divinely inspired to, once and for all, reveal the proper way for people to get along with each other.

Despite its complexity, a complexity that requires years of study to begin to understand, a complexity that has inspired months and weeks of intense debate, the US Constitution has some very simple functions. I have great respect for it in that way. Government, a complex institution, is boiled down some bare principles. The best is that it set itself up in such a way that the answer to any complex Constitutional question is simply the opinion of the majority of the Justices of the Supreme Court.

They rule; it stands. The same people so vindicated by Citizens United last year are up in arms over the recent ruling on the Affordable Care Act. Sometimes you hate the decision and sometimes you love it, but there's no recourse of disagreeing; the decision becomes definitive. I love that kind of forethought.

The other simple solution I love about the US Constitution is its basis on principle. Written and framed by a bunch of wealthy landowners, the principles of hard work, self-reliance, and individual liberty are squarely ingrained therein. These were guys who could take care of themselves and didn't want anybody telling them what to do. That's why they excluded most US residents from the voting process and completely distrusted the common man. We're a Republic, not a Democracy because the US Constitution was designed to benefit capable people over the less capable.

That's music to the ears of some today, who maintain such a legacy and insist the Constitution should continue to work under those principles. For others, it sounds terse and unfeeling, almost tyrannical in it's ironic attempt to escape tyranny. Here again, there is much room for debate, but the genius of the US Constitution is that the intent or principles of the founders don't matter to the function of government. They created a system whereby the government reflects the desires and convictions of the people. If those convictions become something other than the ones under which the Constitution was formed, it will cease to work as well. In other words: we get what we deserve as a people.

When society decried the greed, cowardice, irresponsibility, and downright contemptuous nature of our government, we are really heaping coals on ourselves. The people we elect reflect who we are and what we value. It's the way the system was set up. Again, I can't explain how genius this is. Truly a representative form of government.

Most of the political battles these days boil down to ideology. One side wanting to return to the ideals of founders and the other seeking to move forward towards progress and a new vision. Frankly, these are both far too grandiose of notions to ever be realistic.

The gradual progress of civilizations has improved some things for some people - that's true. The upward trend in history really just increase the distance between benefit and devastation. There is just as much sorrow as ever; we're just better at telling the story. In the same way, the founders of the US Constitution aren't all that enviable. Selfish, rabble-rousers mostly - certainly with a flair for the idealistic and an uncanny ability to motivate. History's demi-gods have always been that way.

What makes the most sense to me, in light of our genius Constitution, is a focus on the principles that actually work to produce a decent society. In this sense, neither side of the ideological divide is bereft of contributions. There is something to be said for responsibility and hard work, of course; there is also something to be said for compassion, empathy, and community.

I have no doubt that everyone engaged in US politics wants nothing more than to shape society towards a better set of values (in the hopes that those values would, in turn, shape a better government). The problem is that most people seem to think that values are instilled through education, logic, guilt, or force - that people adopt a new perspective because of something that clicks inside their head.

I just don't believe that. I believe people are transformed by experience. People are shaped to be responsible by being valued for who they are. I believe people begin to care about others when they've discovered human dignity in themselves. Despite our best efforts to instill our ideological convictions within us, I don't believe the path between our heads and our hearts is all that easy to navigate.

I don't spend a lot of time worrying about government or the future of our country. If they ask my opinion about something, I'm happy to give it - but ultimately what they do matters little to life, certainly less than our media and power obsessed culture wants us to believe. The government we have and the society in which we live is entirely shaped by the people of which they are comprised.

I know it's a novel concept and likely a fools errand, but my politics involves a real attempt to love, honor, and respect the people around me, even at the cost of my own comfort. I believe it is the only hope for a world worth living in.

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