Friday, June 14, 2013

From the Books: "Me the People"

I've recently read a book called Me the People: One Man's Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America, by Kevin Bleyer. Mr. Bleyer is, among other things, one of the writers for The Daily Show, which means that this book is a mixture of humor and serious discussion, with the occasional problem that at times it's difficult to separate the two. But it still present a fascinating look at the process by which the Founding Fathers arrived at the Constitution, and what kinds of problems exist in trying to force a modern, technological superpower's society on a governmental structure created by a bunch of agrarian former colonists more than two hundred years ago.

In all honesty, I've never been much for idolatry of the Constitution. I recently had a friend try to draw me into a conversation on gun control, and I strongly resisted, not particularly wanting to venture down that particular garden path, well, ever. But my friend did ask me this: "Well, you believe in the Constitution, don't you?" That struck me as an interesting question, because, well, what does it mean?

Do I believe in the Constitution? I suppose so, in that I believe that we have a government that is structured according to the provisions contained within the Constitution's pages. And that's about all that I believe about it. I don't believe that there is anything especially sacred about the Constitution, and I don't believe that the Constitution represents some kind of moment when we rose to greatness. In truth, the Constitution is a muddled mess of a document, and the government it creates isn't so much a brilliantly constructed Machine of Democracy as a hodge-podge, ramshackle mess of compromises with difficulties exacerbated by some really poor writing.

When discussing various issues, I try to never get wrapped up in talking about what "the Founding Fathers wanted", for a number of reasons. To begin with, the Constitution simply does not represent any kind of 'consensus' on the part of the Founding Fathers. A lot of them disliked the resulting document and simply accepted it as "the best thing we're likely to end up with". When the biggest matter of consensus arising from the Constitutional Convention was a general sense of "Meh, this was the best we could do, folks", the idea of ascribing any particular thought or philosophy to "the Founding Fathers" doesn't make much sense. Heck, Thomas Jefferson even thought that we should scrap the entire thing after a few decades and take another whack at it. As far as I can see, referring to "what the Founding Fathers wanted" is a reference to nothing at all, because they all wanted different things.

More importantly, though, is that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. The United States Constitution was adopted 224 years ago. Even if there really was some kind of consensus as to what the FF's wanted, why should that even matter now? Maybe because it's our own history, but the time of the FFs was a lot longer ago than I think we tend to realize, and I'm increasingly of the view that keeping our governmental structures rigidly organized according to the thoughts of people who lived and died that long ago may not be a great idea. Consider the following list of things, and consider that FFs lived closer to these things, time-wise, than they did to us:

Queen Elizabeth I
William Shakespeare
The defeat of the Spanish Armada
Johannes Kepler
Suleiman the Magnificent
Ben Jonson

Did the FFs intend for their Constitution to still be running the show 224 years later? I have no idea. But I suspect they'd be a bit baffled by the lip service that is paid to that old document these days, and it says something to me that they included a mechanism for changing the Constitution for a reason.

Here's how Bleyer sums things up:

Now we understand how it all happened -- or rather, almost didn't.

The Constitution wasn't a "Miracle at Philadelphia" written by "an assembly of demigods". On the contrary; what began as a measured, deliberate effort to rescue a beleaguered country became a perpetual unresolved-motion machine -- a maddening cycle of nonbinding votes by a parade of toothless committees, marked by fits and starts, fights and "full stops", conducted by a combative group of exhausted, drunken, broke, petty, partisan, scheming, squabbling, bloviating, backstabbing, grandstanding, godforsaken, posturing, restless, cow-tipping, homesick, cloistered, claustrophobic, sensory-deprived, under-oxygenated, fed-up, talked-out, overheated delegates so distraught and despairing they threatened violence, secession, foreign allegiance, even prayer -- and concluded, for those who didn't abandon the proceedings altogether, with as much premeditation and forethought as a game of musical chairs: the last, least abhorrent, mutually-somewhat-acceptable idea on the table when the music stopped -- or the heat became too unbearable, or the liquor too strong, or the rioting too loud, or the pressure too intense, or the company too loathsome, or the wigs too uncomfortable, or the patience too thin -- became the law of the land. As much the product of an "assembly of demigods" as a confederacy of dunces.

From page one, the Constitution is, by its own admission, a compromise. It is what you get when you drink beer for breakfast.

Or as Ben Franklin put it as the Convention ended: "Thus I consent to this Constitution, because I expect no better."

If they thought it stank, why should we pretend that it smells of roses and lavender?


mylittlegeekery said...

Because instead of making an informed and intelligent decision about matters, American adults like to wave a bit of illegible parchment about and say "Because it says so!" As though they are parents of children who have no good reason why they don't want you to go outside and play.

I love the constitution brandishers that quote the Declaration of Independance instead.

New York Erratic said...

Well... it's complicated.

First there's this (somewhat artifical) dichotomy between:

- "The Constitution is sacred and special in the same way that a religious document such as the Torah or Qur'an is sacred. It is an 'inspired' document."

- "The Constitution is absolutely nothing special and just a piece of paper written by underqualified 30-somethings who were trying to seize power."

I see it as: "The Constitution is special because of what it represents. Before the United States most nations were ruled by common law, not written law. It is a single document that unifies a nation not by statement or a symbol but by a principal: the rule of law. It is special and unique in part for the same reasons that Hammurabi's Code is special and unique. But it is also important in human history because it demonstrates that a nation can be created and founded not by common ethnicity or simply by war, but by principals, philosophy and ideals."