Revelation 20 - Barack Obama's Having a Bad Couple of Weeks

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Barack Obama's had a really troubling two weeks for those of us who are members of the Deomocratic wing of the Democratic party. My decision to vote for him in November was a difficult one; his voting record, Republican hit pieces aside, is not particularly liberal. I am unused to not voting for a 3rd party in a Presidential election; in 2004, people smarter than I convinced me that the damage done by the current administration was such that a person with conscience living in a swing state (guilty) would be making an error in not voting for John Kerry, but he was the first major party candidate for whom I voted for President since 1988.

So, while I would have preferred Dennis Kucinich or even John Edwards, I see the value in casting a vote for Obama (and, since I've already, in this space, picked Obama to win the general election, the only prediction I've made in what's titled the "blog of revelation" I have some self interest as well) and am planning to so do.

However. Goddamn it's been a bad two weeks and getting worse.

*He came out in support of the FISA bill.
* He disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision rejecting the death penalty in child rape cases and appeared to agree (or, at least failed to disagree) with the Court's decision declaring the DC gun control law unconstitutional.
* He hit Wesley Clark,, and the "counter-culture" of the 1960s. His language in his speech defending his patriotism was a broadside at, well, at me, I guess - and my interest in blindly accepting the platitude that America - that any nation - is somehow special, chosen by god, emboldened with a magical purpose passed in 2nd grade.
* And he apparently would expand the faith based initiative programs that have made mincemeat of establishment clause; perhaps as a result of his secret meeting with evangelicals back on June 10. The type of access that...and I'm just guessing here - won't be granted to we who believe there is no one in the sky and would like to maintain a portion of our constitutionally guaranteed rights to live in a country which doesn't take a position on the issue.

Hard for me to vote for someone lining up that far opposite me.

With that - I am preparing my government course for next week and decided to offer as a revelation some thoughts on the Constitution - specifically, thoughts I had upon the creation of Constitution Day as a federal holiday. As the 4th of July approaches, it seems like the right time to share them.

For those of you outside academia (are there such people?) you may be unaware that a couple of years ago, Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 18, 1787, became a required academic event for every school which receives federal funds. Putting aside the questionable premise that the federal government make as a means test any type of compelled curricula, in and of itself, the study of the U.S. Constitution, you know, is a good thing. It's the founding document of the country, and could be properly studied, along with, say, any random excerpt from a work like...I don't know...Thomas Paine's Common Sense:

Reason and Ignorance, the opposites of each other, influence the great bulk of mankind. Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.

But the problem with having a day like Constitution Day is that in a significant number of institutions, it wont be used for critical analysis of that document, but instead as an excuse for jingoism. Students across the country will recite their required chants and make their required salutes, and be taught to bow down in subservience to their masters. God shed His grace on Thee.

Particularly since its celebration arrives concurrently with the anniversary of September 11, and given the level of conservative rhetoric over the past 8 years that defines opposition to any Bush policy as a Neville Chamberlain-esque appeasement of a totalitarian regime that is knocking on our doors (candygram) right now, I'm guessing the requisite political expression that day will be limited to holding your hat over your heart.

A full two years before the American colonies would win their independence from England in 1783, representatives of those colonies ratified the Articles of Confederation. This document was not designed to bind all Americans as in indivisible nation, but to instead establish what was referred to a "firm league of friendship" among the 13 separate states. One should think of this original design as closer to a collection of European principalities than the modern day U.S.

One can understand the impulse; consider life in the 18th century: without radio, television, the automobile, the life of the average Pennsylvanian really had very little to do with the life of someone in Maryland, for example. Each state had its own economy; its own culture, its own religious tradition traditions that were often very far removed from each other. Further, recognize that the spirit of the Revolutionary War was fervent repulsion against the arbitrary rule of a powerful central government, not only from the ground level no taxation without representation rap that you learned in elementary school, but from the American elite who were tired of kicking a cut of their monthly take upstairs. So, that the colonial leaders were disinclined to yield any of their newly won power shouldn't be surprising. It won't be another boss who whacks the leader of your local crime family; it'll be someone who wants to move from check writer to check casher.

The Articles of Confederation proved flawed. The colonies fought over trade, over recognizing the individual currency printed by each state, over the location of state borders, over how new territories would be apportioned. The central government that was created under the Articles, the Confederation Congress, was buried in a morass of its own limitation. Each state only had one vote, and nine of those votes were needed to pass any piece of legislation; moreover, legislation passed by the Confederation Congress wasn't binding. States could, and did, simply say, "uh, no, were gonna go a different way on that, daddy" on any matter ruled by the majority.

For four months the delegates met in the sealed Philadelphia State House in the summer of 1787; occasionally people think of the Constitution as if it were a secular Ten Commandments, a document which somehow was dropped into our hands from the unfortunately nicknamed "founding fathers"; the truth is this was a piece of sometimes bitterly debated legislation, crafted day and night, both in boardroom and tavern hall, and what emerged is far less a piece of divine inspiration than of political compromise.

Out of those compromises came the composition of the federal government, with powers shared among three co-equal branches: a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. The national legislature itself, the Congress, was a creature of compromise. The lower house, the people's House of Representatives, was to be filled proportionally - meaning states with greater population would receive more representation; and conversely, the upper house, named the Senate after a similar body in the Roman Republic, would be composed of the same number of members from each state. The degree to which the American people would be allowed a voice in the political process was also forged from compromise. The people would not vote for federal judges, those would be appointed by the executive. The people would not vote for the members of the Senate, those were appointed by each state's legislature until the 20th century. The people would not vote directly for the president - and as anyone who lived through the 2000 election will attest, an election where the candidate who got the most votes lost, the people still do not. I would love to see the Cold War headlines if after an election in communist country Y the candidate who got the most votes lost. We'd still teach that election in American schools as an example of the superiority of capitalismdemocracy. Further, the only people who could vote for any national office were men, property owners, and white.

The central compromise of the Constitution involved slavery; there will be some who will confuse studying the Constitution with glorifying it, but that reduces history to mere propaganda and diminishes any value Constitution Day might have. The key division at the Constitutional Convention was not merely between large and small states, as is so often taught in high school civics classes, but between north and south. As the degree to which the legislature would be based on population was being debated, the central area of dispute was how to count the slaves. States like Georgia and South Carolina had relatively small white populations, so they would have fewer representatives in the lower House than states like New Jersey and New Hampshire; however, if one added in the slaves to the population count, then the southern states would have a greater degree of power in the legislature. If one considers the starting point, 13 states so married to their independence that they wouldn't recognize each other's money, the number of votes that each would get in Congress was paramount.

The result was that slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person for representation purposes and that the slave trade could continue for twenty years before Congress could reconsider the issue. Those who talk about the original intent of the framers of the constitution, who consider the founding fathers visionaries beyond reproach, should recognize the historical reality that the embedding of slavery into our founding document led to a brutal Civil War, led to a legalized racial segregation and discrimination (our own American apartheid) to the creation of an entire group of people consigned as third class American citizens based solely on the color of their skin.

As we celebrate Constitution Day, let us not do so mindlessly, let us not merely reflexively offer the same platitudes heard during small town parades and sing the same songs that are badly performed before minor league baseball games. What the U.S. Constitution has allowed us, in frets and starts, certainly, is to exist in a living democracy. And a democracy is not a system of government when we are told by our superiors which box we are required to check; a democracy permits, scratch that, a democracy demands that we the people, in order to form a more perfect union, never stop putting those people whose power comes solely from our grant to the fire and make them justify the actions they take in our name.

As Thomas Paine wrote, "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right." And let me suggest that Constitution Day not be used to ratify mistakes past made, but to take a clear eyed look at what it is we'd like our collective future to hold, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.


Anonymous said...

Interesting notes on the constitution. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The Constitution of the United States all but guarantees the eventual collapse of the country. The collapse itself may not happen in our lifetimes, but the withering of our country to near irrelevance could well take place within the next 50 years.

The only thing that will save this country is the placement of society at a higher priority than individual rights. But that document assures that that will not happen, so Americans will continue to live in an 18th century inspired fantasy that is just no longer valid today.

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