American Culture

It’s time we stopped worshipping the Constitution and our “founding fathers”

For our founding fathers, “people” was a euphemism” that meant “rich white men.” Sadly, the same is true for many of our current leaders.

It’s been a momentous couple of weeks. Obamacare won a key victory, and as a result it’s going to be much harder for Republican politicians to roll it back in the future. There is a great deal wrong with the Affordable Care Act, to be sure, but at least it represents the acknowledgment that the general health of the nation’s citizens is a legitimate government concern.

The Confederate flag – specifically, the famous Stars & Bars battle jack – and the deeply ingrained racism it represents took a major ass-whipping. No, striking a symbol of treason and prejudice won’t make racism go away – any more than electing a black president did – but it’s a meaningful symbolic victory in a long cultural war. If that flag flies on the grounds of the statehouse, it’s an express acknowledgement to everyone that it’s okay to celebrate a “heritage” built on slavery.

Finally, speaking of big wins in the long culture war, the Supreme Court ruled that gay people ought to have the same rights as everyone else.

June 2015, in other words, has been an unrelenting dark smackdown of a month for America’s reactionary conservative movement, and if you’re the hopeful sort you may be asking is this where we finally get serious about dismantling the semantic and policy infrastructure that has done so much harm to so many innocent people for the last two generations.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is doing far better in the polls than Hillary Clinton’s handlers are happy about, I’m guessing.

So there’s good news. Progress, even. But with it has come a big dose of counterproductive rhetoric. I’m not going to bother linking things, because if you’ve paid close attention you’ve heard what I have.

Example: in his marriage equality dissent, which was as long on petulance as it was short on substance, Justice Antonin Scalia waxed dire on how everybody was ignoring the Constitution. “Five lawyers” just took it upon themselves to make shit up, pretty much, and that’s not what Supreme Court justices are supposed to do. They’re supposed to adhere strictly to the letter of what the document says, and we all know by now the evil that lurks in the heart of the “activist judge.”

I used to be a bit of a strict constructionist type myself, and it isn’t hard to understand how intelligent people might revere, perhaps overmuch, a framework that has in many respects stood as the most successful political document of its type in history. People like me are fond of pointing out all that we get wrong here in the US, but it’s impossible to ignore the true moments of greatness we have achieved, and it would be silly to pretend that a skyscraper’s majestic imprint on the skyline had nothing at all to do with the foundation upon which it was constructed.

I’m critical, but I’m not stupid.

All that said, now is as good a time as any to step back and view our Constitution honestly. In fact, it’s an artifact of a pre-industrial agrarian culture, conceived and articulated three decades before the first locomotive took to the tracks. Strict adherence to its wisdom is difficult when it was written by men whose idea of advanced technology was a buggy whip.

And those men… The documents that we get all misty-eyed about make ample use of the word “people.” “We the people.” “Of the people, by the people and for the people.” “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people.” “The right of the people to be secure in their persons.” Ten times in the Declaration of Independence, five more in the Bill of Rights.

But who were these “people”? Truth is, “people” was a euphemism” that meant “rich white men.”

The only “people” who counted were wealthy landowners. All were white. All were men. Women couldn’t vote and black folks were property, some of whom were more valuable than horses and others … I suppose some of the less productive ones probably wouldn’t have fetched a goat in trade.

We’re a society that can’t say “Jefferson” without tearing up and genuflecting, but the great beacon of freedom and democracy was a slave owner. I don’t want to hear about the political realities of that inbred delegation of cavalier wanks from South Carolina, not now, not ever. Jefferson chose to own slaves and he knew it was wrong. And maybe worse. I don’t know that his long affair with Sally Hemings began with rape, but I imagine the concept of “consent” is considerably more complicated when one party literally owns the other and can, at his whim, have her beaten, tortured, hung and fed to the hogs with no fear of legal retribution. We also don’t know how often he ambled out to the slave quarters for a taste of other varieties of brown sugar. Did he ever feel an obligation to be faithful to her? Who the hell is faithful to chattel?

These are the facts. When Scalia and his cronies get their backs up about the sanctity of the Constitution, and when we’re duped into following along like so many hollow-eyed flagellants, this is what we are pledging our allegiance to. How often do we hear some variation of “if the founding fathers could see X, they’d be rolling over in their graves”? Often the imagined outrage involves some privileged gazillionaire or another, or perhaps one of the corporations they run, behaving with the same regard for the commonweal we normally associate with the divinely ordained medieval aristocracy.

I don’t know what we’re thinking when we do this. If the founding fathers were here they’d look around, see powerful white men doing whatever the hell they pleased and say yeah, this is coming along nicely.

Scalia pitched a hissy fit because “five lawyers” took it upon themselves to right an unarguable wrong and to decree that we should not deny to one group of Americans the basic rights we accord to another. Any Constitution that makes it legal to do otherwise is corrupt and should be discarded. Period.

And here’s the even more important part. Any official who uses the Constitution to deny justice to one segment of the population should be, at a minimum, stripped of his or her office and tossed into prison. At the maximum? What’s that thing conservatives like to say about watering the tree of liberty?

Still, this has been our reality. How often have the custodians of our theocratic oligarchy used the Constitution to deny freedom, justice and opportunity? How often have they hidden behind the utterly corrupt doctrine of “state’s rights,” as though whether or not black people should be property is really best left up to slave owners in the Mississippi legislature?

I know this is heresy, but our Constitution has often been as effective a tool for oppression as it has for freedom and it’s high time we stopped treating it as a sacred text ordained by the gods. It’s time we stopped treating our nation’s founders as shamans and priests ordained by those gods and their words as ex cathedra pronouncements to be worshipped as surely as if they were spoken by the gods themselves.

I addressed some of these issues two years ago in my New Constitution project, and I’m not sure my thinking has changed. No doubt some of the details could use work, but at the core was the acknowledgement that our current constitution is largely inappropriate for the 21st century and that history and tradition are never justifications for doing the wrong thing today.

Americans ought to be smart enough to know all this and we as a nation deserve better. We deserve a system of government that represents the best interests of everyone, not just the wealthy white conservative Christian power elite.

It’s time we put our history in the past, especially those portions of it devoted to hate, prejudice and oppression, and began working toward a legal foundation for a just, productive future.

5 replies »

  1. Good governance doesn’t represent anyone’s interests; good governance merely ensures that every individual’s rights are respected and guaranteed, and that the nation can mount a defense against aggressors. Having said that, let’s not confuse products and services – like health care – with rights. Also, while the founders were flawed – some deeply flawed – the framework they set up was excellent. It just wasn’t extended to everyone. So, why not make sure we extend those guarantees to everyone? Isn’t that what we’ve been doing, albeit more slowly than one would prefer? Isn’t that what real progress is? I am certain that real progress is not “Progress.” “Progress,” as embodied the so-called Progressive Movement is chains masquerading as freedom.

  2. Excuse me, I meant to say bondage masquerading as freedom, not chains masquerading as freedom…