Little City Beat / "Constitution is alive and changing"
Published 1:07 am, Friday, July 2, 2010
Each first Friday of the month this column is usually published, which means in July it falls very close to National Freedom Celebration Day. That's what the Fourth of July should be renamed so as to emphasize the importance of all three documents from the 18th century that have kept this country strong and united for so long despite our differences. It hasn't been easy.
In past patriotic pieces I have informed the reader that while the Declaration of Independence cast the yoke of British rule in the ditch and the Constitution made up new Republ-ocratic rules, it is really the Bill of Rights that separates us from the rest. Dolly Madison may have been a wonderful hostess and her cakes divine, but it was her husband Jimmy who authored all original 10 changes to the Constitution. So if your name is Madison, take pride. You share a name with the greatest American of all time.
But I'm not going to rehash the significance of the Constitution and its first 10 amendments this time around. Nor will I inform you why you owe them a debt and should take time out to celebrate them instead of the flag and fireworks. No, I'm going to beat them up instead. After all, they asked for it. You needn't worry, though. They will survive me and many more critics to come.
OK, let's get to the crux of the matter. Is the Constitution written in stone, requiring only a fair reading of original intent by neutral umpires calling balls and strikes? Or is it a living, breathing document purposely loaded with ambiguity and flawed beyond repair? If you surmised the later, you are correct and reside in reality. We are thus, in the same camp.
My argument is easy to make when looking back at non-judgments from the highest bench, steeped in historical indifference. Should a person of darker color be accorded the status of slave or just allowed three fifth's the rights of lighter skinned people? Never mind separate, but equal. Are original aborigines entitled to nothing at all under law? Or should they just be removed to their own nation within a nation? Does it sound fair that half the population should be restricted from political participation? Or should we just do away with direct voting altogether, except for either those with deep pockets or property? Suffrage that if you can.
My case becomes more complex in the present tense. Should a president be bequeathed unitary power over both other branches? Is torture not a cruel and unusual punishment at all if the recipient is not born in America? Can we detain with or without cause indefinitely, a warring party because of a war without end? Does a government have unlicensed consent to research your loyalty via modern technology? Can an inhabitant be removed from a little pink house in favor of community development? C'mon, aren't corporations also people, too?
Is universal health enforceable? Who should decide when life ends, a doctor, attorney, patient or family advocate? Should the state force a woman to give birth? Do same-gender folks have a right to vows if they can find a church or town hall to recite them? Is it OK to carry automatic weapons in a church or school? Can a kid say a prayer aloud before the big test? My prayers were silent when my turn came in school many moons ago.
And silent is what the Constitution is on all of the above. In fact, it is mute. What kind of crappy old parchment can't even answer the simple question of why it's alright for young soldiers to die for their country, but are prohibited from a simple beer depending on which state they are in stateside? What is wrong with our true national treasure if it can't even answer in clear language what is right or wrong?
The answer to that last question is unsatisfactory, yet compelling. Jefferson, Madison & Company were human. They were restrained from the immortality We the People grant them in hindsight today. The authors knew darn well they wrote the best form of rules to live by in a time of royalty. They knew as well, what they wrote had legs. But their collective abilities and hard work were fought over then, as they are now. And that is the beauty of the greatest compact the world has ever known. It is alive and changing all the time which means ... it is open to interpretation.
It is difficult for me to watch and listen, all of a sudden in the last two years, to all of the newly reconstructed constitutionalists emerging in colonial clothes on the street or in television studios with chalkboards as props. So, I don't anymore. In their limited scope, rules are rules and cannot be erased from granite. There seems to be some mutant Biblical strain that has proven contagious among them. I hope they get better soon and it doesn't spread to me.
What I would do for them, is to ask them to read Dave Souter's commencement speech at Harvard last May. He is a dead serious man. But for laugh-out-loud humor, check out Johnny Steven's dissent on Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commission. It's long. But, yes you can, get through it.
For every one else, I will finish with my usual National Freedom Celebration Day motto. I know it will seem familiar, especially, the grievances part.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Oh, one last thing. The Constitution says absolutely nothing about the size of government or rates of taxation. I'm fairly certain the framers could not have imagined in their wildest dreams what the needs (or wants) of 300 million citizens would be more than 200 years into the future.
But never shout fire in a crowded theater. Have fun at the fireworks. I will.
Dan Vasone's column is published each month in the Fairfield Citizen.