Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day!

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." - Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

*spoiler alert* potentially political topic is ahead.  Keep reading at your own risk.

Happy Constitution Day!

Many people may not realize this but today hasn't always been Constitution Day, and no, I'm not talking about the obvious years before 1789.  September 17th wasn't an official holiday known as Constitution Day (technically, "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day") until the Omnibus spending bill of 2004 made it so.  And why did a spending bill create a holiday?  Well, because that's just How it Works.

Granted, most people don't even know the day exists.  Few people treat it like a "real" holiday--you know, when we sit around in pajamas until it's time to go watch a parade or drink heavily or something entertaining like that.  But we educators--everybody, in fact, whose institutions use federal funds or allow students access to federal student aid--have to know it exists.  We have to teach our students something about the Constitution every year.  In fact, it's the only thing I'm legally required to teach at my college--I could legally (and stupidly) turn my medical assistant classes into instruction in how to create beautiful basketry, but one day, each year, I must teach something about the Constitution of the United States of America.

Why?  Well, because that's just How it Works. 

It's tougher than it seems it should be these days, mind you.  Everybody from the guy with a Harvard law degree down to the radio talk show host who couldn't finish a semester of college is an expert on the document already, and they all disagree with whatever the other side agrees with.  And that's the funny thing about the document.  It was purposely written a little bit vague.  Ferinstance, it gives our government the responsibility for providing for "the general welfare" among other things.  Have you ever looked up the definition of "welfare"?  Yeah, that's such a general term by itself that the adjective does absolutely nothing for it.  Benjamin Franklin had a helluva time getting the group of men with extremely diverse views to agree on much of anything otherwise.  They probably couldn't even come to consistent decisions on which fast food place to eat lunch at, and thank God they didn't have to ponder the morality of chicken sandwiches, or they'd've gotten nothing done.  Still, people use it as an arguing point: "The Constitution doesn't say anything about _____!"

Even members of Congress get into that argument, so much so that sometimes they'll begin sessions with reading the Constitution itself out loud.  Now, that sounds kinda cool, at first.  Except that I, as a teacher, know that there's only two reasons we make classes read aloud.  The first is if we're trying to break the class in gently for being able to speak in public--reading aloud is Step A on that educational journey.  But I've listened in on C-SPAN, and I can tell you that if there's anybody, Republican or Democrat, in that august body who needs any additional training in the art of bloviation, they sure hide it well.  As for reading in class, the other time we bring it is for punitive reasons, when we know people aren't doing their reading homework outside of class and the material is important enough that we just make 'em suffer through reading it out loud instead of the far more enjoyable process of listening to us talk about it.  But seriously, I have to say that it really bothers me--students are students and they'll always find reasons and ways to not do their assigned work, but legislators make a whole lot more money than I do every year.  If they're not doing their assigned readings before they get there, send 'em home and find someone who will, I say. 

Anyway, back to the document itself.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised some Americans' hackles early this year when speaking to the new Egyptian regime.  She said, "Let me say first that a Constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.  If the people don't care, then the best Constitution in the world won't make any difference.  So the spirit of liberty has to be in the population, and then the Constitution, first, it should safeguard basic fundamental human rights...."

All that is great, but what got under peoples' skin was her answer to a question about where to look for examples: "I would not look to the U.S. Constitution, if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012.  I might look at the Constitution of South Africa."  Hoo, boy--one of our own Supreme Court Justices saying that our Constitution doesn't make a great example for a new government.  Let the fireworks begin.

Easy, though, folks.  Her point related to the currency of the effort, not value of the overall document, and I think that it's a good one.  Back when our Constitution was crafted, it was written for a rather different world.  When folks like Thomas Jefferson echoed phrases like "all men are created equal," they weren't using the male-gendered noun to meet a purely grammatical requirement.  Women didn't get the right to express their opinions in the voting booth, remember, till the 19th Amendment (Nineteenth!  Not first, not second, but nineteenth!) was enacted in 1920.  That's nearly a century and a half later.  Many of them also weren't talking about anybody who wasn't a landed gentleman of Caucasian descent, by the way, and some were even excluding the Irish immigrants, darn them (my own great-great-and-so-on-grandfather had already immigrated from Ireland several decades previous, so he was okay, and besides, he'd gone south to the Carolinas).  Each of the subsequent equalizations has happened over the years since, many requiring years of protest and push, and one unfortunately even requiring a war.

So all totaled, the document has been formally amended 27 times.  True, ten were at the same time, and one of the amendments was to undo an earlier one (the famous Prohibition amendment), thus leaving us with 25, um, "real" amendments.

And then there's the unofficial amendments, more accurately called interpretations.  For over two hundred years the Supreme Court has been responding to questions of law, interpreting the vague verbiage used in the U.S. Constitution in more or less interesting ways.  It's their job, of course, one specifically set out by the document itself.  A tough, thankless job it is, too; every decision they make seems to be hailed as wise and justified by one segment of the population and evil, biased, and an extreme of "judicial activism" by another segment.  Who says which only depends on which side of the population the Supreme Court agreed with.

You know, looking at the revisions that have happened over the years, it's easy, I guess, to think less of the document.  I'd suggest that's the wrong way to look at it, though.  Not only has the U.S. Constitution stood the test of time, but the years, revisions, and interpretations have only served to make it stronger, more just to everyone and not just a specific few. 

All except, of course, the Supreme Court decisions with which I disagree.  Those evil, biased, activist judges....  *ahem*

So, all that said, with 27 amendments and over two centuries of case law muddying the water, I'd agree with Justice Ginsburg that a new nation should look to less heavily-revised documents for the purpose of finding a template to use in crafting their own.  For all other purposes, though, I'm quite proud of the one we have, thank you very much, occasionally-vague though it may be.

Please, join me today in celebrating the United States Constitution.


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