November 2009


The United States is a divided country. Much of the limited discourse that does take place is poisoned by divisive rhetoric. Rational thought is cast aside and ridiculous arguments based on unintelligible talking points rule conversation on any important issue of the day. Those talking points can be reduced to several core ideas, believed to be originated by the founding fathers of this country, but instead bastardized by politically motivated think tanks and shyster wordsmiths. To better understand the damage being inflicted upon our nation by these contemptible entities these core ideas will be examined in a series of essays, each focusing on one of the base terms that find their way into our national dialogue, attempting to find greater understanding of the idiom and those who use it as a shield.

The Constitution

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.

Thus begins the greatest, and most contentious, document drafted in American history. The constitution frames the institutions that we embrace as the core of our society. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution, defines the rights of the individual. This document gives us insight into the ideas of the founding fathers and the highly complex ponderings they wrestled with to build our government and protect the people. The constitution is filled with brilliance. It features enough detail to use as a roadmap to achieve domestic success. It contains enough ambiguity to allow argument over its content and amendments from the day it was drafted in 1783. It is claimed by many to be the perfect document to use for the establishment of a thriving democracy and second only to the bible in historical importance. The constitution, which was once considered the document to bring all peoples together, has become the text that may forever drive Americans apart.

Interpretation is everything. The ambiguity of the constitution and the two hundred year old vernacular make the document difficult to take literally in the 21st century. Unfortunately there are many in our culture who do interpret the constitution literally and apply that twisted understanding to our new world. This makes reasoning difficult as the United States has changed dramatically from when it was 13 colonies and the black powder musket or heavy cannon were the weapons of mass destruction of the day. Interpret we will try, attempting to bring some critical thought and display some of the cognitive dissonance to some of the contentious passages, especially in the first few amendments in the Bill of Rights.

There is an endless firestorm surrounding the first amendment and the number of rights lumped into the single paragraph. Religion, the press, non-censored speech and providing for assembly and demonstration are all ambiguously addressed. Each foster interesting arguments that feature many contradictions.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The popular misinterpretation is that this sentence entrenches the ideal of separation of church and state in the constitution. In that same vein another popular misinterpretation is that the government will have no action in restraining religion. Both are wrong at odds with the all inclusive nature of the constitution.

There is no constitutional separation between church and state. Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, about the intention of the first amendment to act as a protection for the people, and government, to and from religious or political engagement in each enterprise. While the concept makes sense it does not appear in the constitution as it is currently written. To have true separation of church and state, guaranteeing that neither will interfere in the matters of the other, a new amendment will have to be added to the constitution.

Similarly the constitution does not provide blanket protection to any religion which will allow for that entity to operate in any manner it so desires. The constitution guarantees that the government will not establish any one religion as the basis for our democracy, establishing our nation as secular collective, and promises any spiritual calling is honored and respected. That is an individual right, not a collective right. Religious establishments must still abide by the laws of the land and do not have free reign to operate as political action committees or incite social discord. Respect of the other citizen’s spiritual belief is guaranteed.

The most important facet of this section of the first amendment is lost. We are to respect each other’s spirituality and not try to force our theological beliefs, or what we interpret to be the moral teachings of that religious experience, upon other citizens. You may feel that what you learned in Sunday school is the righteous way to live your life, and you have the right to believe just that, but you have no right to force that morality on anyone else simply because it may be counter to the spiritual philosophy of another citizen. The first amendment not only guarantees an individual’s right to practice his or her religion, but it also guarantees another individual’s freedom from religion in the event their spirituality (or lack thereof) demands it.

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.

Kierkegaard famously said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” That is never more evident than in 21st century America. People demand the right to speak but rarely use their brains before engaging their mouths. We all have the right to say what we want, when we want, and how we want, right? Yes and no. There are decency laws that prevent us from crossing certain moral and social lines. An individual may say what they like in whatever fashion they like in a private setting. In a public setting we must abide by the law and practice a level of social decorum. We cannot call for the assassination of a public figure any more than we can shout “fire” in a crowded theater. When a Pat Robertson publically calls for the assassination of a world leader his first amendment rights should go out the window. No person or entity should be allowed to promote a lie, especially when the lie has been completely discredited. Respect of the freedom of speech does not mean respecting stupidity. When a position is so egregiously wrong it is best to mute that point. Abraham Lincoln provided the best free speech advice anyone could when he said, “Tis better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.

There is no law that mutes the press but there are ownership laws and regulations that have been recently removed from the books that has allowed for this media restriction to take place. The press was to be the people’s oversight of government. They were to have the access, to ask the questions the people couldn’t, and to hold the political machine in check. That is what Jefferson and Madison believed and what was established. Diversity of opinion was prevalent because ownership of the media was regional and distributed amongst hundreds of entities. Deregulation and new ownership laws allowed mega-corporations to gobble up media outlets and consolidate them under the umbrella of corporate interests. This eliminated diversity of opinion, killed the regional perspective and replaced it with a centrally managed singular perspective. This essentially muted the media, silenced the voice of the citizens and restricted the daily oversight on the body politick. No law was passed that restricted freedom of the press. Instead a whole series of regulations that guaranteed that freedom were removed and allowed the restriction of the press through ownership consolidation and assimilation into a corporate culture that eliminated all perspective but that of management. This is a constitutional battle that should be waged as it weakens our democracy.

Another hot button issue that really screams for some examination is the second amendment and the endless gun ownership battle.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The two polar sides of this battle have valid points. A list could be built that would outline each position and a reader could find positives and negatives in each and every point. Of course that would be considering our 21st century perspective and focus on specific points of the amendment. Examining the amendment and appreciating the context is the intent of this criticism.

We must understand that the 18th century was different from the 21st century. The heavy cannon and frigate were the weapons of mass destruction of the day. The United States was collective republic where each state had actual autonomy and their own institutions of government, including standing armies and militias. As the country expanded and our institutions evolved we founded a series of socialistic mechanisms that provided services across the entirety of the nation. A professional army with massive budgets and incredibly powerful weapons was established and took over the protection of the nation. All of the regional militias and guards were absorbed and managed federally. The only militias that exist today are rogue or extremist organizations, most of which harvest a paranoid anti-government resentment and reside on the fringe of our society. Our security is managed nationally and for many good reasons.

Understanding that 21st century context, and the 18th century context, the second amendment now becomes out-dated and on the edge of reason. The amendment was written so that the professional militia in each sparsely populated colony would be able to immediately conscript locals to support their numbers in the event of attack from a foreign or domestic entity. In an effort to support the militia the people were expected to keep and bear arms when called upon. Those days are gone. The militia is gone. Battle tactics eliminate the need for the common citizenry to support the militia. The conventions of war also suggest that targeting civilian populations is verboten, but in the event of the military retreating into civilian areas that rule of engagement goes by the wayside. The public participative support with the militia pretty well insures this rule of engagement is eliminated. In the event of a military engagement, all the small arms in the world will not protect the home owner from a stray mortar round. The gun ownership argument of supporting the militia is specious at best.

The militia argument also removes the need for many of the weapons front and center to a lot of arguments. Assault type rifles and large caliber rifles have no purpose other than killing people. Weapons easily converted to automatic also have no other purpose that to expand the potential carnage when used. No hunter is going to take his AR-15 assault rifle or MAC-10 machine pistol or 50 caliber sniper rifle deer hunting. Game hunting is a one shot one kill type of activity, not a spray a target field with 20 rounds hoping to hit something with a kill shot. The sniper rifle is for one purpose only; assassination. Unless a hunter is planning on killing, cleaning and quartering Bambi in one swift and messy shot the 50 caliber is not a weapon of choice. These are the types of weapons that need to be restricted as they can be very dangerous in the hands of the wrong people.

On a personal note, being a gun owner I am naturally not anti-gun. Guns don’t kill people, bullets do, and usually only fired from a gun in the hands of someone not in complete control of their mental faculties. Taking guns away from people is not a solution to anything. The Swiss have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world and have very little gun related crime. It has nothing to do with a deterrent from gun ownership either. It has everything to do with personal responsibility, another concept in our constitution which is continually ignored by ideologues. If people were responsible gun owners and used best practices in securing their weapons, like the Swiss are required to do, we would have less gun crime. With a national registry of weapons citizens would be much more proactive in securing their weapons because the responsibility would be placed on them to control their property. Sale and disposal of weapons would be handled in a more secure manner if owners could be held accountable for their gun being used in a violent crime.

Each amendment could be ripped apart and examined endlessly. The goal of the exercise was to point out some of the contradictions of the arguments available in our discourse. What is most bothersome about the on-going rhetorical battle being waged over the constitution is the matter of complete context. Without reading the document with the base principle behind the text in mind it is muddied and difficult to comprehend. Each passage must be read with the preamble in mind, and with an interpretation that fits even in the 21st century.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…

Our country is not perfect but we should continue to strive to improve on the society that has developed and the institutions we have established. We have been blessed with an idea, a concept of how a democracy should be managed, and it is up to each of us to ensure that inspiration is not lost and the practice is improved upon with each iteration or generation.

Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…

We are expected to foster an environment that allows all the citizens to have access to the same possibilities. Thomas Jefferson said, “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” Each American should have the positive enjoyment of social, political and economic rights and privileges regardless of birthright or class. Whatever situation that evolves during our short time in control of the institutional reigns, we should be sure to leave future generations with a greater promise than that which ourselves received.

Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The united states of America. Forget the name of the country, focus on the words themselves. United. Working together in harmony. States. We were never one entity but several small provinces with different ideas as to how the New World should be managed. We should never forget that our country was founded as a collective of independent colonies who worked together for the common good of all. That is the basis of our constitution. It is about working together to provide for the common good of all individuals. We work together to provide for those who may not be as fortunate as ourselves knowing that by making the weak links stronger we make the chain less resistant to failure. The United States of America that the world holds in the highest regard is the one that lives by an excerpt from The New Colossus on Lady Liberty’s inscription.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This inscription is not about the moneyed class. Our ancestors came to these shores after America was born because of the constitution and the inclusive nature the document promised to all who lived under our flag. Americans need to get in touch with the constitution once again and learn what a great document it is when the context is complete. We need to learn to live up to the inclusive promise the constitution made when it was drafted.

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The United States is a divided country.  Much of the limited discourse that does take place is poisoned by divisive rhetoric.  Rational thought is cast aside and ridiculous arguments based on unintelligible talking points rule conversation on any important issue of the day.  Those talking points can be reduced to several core ideas, believed to be originated by the founding fathers of this country, but instead bastardized by politically motivated think tanks and shyster wordsmiths.  To better understand the damage being inflicted upon our nation by these contemptible entities these core ideas will be examined in a series of essays, each focusing on one of the base terms that find their way into our national dialogue, attempting to find greater understanding of the idiom and those who use it as a shield.

Patriotism

The problem with patriotism is that very few can articulate the relation between love for their country and what generates that emotional connection.  Patriotism, cut and dried, is the love or devotion to one’s country.  What this definition leaves on the cutting room floor is most important.  The nuances of country and devotion through responsible action are what define true patriotism.  Without country or responsible action patriotism cannot exist.

A country is not defined by geographic boundaries.  As we have seen throughout human history countries have been born, then later failed or faded into obscurity.  The physical geography of regions has not changed much during recorded history, but the ideals held by the people who inhabit the areas continue to evolve.  It is this evolution of ideals and behaviors that has allowed for the rise and fall of countries.

It is ideals that bind people together, seeing populations act collectively because of shared values.  Over time these common principles become the foundation for the norms and laws used to enforce the common good.  From these group dynamics the structures of government are developed.  The social norms and the agencies of government become the institutions recognized as the foundation of a country and become what the citizens hold as the highest standard.  Understanding these key ideals it can be identified that countries are made up by people, their accepted social norms and the institutions those people have created to govern their society.

If we take this as the understanding of what makes up a country we can then surmise that patriotism is the love of one’s people, the common principles that define social norms and the institutions the people have created to govern and maintain those values.  This is country.  The land is nothing more than real estate that has not seen a dramatic change since man learned to harness the power of fire, but the shared beliefs and common actions evolve and define the country.

When discussing devotion to one’s country it is vital to outline the importance of responsible action.  One may proclaim his or her patriotism to the country, but if the actions of the individual do not measure up to the moral standard representative of common good then how much love of his or her country does said individual actually have?  Timothy McVeigh declared his status as a patriot but his actions clearly cast him to the fringe of our society and an enemy of the state.  When individuals show up to political gatherings wearing side arms and carrying signs that insinuate the value of assassination they are not displaying their patriotism for all to see, they are proving nothing more than they don’t understand the concept of being a patriot nor comprehend the constitution they claim to protect.  Patriots do not display contempt for their fellow citizens, no matter how much they may disagree with their opinion.  Patriots do not display disrespect toward those institutions derived from our constitution and law.  Patriotism is displayed by accepting the imperfections of our fellow citizens and recognizing that those same citizens are the government and work through the framework provided by the founding fathers.

One particular ideology loves to lay claim to the concept of patriotism and love of their country, but their actions counter those claims.  To really love the United States you must acknowledge all those who live within her borders as your fellow citizens and recognize their rights to be equal to yours.  Black, brown, red, white and yellow are the colors to be accepted as being part of the fabric of the nation.  Legal resident or not, anyone who contributes to the positive factors in the society become a part of this country.  Conservative behaviors counter their claim of loving their fellow Americans.  The stances of anti-immigrant, anti-alien and anti-inclusion of minorities clearly indicate that the ability to love all that reside in the country a missing component of true patriotism.  Patriots defend all people in the citizenry, because they make up the country and crucial to the continued existence of the national ideal.

In the United States of America the basic foundations of the country are identified by the many institutions established over its short history.  These institutions are fallible because they are subject to the shortcomings of the people serving within these entities.  They are not perfect but were established to serve the common good and provide protections for those who cannot protect themselves.  Many of these governmental institutions (the military, state and federal law enforcement and first responders, etc.) are considered the height of patriotic ventures yet other agencies (the Treasury, welfare, etc.) are considered unpatriotic and almost counter to the American way.  This division of respect for the institutions established to safeguard against abuses of the common citizen is nonsensical.  Any individual who claims to understand the framework established by the founding fathers should certainly recognize their desire for all men, and women, the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  The government was designed to promote social responsibility for all, not just the elite class.  Some agencies appear repressive in nature, while others appear liberating, but these bodies work in concert to provide systematic balance and continuity of services for the common good.

No single institution is more important, or more often used to defend the actions of individuals, than the constitution.  This document defines much of what America is for many people.  Unfortunately there are many people who use the constitution as a shield for their actions and are extremely selective in their reading and interpretation of the text.  A patriot does not get to pick and choose what components of the constitution he defends.  A patriot recognizes the document in full context and readily defends the entirety of the text not just the passages that fit with his particular ideological position.  A true patriot is aware that the constitution frames not only the individual rights of citizens but also the foundations of our government.  The institutional interactions with the framework that is the constitution formulates our laws and societal standards.  A true patriot acknowledges the complexity of both the constitution and the law and defends all those structures and rights afforded individuals under the umbrella of both, even when he may not agree with the language or intent of either credence.

Patriotism is all too often conflated with nationalism.  The almost instinctive belief of the superiority of one’s country over that of others is pushed forward as patriotism.  This is inaccurate at almost every turn.  A patriot is one who knows his country and recognizes its strengths and weaknesses.  The patriot believes in the foundations of the country but can acknowledge the imperfections that exist.  These flaws or at least the recognition of the flaws is what separates a true patriot from the jingoistic partisan so prevalent in the national discourse today.  Unfortunately the myth of American exceptionalism is embraced as the mantra of the patriot, promoting the nationalistic focus rather than the defense of the collective acknowledgement.  It is this weakness inherent in nationalism that differentiates it from patriotism and a more appropriate descriptor of the behaviors displayed by those claiming to be patriots.

Patriots love their country, but they also understand the love for their country and can articulate its strengths and weaknesses.  They can discuss, in a rational manner, the great things that the country offers and at the same time the areas where it falls down.  Because the country was established by fallible people it is understood to be a work in progress.  The founding fathers admitted as much when they included the phrase “to form a more perfect union” in the preamble to the constitution.  They knew that a democracy would feature different opinions and a perfect solution was never possible, so they designed our government to deal with disagreement in a civilized manner through checks and balances.  Loving your country is no different than loving your significant other.  You are enthralled with the characteristics and behaviors that align with your ideals.  There are tendencies or behaviors that may make you a little crazy.  You accept the bad because of the good and learn to live with those qualities that make your blood pressure rise, because you love your partner so much.  When someone asks you about your better half you can go into great detail all of those things that you love and hate in your relationship; you can articulate your love.  Patriotism is all about being able to recount the similar laundry list.  If you can’t convey the reasons you love someone or something, then love is not the proper term to use.  Fanaticism of the irrational order may be the idiom to explore further.

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