Saturday, February 8, 2020

Week 37: Constitutionalism

On Tuesday night, an action of historical insignificance took place. It was, however, a tremendously significant action in terms of the philosophy it represented. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up President Trump’s State of the Union speech, she made a spectacle of herself that will be forgotten within a few news cycles. Nevertheless, she spoke volumes about a matter of existential import: the role that the Constitution of the United States of America should play in our nation’s life.

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires the President to provide a State of the Union to Congress, stating that the President, “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Consequently, the document that Speaker Pelosi methodically formed into four piles and tore up was a document that creators of our Republic recognized as important.

Notwithstanding documentation associated with bills and laws, the Constitution requires only four other forms of documentation for the business of our nation. Article I, Section 2 requires a census every 10 years. Article I, Section 5 requires the House of Representatives and the Senate to keep a Journal of Proceedings. Article II, Section 3 has been discussed above. Article III, Section 3 requires the testimony of two first-hand witnesses when trying someone for treason. That’s it. Those are the things that the Framers deemed important enough to memorialize through formal documentation by requiring them in our fundamental governing law.

Speaker Pelosi’s behavior was not a bold statement, as some have said. It was childish and petty. She said it was a speech that was full of lies. While I have not gone back and fact-checked every claim in the speech, I did spot check it and found evidence to support his claims. Regarding the employment and unemployment information the President related to Congress – a significant focus of the speech – I found ample proof supporting his claims by conducting a quick and simple review of data on the Web site of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This search also revealed the highest levels of education among African Americans, which is germane to his discussion of education generally and to the funding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities specifically.

As I think most people would acknowledge, the President is oft given to hyperbole. Achievements are regularly described as being the “biggest” or the “best” in the history of our nation. I would tend to argue with this, considering the historical context of the achievements made by our elected and appointed officials, particularly those in the first century of our nation. It is, however, President Trump’s penchant for hyperbole that some citizens find endearing and that other citizens find offensive. That is why it is so important to seek out data for ourselves, because at the end of the day, pretty much every politician, the Speaker of the House most certainly included, is given to hyperbole and even outright lies. With the so-called fact checkers being equally partisan and corrupt, the responsibility for finding the truth rests with us, the citizens.

As I mentioned above, the political importance of the tearing of the speech shall pass, as shall Trump’s tweets, Schumer’s bloviating, Bolton’s book leaks and Paul’s revelation of the identity of the so-called whistleblower. Their moment in the spotlight will be short-lived, perhaps with the exception of the President, as we tend to remember presidents and what they accomplish in our collective memory.

What does Speaker Pelosi’s action reveal about the political philosophies at play in our nation, and what does it mean for our future and for the generations to come?

To me, the tearing of the speech is an apropos metaphor for how the left and right conceptualize the Constitution. Generally, the left views the Constitution as a “living” document, subject to broad interpretation that is responsive to the changes in cultural norms of the time. In other words, it should be informed and modified by the day and age in which it is being applied. Generally, the right views the Constitution with a sense of permanence, subject to interpretation that endeavors to effect an understanding of the intent of the Framers. In other words, it should inform our culture, not be changed by it, unless such change is so momentous that it calls for an amendment to the Constitution. For example, the end of slavery, the process for selecting those who represent us, and the greater recognition of suffrage rights were important enough to amend the Constitution. Interestingly, these and other amendments all advance the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

What makes a nation? Generally speaking, in the Old World and in the nations of the indigenous peoples of America, the unifying force in nationhood was an allegiance to a monarch, chief, sultan or some other supreme individual or family, as well as things like a common language, forms of dress, religious beliefs, and other customs.

As a nation of immigrants, mindful of the unique role that Native Americans play in our nation’s history, Americans have not had those common things described above. People came to our shores, voluntarily and involuntarily, with differences as numerous at the nations and times from whence they came. But for our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, we would be little more than a random collection of random peoples. It is the Declaration that sets forth our shared principles, regardless of any individual principles we hold as members of some group, such as those of faith, culture, etc. It is the Constitution that codifies our agreement for how we, as citizens, interact with our government and one another.

Many people came to our shores to escape the whimsical rule of despots. In earlier times, people were subjects who were at the will of sovereigns, individuals prone to the same faults and foibles as the rest of us. (And because of inbreeding among the royal houses of the world, some were prone to additional conditions that affected their sanity and judgment. But that’s a topic for another day.) In socialist regimes, such as the former USSR, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela, to name a few, the same lack of fidelity to the law that was true for medieval despots has proven true for the politburos and dictators of these regimes.

Our system of government, as designed by the Framers, was intended to protect the citizens from abuses by the government, principally in Articles I, II and IV. It was also designed to assure equality under the law, to protect one citizen from abuse at the hands of another, principally in Article III.

One of the many alluring draws of America is the Constitution and the predictable and consistent government it assures its citizens. A “living” Constitution, as conceived by the left, opens the door, as cultural norms happen to change with changing times, to removing predictability and consistency in terms of how we interact with our government and with one another. The promise of America becomes a sort of bait-and-switch.

As conceived by the right, the Constitution also “lives.” It does so through the Amendment process, which was designed to be somewhat laborious, because changing the underlying manner in which we govern ourselves is a matter of import and gravity. It harkens back to the Declaration, which admonishes us to avoid changing forms of government for light and transient causes.

In 1776, just prior to signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” This statement conveyed two important points. First, it conveyed the grave nature associated with signing the Declaration. They were committing treason against Great Britain. They were in a real sense committing their very lives to the propositions contained therein. Second, it recognized the fact that, to be a nation, the Declaration was shared set of beliefs that made all people of the American continent one. The Declaration, and later the Constitution, would form the unifying framework for what it means to be American.

Are these beliefs not sacred? If they are not, short of one’s faith in God, I do not know what might be sacred. If they are not, it seems the sacrifices that the signers made – and indeed they made serious sacrifices – were thus made in vain.

That is why Pelosi’s act was so repugnant and so revealing. Not only did it dishonor the heroic Americans called out in the speech, it served as a clear metaphor for the political left’s view and opinion of the Constitution and what it mandates. The inspired and ingenious system of government that the Framers devised is, to the political left, a relic of the Enlightenment, a vestige of a corrupt Western civilization, filled with bias – conscious and unconscious. The requirements contained in the Constitution are not – as Pelosi demonstrated – worth the paper on which they are printed.

I reject such views and opinions. But for the Constitution and its Amendment process, it is quite possible that slavery and repression of women may have persisted much longer than they did. Of course, it would have been so much better had those sinful conditions been remedied in 1789. The Framers knew these conditions were a blight on the people of this nation. That is why they included an end to the importation of slaves in the Constitution, and that is why they put in place the Amendment process – to enable future generations to cure the ills they could not cure in their time. Through the lens of history, one can readily understand that, if the Constitution were to be successfully ratified, some tragic concessions had to be made, but they were – at the time – necessary to establish a path that would lead to a more perfect union, and the Amendment process enabled future generations to walk that path.

Again, I call special attention to those words, “a more perfect union.” The Framers knew that they and we are imperfect creatures. Perfection is unattainable. That is why utopian promises of any politician are nothing more than dangerous lies. The Constitution, however, provides a process for righting wrongs and curing ills. It does, indeed, live and thrive as designed.

As debates take place and ads are run, let us ask ourselves which candidates will preserve the guarantees of the Declaration and the Constitution. If any among us are inclined to be one-issue voters, let the preservation of the Constitution be that issue. Actually, every other issue is encompassed in this one all-important issue. Will we vote based on a reverence for and protection of the Declaration and Constitution or will we vote based on the ever-changing, numerous and distinct, and sometimes divisive social norms of the times? It appears clear to me which choice leads to the promotion of happiness, which is, according to the Framers, a key function of government, and is, according to Aristotle, the preeminent purpose of life.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Week 38: Identity Politics

In today’s America, members of both major political parties spend like drunken sailors, not to disparage drunken sailors; members of both parties seem to find little sense of apprehension in legislating moral codes, despite being among the more amoral creatures of the earth; and members of both parties seem to have an unquenchable thirst for power, sacrificing the sovereignty of each individual at the altar of political tenure. While there are, of course, members of both parties who prove to be the exceptions, it seems that Republicans and Democrats have come to be essentially the same.

A few differences do exist. Under Democrat administrations and Congresses, the regulatory burden on individuals and businesses, as well as the attendant financial burdens, increases. Under Republic administrations and Congresses, both decrease. I will entreat you, kind reader, to consider the effect that greater or lesser regulation has on individual liberty.

There is a more fundamental difference, though, between the two parties – a difference that, in my estimation, renders all other differences and similarities relatively insignificant. This fundamental difference is how members of each party see you and me, the good people of the United States of America, the citizens.

What do I mean by this?

One party tends to see citizens truly as individuals, who have unique perspectives, desires, beliefs and goals. One party tends to see citizens as monolithic groups, based on some outward characteristic, that function in ways that are based on collective perspectives, desires, beliefs and goals. The former, of course, is the Republican party, the latter is Democrat party. For the moment, let us ascribe to the individual members of each party good intentions in terms of the perspectives they espouse.

With good intentions assumed, let us explore the effects of their perspectives in terms of policies and outcomes for We the People. In doing so, I believe we will discover that, despite good intentions, one philosophy creates a path to happiness and liberty and the other to misery and servitude.

The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 B.C.) wrote about the nature of things in his aptly entitled, De Rerum Natura or The Nature of Things. An Epicurean, Lucretius was an atomic materialist, which means that he believed that all things in the world around us and in us are composed of atoms, even our consciousness. Two millennia later, we know this to be true. The atomic elements that form the oceans, a tree or that air we breathe are some of the same atomic elements that form you and me. The atomic interactions that power the stars or power our homes are similar to the interactions that power our minds. Lucretius and his fellow atomic materialists were the ultimate purveyors of the idea of connectedness. This idea has played out in innumerable ways throughout the ages. Kant’s Enlightenment notion of absolute moral worth – a favorite of mine as anyone who knows me would tell you, is an incredibly important perspective on connectedness. In short, each person is the same in terms of their individual worth and the respect they deserve.

It is critical to emphasize that absolute moral worth is inherent in the individual and recognition of that worth as a natural right guaranteed because of his or her personhood, not because of his or her inclusion in some group or groups of people. Absolute moral worth has absolutely nothing to do with gender, color, race, creed, orientation, age, socio-economics or any other arbitrary characteristic one may choose to apply.

It is a deep and abiding belief in and devotion to this most fundamental precept that should render the politics of identity repugnant to any enlightened individual.

If you will permit me, kind reader, a momentary digression. I would like to address what I believe to be an important distinction between the condition of enlightened and the condition of “woke,” to use the parlance of our times. To be enlightened, according to Merriam-Webster, is to be “freed from ignorance and misinformation – based on full comprehension of the problems involved.” To be “woke” is, according to Merriam-Webster, a slang term in the United States that means to be “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Note how enlightenment is, by definition, a broad and holistic approach to understanding. Note how “woke” is, by definition narrowed by the descriptor “important” and further narrowed by “racial” and “social.” In the former, one is free and unfettered to explore, learn and create understanding. In the latter, there is some third party endeavoring to control one’s exploration, learning and understanding. In today’s world, one cannot be “woke” without conforming to someone else’s notion of what being “woke” means. Enlightenment is a threat to those who would desire to control others, such as those who would dictate to you or me what our biases are or must be. I reject the concept of being “woke,” as it is something that fosters tyranny. It reduces us to intellectual slaves to someone else’s belief system, based on information someone else deems important. I embrace the concept of enlightenment, as it is something that promotes liberty. It frees each person to form her or his own conclusions, based on the totality of information available.

With that digression aside, reflect on the rhetoric you hear from the candidates of the two major political parties. One party is the purveyor of doom and gloom, stating over and over and in a multitude of ways that our nation is among the worst nations in the history of civilization. In addition to such claims, they also tell us who is to blame. If you are a woman, man is to blame. If you are a minority, Caucasians are to blame. If you are gay, straight people are to blame, and so on. Even within the various groups of people they target, they find even more ways to create and assign blame. If you are a woman who supports abortion, pro-life women may be to blame. If you are a progressive black man, the conservative black man may be to blame. If you are transgender, the gay man or woman may be to blame. This is the rhetoric and philosophy of today’s Democrat party.

In addition to doom and blame, this party also believes that such groups of people think, feel and believe alike, as homogenous collections of gonads and skin cells, and they seem to have the omniscience to know what each of these collections thinks. They have the temerity to claim to speak for all such groups.

As a result, they pass laws and regulations, supposedly designed to protect various groups from one another, ironically enshrining difference and inequality in our system of laws, a system which is supposed to guarantee equality as a fundamental and essential premise in our social contract.

Think about the Republican message. It rarely, if ever, segments the population based on superficial characteristics, let alone pits one group against another in an effort to assign blame from one group to another. The message relates to all of us as individual citizens, who have the capability and capacity to interact with one another in good and meaningful ways for each person’s benefit. Their policies tend to reflect that, policies that promote individual responsibility and choice.

Democrats will tell us that their interventionist social policies are necessary, given the long history of discrimination in the United States. They bet on the fact that many Americans will not know the history of American discrimination and the fact that it has been, in large part, the result of Democrat policies. If you revisit the post on Education, you’ll see how it is possible that many Americans do not know our own history. It’s because the educational system is striving to create “woke” followers as opposed to enlightened citizens. To reinforce their control and power, they choose what they believe is the “important” information to teach, in a de facto manner deciding “what” students think. This is in stark contrast to teaching people “how” to think: how to seek out information, creating a holistic approach to learning.

To be sure, the execution of our social contract has a flawed history. Many of the white Founders knew slavery to be evil, yet they owned black slaves. Many of the male Founders knew women’s suffrage was right and good, yet they excluded females from the political process for many years.

Pitting of one group against another was a bad thing then. What makes it a good thing now?

Find me any social contract that has ever been flawlessly implemented. I have yet to find one. Consequently, we cannot say that because a person or persons may do bad things, then all of their ideas are bad. I would venture to say that each person has, at some time or another, fallen short of the person they hope to be. Does that make them a fundamentally flawed and irredeemable person, as well as their most deeply held ideals and beliefs? I hope not.

With that, let us ground ourselves anew in a couple key concepts.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” and “We the People of the United States…” are inclusive statements(with deference to the language in use at the time, such as “men” being a reference to humankind), despite what the left would have us believe today. They do not call out specific, monolithic groups as equal or unequal.

Because they knew their own flaws, and because they knew that each person to follow for all time would be flawed, they set forth the ideal of equality and a vision for a “more perfect union.” Note that they did not say a perfect union. They knew full well that such a vision would be a fool’s errand.

The vision of a “more perfect union” is one that is worthy of pursuit. It is one, however, that we cannot achieve without the equal and full participation of every citizen. That requires that we recognize and memorialize the absolute morale worth of each and every American. This cannot and will not be accomplished until identity politics is reduced to one thing – not gender, faith, race, or any other characteristic. That one thing is the identification of being American. This does not mean we abandon those qualities that make us unique. Rather, in the context of our social contract, it focuses us on the one quality we share.

The Founders gave us the Declaration of Independence, a document unique among the nations of the world, and the Constitution. Contemporaries like de Tocqueville left for us firsthand accounts of what it was to be an American and what it could be in that pursuit of a more perfect union. It’s our social contract, set forth in these two documents, that we find shared purpose and a shared national soul. This soul is and can be in any person that claims the moniker, “American,” without any regard to their appearance or personal practices.

As we listen to debates and stump speeches from political road, let us be enlightened, not “woke,” when we evaluate the policies of the candidates. Consider which party’s policies have brought about the uncivil nature of today’s America? Consider which party wants to enact policies to decide for you and me what is “important,” so that we may be “woke” or shunned and vilified. I would argue they are the policies of the left. Will we vote for more of those policies, or will we seek something better – something that sets each of us free? Will these candidates’ policies further drive us apart, or will they unite us in the effort to create a more perfect union?

  Day 1: Vote your conscience   Over the past month, social media posts, tweets, chats, etc. have been replete with “vote as if…” admonition...