"Congress shall make no law ..."
There are 4,400 words in the U.S Constitution. As we celebrate Constitution Week, the 222nd anniversary of this remarkable document, it is a good time to consider how those five words embody what the other 4,395 work to amplify.
It has been a rough few years for America’s blueprint of democratic government. Our political divide has Americans camped on opposite sides of the Constitution, each believing it supports only their point of view and not the other.
Our public debate has become ever more shrill and uncivil. Town hall meetings on health care turned into shouting matches. Americans march in the streets carrying signs depicting their political foes as Nazis, Communists and every other vile metaphor they can concoct. Right-wing radio and TV talk hosts fan the flames on their side of the bonfire, left-wing moviemakers and commentators pour kerosene on theirs.
Those outside of the warring camps shake their heads sadly as they see what we have become. We no longer talk to each other American to American, but as enemies in a battle with no end and no clear rules of engagement. The discourse that has spiraled downward in tone and temperament seems to hit bottom before a new outrage shows us that the bottom still may be a ways off.
It is discouraging, and some days we wonder if we’ll ever be the nation of peaceful neighbors we once were.
And yet ... and yet, as in the yin and yang of nature, we find beauty in the ugliness. The innocent fawn is devoured by the hungry predator, but we can’t turn away, because even in that random blur of violence there is the knowledge that death is necessary to sustain life.
"Out of chaos comes order," philosopher Friederich Nietzche said. Such is the case not only in the natural world but also in man’s greatest creations: art, music, literature and, yes, government. And especially in those five chaos-inducing words: "Congress shall make no law ..."
Even as we cut each other to pieces arguing the issues of our time, we do so with the underlying assurance that however contentious our debates or rowdy the protests that we won’t be tossed into a gulag somewhere simply for challenging those in power.
Why? Because "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The beauty of that First Amendment right, codified by the wisest of men who framed the Constitution and supported by all who came after, keeps ideas flowing freely, even when they don’t represent the best of us but the worst.
We are allowed not only to disagree with the president but to detest him, to call him a liar, a moron, a socialist. We elected him; he works for us. He is not a king, nor a dictator. He is a hired employee of the American people and we’ll tell him, to his face when possible, what we think of him. There are no storm troopers with clubs or fire hoses to silence us when we attack the leaders we ourselves have chosen.
Should we do so in such a blunt manner? That’s a valid concern. Our lack of decorum represents a coarser side of our country, and most agree that we should debate issues more graciously. But whether we respect the office of president or the man who holds it remains up to us, an individual decision and not an ultimatum.
Earlier this month, a member of the U.S. House shouted "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during a nationally televised speech. He later apologized to the president. Some called him a rude loudmouth; others defend him as a man telling the truth. Both sides were freely expressing their thoughts of Rep. Joe Wilson, just as he expressed his of Obama.
Yet take note of what didn’t happen: He didn’t go to jail or appear before a firing squad. He walks free and still represents his district in Congress.
Many these days want to compare leaders they don’t like to Hitler. Yet imagine what would happen to a member of the Reichstag who had insulted der Feuhrer during one of his incoherent rants. He would be executed on the spot. The same happened to those who dared criticized Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro and history’s other despots.
Not in this country. However untidy and turbulent our attempt at governance may be, it remains a government of, by and for the people, as described by Abraham Lincoln. The inmates indeed ARE running the asylum, and we wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — have it any other way.
So we fuss and fume and spew our views to all within earshot. Others rebut, questioning our sanity, intelligence and lineage. It is the World Wrestling Federation of public forums, but it is uniquely American in its own unrestrained way.
Our Constitution was written not to create a perfect country but to set us on an endless path toward one, even if that pursuit is in vain. It didn’t pretend to set up a government that was never corrupt, managed only by sainted deities.
It merely created a government in which the people — in their wisdom or their idiocy, in their unity or their discord — would find their own way and determine what to make of these United States. It set up the general boundaries of our society, then turned us loose to sort out the rest.
"Congress shall make no law ..." It is the most profound of the document’s 4,400 words and guarantees that however we mold this country of ours, it will be our fine mess, one way or another, and not the creation of someone else’s rigid doctrine.
What we do with it, now and forever, is entirely up to us.