Turning the clock back to 1789

Watching too much TV coverage of the American elections is unhealthy for an Israeli kibitzer. It can cause a loss of focus; a questioning of one’s most basic values. The dangerous illusion, even, that there are people out there who are even more confused and misguided than Israelis.

How to explain a county that has both the most powerful economy on earth, even if it is limping badly right now, and probably the most backward population in the developed world? That can send amazingly sophisticated technologies to Mars, but where flat-earthers and purveyors of ideas from the Inquisition get standing ovations at political conventions. A country where a politician is obliged to bring masses of people to tears (not difficult to do, mind you) with heart-rending anecdotes of crippled children and abandoned old folk in order to get elected.

It’s not a question of partisan politics. Clearly, the Democrats are infinitely preferable to the Republicans, but it’s a little like choosing between the beliefs of cave dwellers and medieval clergy. They both believe in the unbelievable; it’s simply a question of degree.

If you ask me (and I’ll pretend that you did), the problem is with the American constitution. Not with the principles of the constitution, which are largely progressive and were way ahead of their time, but with the way it has been sanctified. Specifically, with the very odd notion that the constitution, though written by men (I don’t think there were any women signatories, were there?) and on paper, is somehow immutable. Not a product of its time, but something immortal; an 18th Century tablet inscribed in stone.

Most advanced countries, including those without a formal constitution, are constitutional in the sense that they endorse the principle that the authority of government derives from, and is limited by, a body of fundamental law. And, as American political theorist Murray Rothbard wrote, “no constitution can interpret or enforce itself; it must be interpreted by men.” The problem in the US is that the men and women who are required to interpret the constitution have over many years developed a very odd definition of “interpret”.

Most dictionaries define “interpret” as “to explain the meaning of something”. We all know that meanings change over the years. When I was growing up, to be gay meant to be happy. Today it has an entirely different meaning.  Likewise, “transport” denoted a horse or horse and carriage in 1789, while today it includes buses, trains, planes and even the space shuttle which transported the pieces of the space station into orbit. The meanings of words, concepts and ideas change as the context changes. It doesn’t take too much brain power to understand that.

American jurisprudence has not deployed the required intelligence. For American constitutionalists, “interpret” means to divine the meaning as intended by the framers of the constitution, rather than what the meaning is today. Supreme Court justices are chosen (usually by conservative presidents) on the basis of how closely they hew to the 1789 meanings of words. And their rulings reflect that hidebound approach.

That is history, not law. And the attempt to impose history on the law can have disastrous consequences, not least the almost weekly massacres that blight the American landscape. In 1789, the right to bear arms referred to blunderbusses; barrel-loading  weapons that fired one round every couple of minutes and were wonderfully inaccurate. To apply the meaning of that right to automatic weapons and all the other killing paraphernalia that is available today is plain stupid. In the US, however – and only in the US – it is regarded as the height of legal scholarship.

Maniacs running around the streets with high-power arsenals is not the only result of strict American constitutionalism, unfortunately. Another legacy is an antiquated view of society that is totally out of kilter with modern reality. When you freeze the law at  1789, the rest is bound to follow – attitudes to women, social conventions, commercial approaches and so on. You get a society that not only attempts to regulate itself on the basis of 250-year-old concepts, but thinks with 250-year-old sensibilities.

The American ideal society is something that doesn’t exist – and never will exist again. It is a frontier society in which men are tough and self-sufficient, women are domesticated and regulation is non-existent. It is a society in which communities are small and insular enough for people to help each other, businesses can make a buck without concerning themselves with their effect on the environment and government is a very distant and non-invasive presence. It all sounds so very nice – and utterly far-fetched.

To some of us, it may seem incredible that such self-delusion could exist in what is ostensibly the most advanced country on earth. But exist it does. Luckily, the US constitution doesn’t mention technology, so we can enjoy the benefits of Google, the iPad and online shopping with Amazon. Had the constitution said something along the lines of communication being limited to white men using carrier pigeons, we’d all be utterly fucked.

The inevitable result of this slavish sanctification of a 250-year-old document was the dreadful kitsch of the party conventions. The maudlin stories about students who can’t get an education and businessmen whose businesses went bust due to government regulation. All hankering back to a mythical time in which everything was great for everybody (except for the slaves, of course, but we don’t mention them.) This suspension of disbelief allows the politicians to lie blatantly and make promises that everyone knows they will never fulfill; that they never even intend fulfilling. If you believe anything,then everything is possible. It is a never-never land for people who spend their lives waiting for someone to turn the clock back.

If anyone can turn the clock back, Mitt Romney is probably a good bet. After the buried golden plates and angels, returning to 1789 should be a parlor trick for Mitt. The rest of us can only wait and hope that America finds a way of rejoining the 21st Century.

1 reply on “Turning the clock back to 1789”

Roy, thank you for connecting the dots between the US political convention madness this month and the overall mental health of this nation. The US Empire is dying and we are now living through the early days of its death throes. Unfortunately, we haven’t evolved enough to face our future with cooperation, understanding, dialogue, and science. No, instead we turn to isolationism, fear, militarism, and a medieval style of religion. We proudly display our ignorance like it is our one biggest strength.
The US constitution was written by white men who owned land and slaves and wanted to protect their wealth. Subsequent constitutional amendments and legislative Acts, written over time and by the blood and efforts of the common people, gave this nation a tenuous lifeline to democracy and kept in check for awhile the inevitable tendency of any government to evolve into an oligarchy. Sadly, most of these laws have been circumvented over the last 20 years. A good example is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prevented states from disenfranchising minorities (as many were doing to prevent Blacks from voting). In 2006 Republicans tried to eliminate major parts of that law, and this year alone has seen many states enact laws ahead of the November 2012 election that will effectively prevent many Blacks, Hispanics, and the poor from voting.
We are dying–we don’t want to die–we want our politicians to tell us those bedtime stories in which we do not die but live forever–young and beautiful and incredibly stupid.

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