Back in September of last year, I claimed Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I went on to suggest that the demise of old ideas is not necessarily a bad thing if we replace them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, one transcending country, race, and religion.
I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time.
Right, because I maintain Americans have lost sight of their shared ideals. In fact, I suspect most don’t even know what those are.
Wrong, in claiming the country is fracturing. It just feels that way. I have since confirmed that the noisy extremes are the reason why. Between progressive activists (8% of the population) and devoted conservatives (6%), there is an “exhausted majority” desperate to have these extremists shut the hell up. It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and the loudmouths that dominate airtime. Those who compromise and calmly propose working solutions are drowned out by their rage.
Somewhat right, in calling for better ideas, but wrong in saying that the demise of old ones is not necessarily a bad thing. I was guilty of suggesting we throw out the baby with the bathwater.
That baby is the glue that once held this nation together: The Constitution.
A set of simple, revolutionary ideas which forged a national identity out of a group of people who looked different, spoke different languages, and practiced religion in varied ways — a true melting pot. There is a good reason the preamble to the Constitution begins with the words: “We the People” and the country’s motto is ‘E pluribus unum’ — Out of many, one.
I know, I know… Jefferson was a slave owner, women and African-Americans were denied the right to vote, and most, if not all of the 39 delegates who signed the Constitution were white men of property. It is the principle I am praising here, like I would still praise love even if some cheat.
Let us never forget that the American Revolution and its promise was won on the backs of both men and women, black, white, brown and red, enslaved and free, privileged and unfortunate. The Founders just knew how to write better, and in 7591 words — about thirty four pages including twenty seven amendments — they gave us a blueprint for how to keep the fabric from unraveling:
– Federal Republic: a federation of states with a central government devoid of a monarchy or hereditary aristocracy.
– Separation of Powers: checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.
– Rule of Law.
– Civil rights: to property, religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, voting, citizenship by birth, and to bear arms (no cherry-picking allowed).
– Federal Taxation (if you don’t like this one, move to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait which have none).
Simple, although imperfect, like all foundational documents, with room for improvement.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. — Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was in favor of revisiting the Constitution every twenty years or so.
It was last tweaked in 1992.
I say time’s up.
I’d start with clarifying freedom of speech, which some believe gives them license to say whatever is on their mind regardless of the consequences. I’d then propose amending the right to bear arms to keep them away from the mentally ill and add health care as another right.
Still, as it currently stands, the Constitution is the only glue that can keep this country together. Not race, religion, or political or economic ideology.
The extremes, however, are determined to tear it up.
In their article for The Atlantic, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld report troubling trends:
“Many progressives have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is [now considered by them] an instrument of the dehumanization of women and minorities. Religious liberty, an engine of discrimination. Property rights, a shield for structural injustice and white supremacy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of college-age Democrats said that a diverse and inclusive society is more important than protecting free speech. Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is essential, compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.
From the [extreme] right, there have been calls to define America’s national identity in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, whether as white, European, or Judeo-Christian. President Trump routinely calls the [press] “the enemy of the American people.” In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press to criticize politicians was very important to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States.”
And not too long ago, Trump announced his plan to end birthright citizenship by executive order.
This is flag-burning at its worst, and those in the exhausted majority better do something before it’s too late.
Like deciding if they share the Constitution’s core principles. If so, they must recommit to their defense as they would defend their house and family if attacked by barbarians. Otherwise move.
Like kicking out the barbarians by voting for people whose express priority is defending those principles regardless of party affiliation.
Like advocating for changes to the Constitution they believe are necessary to adapt to the times.
Or calling for the return of civics education at public schools focused on those principles.
How about petitioning the Department of Homeland Security to make fundamental changes in the Naturalization Test, prioritizing knowledge of the principles which gave birth to the country, instead of asking inane questions like “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”
And, finally, let us stop wasting our precious time and brains listening to the loudmouths on both extremes and start thinking for ourselves!
As for the extremes, Chua and Rubenfeld say “the right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression.”
The Bison was the glue that held American Indians together. Once gone, their culture unraveled.
History appears to be repeating itself in 21st Century America.
I still hope that, one day, humanity will come together under one flag, and that’s where I am ahead of my time. But I’m afraid the time has not yet come and might require an existential threat for it to happen.
For now, groups who wish to remain cohesive require local glue — a set of norms, traditions, institutions, and ideals, sacralized, shared and defended against those who wish to break them apart.
For the United States, that glue is “constitutional patriotism.”
Such lofty idea, however, will remain pie-in-the-sky if not preceded by civility. And the first step towards civility is for us to get off our self-righteous horses and sit together with our proclaimed “enemies” and listen.
Not everyone who doesn’t think like you is a bloodthirsty zombie or an idiot…ok, some probably are.
Moral indignation is the standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity. — Alain de Botton
When I said before we should stop listening to the loudmouths on both extremes and think for ourselves, I was referring only to those whose opinions are so calcified they border on fanaticism, which is just an overcompensation for doubt as psychologist Carl Jung suggested. For if these jokers were truly convinced of their ideas, there’d be no need to shout.
Is there an art to listening?
There is, and, to me, it starts with humility (Dubito ergo sum) and intellectual integrity. Nothing is more difficult, said economist E.F. Schumacher, than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.
True listening, says radio host Celeste Headlee, begins with presence. “Don’t be half-in and half-out of a conversation,” she recommends in her instructive Ted Talk in which she lists these other tips for a rewarding conversation:
- Set yourself aside. If you want to pontificate, write a blog. Enter each conversation assuming you have something to learn. Be curious. Bill Nye rightly said “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
- Use open-ended questions.
- If you don’t know, say so.
- Don’t equate your experiences with them.
- Keep your mind open and your mouth shut. If your mouth is open, you are not listening. “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand,” said Steven Covey, “we listen with the intent to reply.”
Judging from the ongoing Democratic debates, it is progressives, in my opinion, who most need to learn how to listen, particularly to rural white America. Once they do, they need to speak to its gut, not just its frontal brain lobe (conservatives are masters at this). While they must be honest in letting this large electorate know the country they fear lost will never return (because it never really existed), I believe most would rally behind a commitment to the Republic’s collective interest, i.e., “We the people,” instead of a warring patchwork of ‘Us-versus-Them.’
There is enough credible research out there proving that exalting differences among groups of people only serves to create prejudice, but I am not suggesting we suppress the rich cultural expressions the United States is fortunate to have. That would only leave a bland, white canvas. I’m suggesting we invert our identity markers and start calling ourselves: American-Africans, American-Hispanics, American-Muslims, American-Asians, etc.
I’m proposing the canvas be placed before the paint.
That canvas is the Constitution.
Get yourself a copy.
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