Ed Brayton has a post here about prejudice, which I thought was very good, and it brought to mind something I’ve considered blogging about for a while: why is it that I find the Constitution so fascinating?
There are people, you know, who devote their lives to studying some ancient text—often the Bible, sometimes Plato, or Chaucer. Heinrich Schliemann had memorized the entire Odyssey and Iliad, and used it to find Troy. What makes people dedicate themselves to something like that? It’s really the same thing, because the Constitution is a lot like a great literary masterpiece; if a literary classic is something you read again and again, and find something new and fascinating each time, then the Constitution is like that to me. It’s also like a great work of engineering—a mechanism with giant arms sweeping across history, but also with tiny sprockets that click unnoticed into place. It’s old, and has had holes shot through it through the years, yet it still works. It’s an awesome piece of work.
I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in the Constitution. Even as a little child, I loved knowing that there was this rule that would protect me—that I had the right to speak my mind, even in school. (My intense hatred of coercive schooling was very largely responsible for my interest in liberty.) When I was eleven—the year of the Constitution’s bicentennial—I memorized the preamble, and tried to memorize the bill of rights. I got bogged down in the criminal procedure amendments (and still do!). My father bet me $50 that I couldn’t recite the Ninth Amendment, and I couldn’t. I’ve been able to ever since, as you can imagine. My eighth grade history teacher made us copy out the entire Constitution by hand. I was the only one who thought that was cool. I was struck even then by how few things the federal government is really supposed to be doing, compared to what it now does. In ninth grade, one of my teachers made the mistake of telling me* about Tinker v. Des Moines School District. That was the case that did it for me. I loved that I—who was on the bottom of society, a child in a public school, whose wishes and fears counted for nothing in the eyes the authorities who supposedly were instructing me—could use this Tinker thing to help myself. There was an appeal higher than the arbitrary commands of state-credentialed pedagogues. That same year, I discovered the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and the rest is history.
The Constitution is an example of ideas making a difference. It stands—despite many horrifying exceptions—as a weapon and a shield for even the weakest person. And it stands for the idea that human beings can make a thing that will last; that life does not have to be, as one blogger put it recently, a choice between being robbed by one or by another arbitrary tyrant. Instead it can be a place where, as Jefferson said, government “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
In Tinker, the Constitution reached out its hand to me—me! an unimportant child sitting in a classroom with something to say and a “teacher” who just wanted me to shut up. It is incredibly sad to think that there are people for whom the Constitution does not operate as it ought to—who cannot reach for it, or, worse, whose right to its protection is denied by their fellow citizens; the poor, the politically unpopular—be they landlords in Berkeley or homosexuals in Alabama; a white man discriminated against by racial quotas or a black woman treated as a destined loser by a prejudiced bureaucracy; a homosexual couple wanting to be married or a businessman wanting to keep his earnings—whose right to freedom is denied. When I was a child, the idea that I could appeal to the protection of the Constitution—that, as Paul told his jailer he was a Roman citizen, so I could tell my jailers that “It can hardly be argued that…students…shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 393 U.S. 503, 505—was immensely liberating. The Constitution makes the same promise to all of us. It is incredibly sad that circumstance, and ignorance, and prejudice, and envy, and supposedly “modern” notions like positivism and “living constitutionalism” and the drug war and moral authoritarianism, &c., break that promise. But I retain my faith that in the end, that promise will be fulfilled.
On the wall of my office is a poster of Frederick Douglass with a quote: “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.” The same could be said of the “woman problem” and the “drug problem” and the “environmental problem” and the “homosexual problem”—and of the problem child at Kolb Junior High School in Rialto, California.
*-Update: I should clarify. I discovered Tinker myself, through my own reading. I asked a teacher about it, and of course she knew nothing about it, and referred me to another teacher, who simply recommended that I go to the law library and look it up. I did. As I said, I was a precocious ninth grader.