Another day in America, and our first Constitution Day has come and gone. “What’s that?” you ask. Don’t be surprised if, like most Americans, you never heard of it. We’re such a busy nation at the moment, fretting about gas prices between bouts of Hurricane Katrina charity relief. Meanwhile, the Iraq war approaches sideline status.
Ushered into law last year thanks to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., Constitution Day is the radical concept that we should honor our freedoms by way of study and reading. We already honor our freedoms in the admittedly vacuous ceremony of the Pledge of Allegiance, a rite our Founding Fathers neither wrote nor heard of. How sad would these same people feel after learning that today’s Americans barely recognize the document guaranteeing their freedoms?
According to a $1 million study sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and issued this January, half of U.S. high school students polled believe government should have the right to approve newspaper stories before they’re published. One-third of U.S. high school students believe the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment extend “too far.” A poll conducted by Harris Interactive and sponsored by the American Bar Association last month revealed that slightly more than half of adult Americans could correctly identify our three branches of government. Less than half could explain the concept of separation of powers. Given those numbers, just imagine how many Americans have even bothered reading The Federalist Papers. Madison, Hamilton and Jay must be weeping in their graves.
The fact that thousands of Iraqis have died and will continue dying while contingents in Baghdad attempt to forge a constitution ought to steel our resolve. In the United States, some people talk and act as if freedom is something that can appear instantaneously and magically, like a cake mix that requires water and a 40-minute bake. “Why can’t those darned Ay-rabs just get their act together so our boys can come home? Why can’t they fight those insurgents themselves? Don’t they care about freedom?”
Those on the right love nothing more than describing our freedoms as “God-given.” And as long as “under God” is preserved in the Pledge, the right isn’t bothered that our students fail basic civics. When the right describes our freedoms as “God-given,” they ignore the centuries of ideas and struggles that made freedom a reality: the distinguished concepts behind Greek and Roman government; the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Magna Carta of 1297; the philosophical ideas of Locke, Burke and Hume. As a nation, we waited a full 11 years and engaged in a disastrous experiment called the Articles of Confederation before setting down to form our own Constitution. France had its Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen one year before we had a Bill of Rights. American women haven’t enjoyed even one full century of suffrage. African-Americans have yet to celebrate 50 years of voting rights. Yet here we sit, chiding the Iraqis as backward incompetents. Don’t they know that democracy’s as easy as acknowledging God?
So it is that Flag Day and Independence Day will always be bigger than Constitution Day. After all, who need remember Sept. 17, 1787, when we’ve got July 4, 1776, and Old Glory? As for our Constitution, who will protest when it’s nothing but a paper tiger, and spelled with a lower-case “câ€?