Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Know Your Rights

An interesting thing happened this morning: a candidate for public office was revealed to have a very incomplete knowledge of the Constitution. During a debate with her rival Chris Coons, Delaware Senate Candidate Christine O'Donnell, darling of The Tea Party, was perplexed by the idea that the separation of Church and State was explicitly spelled out in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It apparently came as something of a shock to her. She was further knocked off her game by a question about whether she would repeal the 14th, 16th, or 17th Amendments, confessing: "I'm sorry, I didn't bring my Constitution with me."

To be part of a party that claims the present administration is subverting the Constitution, and wanting desperately to "restore" it, wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what's in it?

Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not have a complete knowledge of all facets of the Constitution, myself, though I do know key Amendments, and a lot of the set-up that occurs in main body of the document. The point of this is not to denigrate Ms. O'Donnell, but merely to point out an inconsistency in her stated positions on the manipulation of the Constitution by others, namely that she not only cannot tell us what provisions of it are being usurped, but she cannot actually come up with the parts of the document that might be relevant to her point of view.

As it stands, she is not alone. Many Americans have a very sketchy knowledge of what is actually in the very document that is the heart and soul of their nation. The only Amendments that get any regular play are the 1st, 2nd, and 5th; not too many realize that 4th through 8th are the basis for our judicial system, or that the 14th defines what a citizen is (though that one has gotten more play, of late), that the 19th led to women earning the right to vote. Amendments are the part of the Constitution that most Americans have heard of; very few remember the actual Articles that outline the form and structure of the Federal Government and enumerate and codify its powers.

This is not unusual anymore, as American History courses have become watered down over the decades by book publishers looking to appease certain states so they will buy their books, state and local boards of education who look to re-write history to fit their interpretation of it, and history teachers who are not digging deep into American history and giving a comprehensive view of what happened from all sides. I am fortunate, in that, back in the Eighties, I had excellent history teachers, none better than my American History teacher, a Korean War veteran who taught me respect for America and its principles, but also taught me to challenge inequity where I saw it, and be mindful of my duty to the country as a citizen, by taking my right to vote seriously. He imbued in me the love I have for my country, not an all-consuming, "America: Love It or Leave It" kind, but a kind that appreciates the subtitles of how the nation came about, the sacrifices made to form the nation, the importance of those who fought to keep this land free, and the shame of some of the things we did. No matter what has transpired in our history, it makes us no better, and definitely no worse, than some nations; that we can accept our imperfections and strive to make our country better is the acme of the freedom and liberty we enjoy.

That is the point of the exercise: to make our country better. In that, we are expected to elect the best people to run it, for they are given great power and great responsibility for the welfare of a nation and all its citizens. If we elect those who have no appreciation for the true history of our nation, who are so gung-ho that they believe we can do no wrong, then what does that say of us? Further, how do we appear to ourselves and others when we elect those who do not even have any rudimentary idea how the system they are about to enter works?

To wish to serve the nation is admirable, but the governance of all Americans should not be a trivialized or glorified beyond what it actually is. Serious dedication to the general welfare, an open mind, and a willingness to compromise, are just some of the qualities that we must demand of our public servants, along with knowledge of that which we are asking them to do. We cannot content ourselves with the status quo, nor can we wait to anoint perfect citizens; we must work with the material we have. We have the right to decent representation -- it is time to ensure that right, by choosing only the best people we can to represent us.

I suggest that if Ms. O'Donnell truly wants to represent Delaware, she might wish to take the time to brush up on the Constitution -- there's bound to be a test.

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