Our American baggage: a July 4 reflection

Today marks the 240 years since an arbitrary point in time, one of several associated with the Declaration of Independence. It’s also a time to reflect on how irrelevant the Declaration is in the 21st century, despite constant references in political culture. Present American policy the antithesis of the right of revolution. The dismemberment of Occupy shows that even talking about revolution is taboo. This is to be expected- what kind of self-sustaining regime would ever recognize the right to be overthrown?

So even though it was created eleven years later, when we discuss our origins we speak, directly or indirectly, of the Constitution. Unlike almost every state with a written constitution, the US Constitution has undergone comparatively mild revision, even though it predates the French Revolution, and thus modern politics as we know it. In the past, I’ve talked about our origins as dead people’s baggage, and the problem of a pre-democratic Constitution. Consider this a third take on the same theme.

Taken from Library of Congress website.

Here’s a strange thing to consider. At this point, it is generally established that all-white clubs clash with civil rights law. This year, Harvard cracked down on single-sex clubs, indicating that even in bastions of privilege like the Ivy League, integration is now expected.

Were the Constitutional Convention assemble today, July 4, 2016, it would be a pariah. An all-white, all-male clique, who generally speaking despised the working class, and did not think of women or populations of color as citizens. Yet most people are okay with how the Constitution was created. This slides into the problematic “the times were different” defense, which has always been used to justify atrocity and injustice. All the institutions surrounding the Constitution have integrated in some sense- legislatures, courts, school boards, the Cabinet. But the roots remain the same. And when the three current female Supreme Court justices interpret the law, they wrestle with a legal history that women had no input on until a few decades ago.

The end result is a Constitution that is incredibly vague, which inherently supports existing privilege and white male supremacy. There are no protections for marginalized groups, because they were never thought to have political and social rights. In fact, one can say that constitutional change in American history is a story of turning universal rights into enforceable protections.

One reason a second Convention has never been called, despite Framers asking future generations to do so, is that the leap will be so dramatic. Can we imagine a Constitution ten times longer? Twenty? Can we imagine the Second Amendment remade? Can we imagine centuries of case law overruled?

So on this July 4th, we triumph the Declaration, as it remains pure, frozen in time. There is no sense of obligation to change it. On this day, we can travel to the past, and not bring its baggage on the return trip.

 

 

Thomas Paine: an always-relevant radical

The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!

As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.

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Paine, before injustice gave him grey hair. Portrait by Matthew Pratt

What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.

So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.

Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.

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Paine seemingly never wrote anything that didn’t make at least some powerful people mad.

The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.

So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.

All Lives Matter? Like when the Founders said “all men are created equal”?

Tweet from twitter.com/blakedontcrack
Tweet from twitter.com/blakedontcrack

The rhetoric of “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter” is one of the most tired, toxic debates of the past year. My own opinion is relatively common- the latter is clearly not true in our society, and thus the former is clearly not true until things change.

“All lives matter” is the cry of people who in one way or another don’t see black Americans as equal to themselves. This stretches from dime-a-dozen racists to immensely powerful people. A politician can say “all lives matter”, then go to the floor and vote for mass incarceration, for cuts to social programs, against police accountability, and all matter of policies that reinforce white supremacy and create second-class semi-citizens. The victims of the War on Drugs are not only caught in a cycle of poverty, they have an inferior set of civil rights. American political and social leaders exalt freedom and liberty, but draw clear lines on who is to receive them and who is not deserving.

As the tweet states, perhaps my favorite summary of the issue, we should not be surprised by the disingenuous use of “all lives matter”. The United States is built upon hypocrisy. Of promising one thing and delivering another. Just like “all men or created equal” was based on a very narrow definition of who is a person- male, free, and white- it is abundantly clear that in 2015 the lives of people of color are not worthy of consideration. My previous post about police intimidation of activists saw a law enforcement official create a line between “true citizens” and those that challenge the system. I doubt the author of the email thinks that all lives matter equally.

Liberty and justice for all? Hardly.

Courts are a model of efficiency when they impose mandatory minimums for crimes of survival, but have no interest in capitalist looting of society. Property is valued higher than certain types of people. A CVS was damaged in Baltimore? Clearly people of color can’t control their anger. An irate officer tackles Sandra Bland after arresting her for nothing? Well, she should have just cooperated with the officer- the officer didn’t do anything wrong!

This is the latest of many episodes where the core hypocrisy of the American state is exposed- a state built on the bones of indigenous people, and fueled by the forced labor of people deemed unworthy of being included in the statement “all men are created equal.”