constitution

Exit 202. I’ve been debating all weekend whether or not to write this.

I’ve been debating all weekend whether or not to write this.  I’ve said at times that part of the reason I feel so out of place everywhere is that I often feel like I don’t fit neatly into categories and boxes, and the culture is so divided and polarized these days that I end up feeling rejected from both sides.

An example of this that has been in the news lately is the recent decision by the National Football League to require all players on the field during the performance of the Star-Spangled Banner (the national anthem of the USA) to stand.  For those of you who don’t follow the NFL, or those of you reading in other countries, the very abbreviated back story is this: It has been customary to stand during the performance of this song for as long as I can remember, but in the last few years a number of players have been sitting or kneeling, with many of them saying that it is a protest about police brutality and the mistreatment of African-Americans.  Most people fall into one of two camps regarding this issue: “Yay America!  Everyone should stand!” or “Boo America, forcing people to stand is what dictatorships do, and the protesters are right!”

I think that protesting in this way is indeed disrespectful.  As we remember on this holiday weekend, people have died for the ideals that this flag and song stand for.  We have it so much better in this country than much of the world.  Many of us still believe in the ideals that founded this country.  And I also believe that the NFL is within their rights as a private corporation to require its players to stand for the national anthem.  It is comparable to having a dress code at a place of business.

But, that said, I don’t agree with this decision.  Respect is earned, not forced, and while a corporation does indeed have the right to impose rules of conduct on its employees, doing so also infringes on the concept of freedom of speech, one of the ideals that the flag stands for.  In the 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled in a controversial case that burning the flag in protest is free speech and cannot be punished in and of itself.  Although burning the flag extremely disrespectful, I agree with this decision.  Forcing someone to show love for their country is not love at all.  The NFL did say that players who don’t want to stand for the national anthem can stay in the locker room if they wish to, but that still sends the message that their protest isn’t wanted.  And I don’t believe that the NFL owners and leaders really care whether or not players love their country.  They saw that fans who love their country were upset about the players not standing for the national anthem, and less support from fans hurts their bottom line.  This had more to do with money than patriotism.

So am I going to watch NFL games this fall?  Does the fact that my team’s owner abstained from this vote, since the attention on these protests began with that team?  I don’t know.  I haven’t decided yet.  Should I care about any of this?  I don’t know.  Maybe the more important thing is for both sides to listen to why the other side is upset.  Maybe we really need to work on making this country a place that people love again, but without sacrificing the values and ideals that shaped this country.

Exit 116. People stood by apathetically and did nothing.

It’s that time again here in the USA… the time when everyone is talking about the upcoming Presidential election.  And, as is the case pretty much every year, there are those people out there talking about how they don’t like any of the candidates, but the system is flawed because you have to vote for one of them, and voting for a third party candidate is throwing your vote away and/or helping the candidate you don’t like to win.  This year, this conversation is coming up more often than ever, because of the staggering unpopularity of both major party candidates.

Some disclaimers first: What I’m writing here assumes that elections are not rigged.  I’m sure that some are, but I want to believe that this is a vast minority of cases.  Also, I recognize that at the time that the USA was founded, the definition of “people,” in the sense of who was eligible to vote and make decisions about government, was much less inclusive than it is today.  That is not particularly relevant to the discussion about what is happening now, though.  Finally, I apologize to my readers outside of the USA, because this discussion may not apply to your systems of government.

There are valid complaints in this line of discussion.  But there is something else that many of us seem to have forgotten (as I have written about before): Our government exists only by the consent of the governed.  If the system is flawed, that is because people put that flawed system in place, or, more likely, people stood by apathetically and did nothing while those who stood to benefit from the flawed system put it in place.

Every single elected official in this country was put in power by voters.  And every single elected official is held accountable for their actions when they come up for reelection.  The main reason that so many of those incompetent NTACs keep getting reelected is because their constituents find the status quo less detestable than the alternative.

I think what bothers me the most about this kind of discussion is the line of thinking that a third party candidate cannot win.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  No one votes for third-party candidates because they believe that they cannot win, and they cannot win because no one votes for them.  Third-party candidates have won states in the past, often when they hold a particularly strong following in one region of the country, which usually occurs because of one specific issue.  (This happened most recently in 1968; sadly, the issue in question was racial segregation.)  The third-party candidate came in second in 1912, and some consider Abraham Lincoln a third-party candidate when he won in 1860, because the Republican Party had not yet been established as the second national party after the breakup of the Whigs.  Some say that third-party candidates never get votes because the mainstream media never pays attention to them.  But this is a time period when the mainstream media is less relevant than it has been in years.  If some no-name lady in a Chewbacca mask, hundreds of foul-mouthed douchebags and douchebaguettes, and dozens of funny-looking cats can all get millions of followers on the Internet, then surely political candidates out of the mainstream can do the same.  The reason it doesn’t happen all comes down to what I said earlier: too many people don’t care.

If a third-party candidate does win states in an election where the two major party candidates are running close (which has the potential to happen this year), this opens the possibility that no candidate will win a majority of the electoral vote, invoking the Twelfth Amendment and sending the election to the House of Representatives, where each state’s representatives will get one collective vote per state, from among the top three candidates.  This is not an archaic vestige of the past; it was designed on purpose, so that compromises and negotiations could happen among the elected representatives.  Each state is different, geographically and culturally, and each state should be different.  The Electoral College and the Twelfth Amendment were designed purposefully as part of this feature of our nation.  This kind of compromise, integral to our nation’s history, is sorely lacking in today’s political climate; once again, the reason for that is that the politicians who refuse to compromise keep getting reelected by people who don’t care, who see ability to compromise as a weakness.

I may be sounding like an idealist here.  But I still believe in the ideals of our nation’s government, and I hope that more people will learn about these ideals so that they will too.

Exit 62. Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.

Yesterday, July 4, was Independence Day here in the United States of America.  The British began settling the Atlantic coast of what is now the USA in the 1600s and 1700s.  By the 1760s and 1770s, the relationship between the Crown and the colonies had deteriorated as the government raised taxes and exerted greater control in the colonies.  After full-blown war broke out, a group of representatives met in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence (full text).  The Declaration, dated July 4, 1776 and primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, began by asserting that all are created equally with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that government is derived by the consent of the governed; and that when a government becomes abusive, the people have the right to abolish it and replace it with another government.  The Declaration then continues with a list of reasons that the British government under King George III had abused its power in the American colonies.  Fighting between the colonists and the British would continue for several years, and in 1783, after the British had suffered a number of defeats, they formally ended fighting and recognized the new nation.  Thomas Jefferson would later become the third President of the new United States of America, serving from 1801 to 1809, and as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, his image can be seen on both the five-cent coin and the two-dollar bill.

I have friends in other countries now, and I occasionally get views on this blog from outside the USA, so one reason I included this brief history lesson is because I don’t know how much of this is taught in other countries.  The sad thing, however, is that many people right here in this country don’t seem to know what we are celebrating on July 4.  All of this is still taught in schools, but so many these days have the attitude that what they learn in school is not worth remembering once they have taken a test on it.

This is certainly not the only reason for our changing sense of national identity, of course.  I grew up in the context of the waning years of the Cold War and the brash consumerism of the 1980s, with a clear sense that we were the “good guys” and the Russians were the “bad guys” long before I understood the causes of the Cold War or the political and economic differences between the two nations.  Today’s youth spent their childhoods in the era of the United States being the world’s only superpower, and being widely criticized for that role  They live in the era of increasing globalization and exposure to other cultures, and the era of increased public concern over environmental destruction and its consequences.  This is just my opinion and observation, not intended to be a scientifically drawn conclusion, but it seems like this has created a generation that does not value representative government or free market economics as much as previous generations.  An increasing segment of the population associates representative government with injustice and free market economics with the destruction of the environment, and their views are entirely justifiable in light of recent history.

To me, this context can make the celebration of independence a little awkward.  Does this country still stand for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?  There is no doubt that the world has changed a great deal since Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote the Declaration 239 years ago, and that our nation and the world are facing a very uncertain and potentially unsettling future.

I want to have hope and optimism that our nation will survive.  Those who wrote the Constitution knew that the world would change in ways that they could not foresee, so they included a provision by which the Constitution could be amended.  It is difficult to amend the Constitution; an amendment must be proposed by a 2/3 vote of Congress, and then the state governments of 3/4 of the states must pass a bill in favor of the amendment.*  But it is important that Constitutional amendments be difficult to pass, so that the foundations of our national government do not change based on whims and fads, and this is why only twenty-seven Constitutional amendments have been approved.  (*Yes, I know there are a few other options involved, but I’m trying to keep it simple.)

One key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that tends to get forgotten these days is “consent of the governed.”  Government exists because the people allow it to exist, and in a representative government like ours, the government only has power because the people allow it to.  Some complain, justifiably, that our government is under the control of big money and big corporations, but the only reason for this is that enough voters have become complacent and cynical enough to continue voting for people who are beholden to big money and big corporations.  This could easily change if enough voters could agree on something better.  Also–and I know that this next part is not true of all countries–the United States federal government exists because the states allow it to exist.  The United States is not one country that was formed first and then divided into states; it is a group of states that created a centralized authority to strengthen their union.  We tend to forget that each state has its own culture and its own way of life, and that, for the most part, the states should not all be the same in the first place.

So, Americans, learn about the issues facing your community, your state, and the nation.  After learning about the issues, vote in the next election.  Remember, you will probably have to make some compromise votes, because no one’s views will follow yours exactly, but some candidates are definitely better equipped to be leaders than others.  I hope we as a nation can continue to do the best we can, and that we will find a solution to the divisiveness and ignorance that seem to have dominated recent elections, on both sides.  Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.