4th Annual 4th of July Piece: Country, Constitution, and Political Philosophy

This is part of what has become a yearly series. To see previous posts, click the following links accordingly: 2013: Personal Histories and Reflections about the 4th of July, 2014: “4th of July” vs “Independence Day” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #11, 2015: Third Annual 4th of July Reflection: Inability to Use Evidence—2015’s #1 Problem.

Given my latest research interests and very recent events, this 4th of July is a good time to take a minute and really pause to consider what we mean when we discuss “countries.” What does it mean when we celebrate the United States as a country?

From the perspective of Benedict Anderson’s notion of the “imagined community” – the United States only exists to the degree that enough people say it does and act like it does, and the United States depends on some sense of imagined unity and equality among strangers grouped together. Nations are imagined. (Read more here.)

From this perspective, then, we are reminded that the United States as a country, a group, an institution is essential ephemeral in nature, especially if we look at History in terms of billions of years. Further, when we celebrate Independence Day, we are being somewhat short-sided and certainly not engaged in notions of Big History. Too, what about all of the other imagined countries? Independence Day puts too much of the focus on “us” (but a very narrow spectrum of “us”), especially since there is no “World Unity” day of some sort. 

The 4th of July, as celebrated, celebrates not just an imagined country but an imagined History for it idolizes the so-called Founding Fathers, Founding Texts (“American Scriptures”), and a very peculiar version of the past. The 4th does not, for instance, celebrate the diversity that constitutes the United States’s members, and does not host discussions and rallies aimed at making society better. Too often people view criticism as unpatriotic or as a downer. (I can’t remember how many times people have told me to leave the United States! And I am now thinking about Barack Obama’s words: “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.”) But, why not use such a day to reflect on progress and the road ahead?

What better time to discuss the consequences of neoliberalism, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the hatred people have toward Obama, the on-going class divide, global warming, opportunities and limitations of social media as a vehicle for activism, and the desperate need for our schools and colleges to be provided and supported with more money? What better time to truly call out people like Steve Anderson and truly create conditions that will entirely wipeout homophobia? What better time to educate people on the value of providing a “free” education to prisoners? (And given that money and governments are social constructions, the “cost” of something is 100 percent imagined.) 

Perhaps no other day better manifests the struggle society has of coming to terms with the past that leaves people who are aware with feelings of frustration and sometimes feeling disillusioned. 

Analyzing all of this in terms of a “civil religion,” Independence Day (along with Memorial Day and Veterans Day, for example) in the United States parallels celebrations of Easter and Christmas in contemporary Christianity. People takes their religions seriously and often without a great deal of constant reflection.

The United States’s Constitution seems to be what both keeps us bonded together and forever divided. Along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution has become one of the two most important founding texts of our imagined comrade collective. It’s not read or discussed often enough.

And people often ask, as Jordan Rogers does here (be sure to follow his blog and read the old post – it’s awesome!), what value does the Constitution have, especially in the 2010s?  

One thing that seems to be almost entirely unrecognized is that the U.S. Constitution actually says very little. (The Texas Constitution, on the other hand, is another story!) 99% of how our governments function(s) today and what various elected officials do cannot be found in the Constitution. 99% of the laws that free or oppress, depending on the perspective at hand, are not found in the Constitution or Bill of Rights or in any other Amendment in any meaningful way. Its short length helps it be relevant and effective today more than anything. It’s certainly not that special of a document in and of itself. 

The U.S. Constitution, however, is imagined as protecting people and their basic rights. And this gives people hope, at times. Yet, as History shows us, it also gives people the power (or they take the power) to suppress rights from others. 

An examination of how the Constitution emerged is important, too. It’s a product of the ruling elite of the Revolutionary Era being frustrated with the excess in equality. Yes, the road from 1776 made people too free. The Constitution is far, far, far less “Democratic” than the Articles of Confederation. Far less a vision of a society in support of progress and equality. It essentially recreated pre-Revolutionary conditions. The Bill of Rights was a product of grassroots resistance – not a caring, farsighted vision by a group of White men who enslaved Blacks and denied Blacks and Women and Indians basic human status, for example. 

For these reasons and others, I am not eager to advocate for a new Constitution. Given politics as currently practiced, it would probably be wayyyyy too complicated and long – and no one would read it or understand it. Or, if it were short and concise, create the same basic problems we have always faced about what the Founders intended.

On that note, arguments about what the Founders intended are absolutely ridiculous from a historical, sociological, psychological, and even literary perspective. We can’t fully know for one thing, these White men weren’t that unique or special (although they are treated as gods), the 2010s are very different than the 1780s, and again, the Constitution doesn’t say that much.

We do need change. Social media is greatly helping with that. Some politicians are increasingly getting on board. But a new Constitution won’t help. As a thought exercise, I proposed a number of Amendments here. But, I don’t this would change much overall. There is always such a large gap between the law and reality. 

I am also doubtful that another Bill of Rights would help, at least not for very long. FDR’s Second Bill of Rights was never fully and officially adopted, and it received (and receives!) criticism for advocating “communism” and wanting to just “give stuff away.” And once more, we have another problem emerge: The World is largely not preparing for a future that will soon arrive where “humans need not apply.” Technology is taking over. We need more emphasis on education, and we need to begin preparing for a time when it will be necessary for the United States to provide some kind of universal, basic income as part of basic human rights. Humans don’t change easily. It’s hardwired into us that “you don’t work, you don’t eat.” This will have to change.

More than a new Constitution, we need to embrace the past and future and provide simple, clear equality…but that’s far too simple. Alas, sadly but it is human nature and the nature of imagined communities, there has always been a certain incompatibility between the United States’s ideals of freedom and equity and its ideals of Democracy and representation. For hundreds of years, the majority used its equality and political voice to perpetuate the inequality and enslavement of Black men and Black women, to give just one of hundreds of possible examples. Just think, they could have fully followed the ideals and the law and help create a society based on equality, paying workers, and respecting others as humans. We can do the same, but will we? 

Andrew Joseph Pegoda

(For another look at the 4th of July, read this by one of my personal favorite blogs.)