Clio, the Muse of History
Time Out! Remember Who We Are
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or otherwise deprived access to the outside world, you have surely heard that the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby. That company brought a suit challenging the mandate under Obamacare that employers must provide health insurance coverage for certain contraceptive means that are “abortifacient.” In other words, the company challenged the requirement in federal law that forced them (as a privately held company) to pay for measures that would end an early pregnancy already underway. The petitioners claimed that to be forced to do this violated their religious principles and the high court agreed in a closely split-decision.
There has been a loud hue and cry from all quarters—from those who somehow see it as a victory for the nebulous concept of “religious freedom,” and those who see it as a grievous setback for women, a grave miscarriage of justice, or blatant sexist inequality. Some actually saw it in simpler objective terms—as a judgement of Constitutional principles as applied to privately-held business enterprises. Here is just a sampling of what I read on social media threads on Monday, June 30, the date the court announced its decision:
“This has set the cause of women back 100 years!” “This is a perfect example of men telling women what to do with their bodies!” “We need the Equal Rights Amendment NOW!”
I jokingly shared a meme that underscored what inevitably happens in social media given historic judicial decisions of such emotional proportions—everyone becomes an overnight scholar of the United States Constitution. I always suspect that some such commenters: a) never read the Constitution in its entirety, 2) may recall only its preamble in part, hopefully at least “We the people…”, or 3) mention it only because it makes one sound really smart in a Facebook argument.
People who earnestly and seriously study our American federal system understand that the United States Constitution is a living and flexible document that has survived some of the absolute worst foibles and errors that men could conceive. Who knew that when those old, rich, landed, white, male aristocrats gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame a radical new way of governance (one based mostly on ideals of the Enlightenment that sounded cool but had never been fully tried before), that they would provide this nation with a model of inefficiency that would often find us shaking our fists in the air? Yet this was preferable to monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship. The framers, sensitive to the abuses that come with concentration of power, deliberately created a government that would always frustrate itself, always check itself, and roll forward only with lurches and stops, but rarely with speed or with the ease we sometimes think we want. However, who among us does not marvel at that remarkable experiment of 1787 which makes us the most-studied government on earth?
For all of our griping and grumbling, for all that is wrong, there is much that is right, precisely because times like these are actually a renewal—reflecting the unspoken commitment to live together and work it all out that is mysteriously embedded in the American spirit.
Our government survives, not only because we still have the actual old parchment that the Constitution is written on, but because each generation of Americans has renewed the commitment to living in a fragile representative democracy where things can get messy sometimes. We have repeatedly witnessed the peaceful transfer of power in election after election, even when “our candidate” did not win; even in the most hotly contested and heated political arena. We have questioned our leaders, thrown them out of office, challenged them (and each other) to do more, but all of this has happened precisely because we have this unique system. Yes, we have differences of opinion, even entrenched partisan differences, but we have collectively always believed that free and fair elections, open debate, compromise, and respect of Constitutional principles, broadly understood and applied, represent the best ways to resolve our conflicts.
Government by the people requires that we have faith in the system before us, and faith in our ongoing ability to correct errors or adjust our course when necessary.
It requires that we are vigilant about serving all of us, not just a few. Ironically, it means remembering that sometimes the will of the majority is not necessarily right, and education is the key to turning the will of the majority elsewhere. It a fluid process that never fails to create challenges and opportunities for us to practice the ideals of democratic discourse. How do we respond to that process? It is an often-repeated tale that someone approached James Madison on the streets of Philadelphia right after the convention drafted the Constitution and asked him, “so we are going to be a republic?” Madison purportedly responded, “only if you can keep it.”
You see, most importantly, our system of government requires that we be participatory. This is easy to say but more difficult to understand. Participation does not mean simply registering to vote, posting nasty political comments on Facebook, or threatening to begin a revolution if things don’t go “our” way. The people are the safest depository of power, or so said Thomas Jefferson. This means ALL people, and although we all know how difficult that can be, it means we have to listen to each other and participate TOGETHER. Isn’t this preferable to a political environment where the “general will” is decided by officials beyond the reach of a free electoral process?
So, when the Supreme Court handed down its controversial decision this past week, I used it as reminder to keep some measure of historical perspective. After all, the same judicial system that handed down Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which proclaimed racial segregation constitutional, also gave us Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The very same flawed system that made the “sale, manufacture and distribution of alcohol” illegal by the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, realized its folly and reversed itself with another amendment in 1933. In the very midst of that lapse of national judgment, however, there was remarkable clarity and much good. After decades of struggle, the Nineteenth Amendment of 1921 gave women the right to vote and opened the way for full political participation in our society. The United States packed men off to war in Vietnam with a federal draft age of 18, but those young men were strangely not old enough to enjoy the privilege of suffrage? Result: yet another amendment to the Constitution that righted what Americans saw as gravely flawed. United States history is replete with such examples of how we have occasionally (usually) staggered around in search of the “will of the people” and sometimes we even get it right, but not without some trial and error.
A narrow focus on the controversies of government can sometimes makes us miss the leaps and bounds as they occur. Within twenty four hours of the announcement of the SCOTUS decision regarding Hobby Lobby, there came the exciting news that Michelle Howard had been promoted to the rank of four-star admiral in the United States Navy, making her the FIRST WOMAN IN HISTORY to attain this rank. She is now the second-highest ranking officer in that branch of service. The reminder seemed almost perfectly placed—that women have most certainly not been set back 100 years by a Supreme Court decision that may well change itself in future decades, nor has the progress of this people, this nation, been slowed by one single event in the history book. The course of our story in these United States ebbs and flows, inching forward, receding, then taking large rushes forward at some of the most unexpected moments in time.
We move forward awkwardly, we stop, and we suffer even what seems like the occasional reversal. It is the cost of living under the most uniquely framed government on earth. Yet, WE THE PEOPLE who are the drivers of this machine, and if nothing else, major controversies like this one give us an opportunity to elevate our civil discourse and explore our shared identity anew.
How about let’s keep talking?
Maybe just NOT on Facebook.