Law in Contemporary Society

The Constitution as a Symbol

-- By AmandaRichardson - 12 Feb 2008

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

The Constitution in Suburbia

The Constitution is not a set of unbreakable principles. It is an evolving set of compromises, reinterpreted, and occasionally amended, as society (or the Supreme Court, or Congress) demands. And perhaps the majority of Americans understand that. But in my life, growing up in suburban New Jersey, the Constitution was an essential symbol; a creation myth of the highest order.

There is an axiom in anthropology: that which comes without saying goes without saying. The Constitution is a bedrock of American society, but in my life knowledge of its meaning was largely untaught—we knew it as the document which established our government and protected our rights, and that was the end of it. We believed not in the words of the document but in the work we thought it did.

The Constitution, then, did not appear to us to be a changeable, evolving document but a stable set of rules; a talisman representing certain knowable rights that our government guaranteed us. This view of the Constitution lent legitimacy to not just the government but to society in general. Frank discusses magic and logic as essential elements of human thinking: here viewing the Constitution as a magical document, a set of natural and enforceable rules and regulations, allowed us to see our society as stable, secure, and correct— magic masquerading as logic.

What we gain

This sense of security and stability was important to my childhood. Arnold starts from “the assumption that social creed, law, economics, and so on have no meaning whatever apart from the organization to which they are attached” (23), and here the idea of the Constitution as an unchanging creed must be seen in light of the effect it had on our view of American society in general.

Symbols create their own value, and the idea of society as correct, fundamentally stable, and safe all flowed from the idea of the Constitution as a guarantor of society, regardless of what it actually said or did. And from that came a sense of having a known, preordained place in the world. Seeing the Constitution as an absolute set of unbreakable principles, then, gave me faith in America’s government and society.

A certain amount of faith is necessary for the function of society. Without faith in their leaders, people revolt; without faith in elections and the structure of the government, democracy fails. With a belief in the Constitution came a willingness to accept all the structures that flow from society and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to trust in them.

What we lose

Too much faith, however, leads to complacency. Things might be what they do, not what they’re called; that doesn’t mean that what they are called is unimportant. Words, like myths, can obscure, can manipulate, can create hope or dash it; words can become so disconnected from acts that they become more important than the work they are doing. Where we allow ourselves to believe in symbols without examining those beliefs we open ourselves up to manipulation, and we open our government up to corruption.

The Constitution is not a set of unbreakable principles— it is a set of compromises, the meaning of which have evolved over time. If this weren’t true, we would still be stuck with an eighteenth century conception of fundamental rights, with the belief that there is no right to privacy, or even with the idea that the Supreme Court has no right of judicial review.

If Arnold is correct, and “the art of government consists in the technique of achieving willing popular acceptance” (45), then perhaps ignoring this truth about the Constitution leads to an inculcated blindness; that is, faith without reason.

In addition to giving me peace of mind, then, the idea of the Constitution as absolute and unchanging (and correct) lead to a fundamentalist view of our government. That is, if the Constitution was handed down from on high, then the government had a mandate that goes beyond the power and will of the people or the states.

Fundamentalism, at its core, encourages people to stop thinking for themselves, and this kind of Constitutional fundamentalism leads to that complacency. If the Constitution is correct and unchanging, and the government is fulfilling its mandate to uphold it, then it is okay to turn off our brains. After all, this view means that even if something is wrong, there is little or nothing we can do to change it.

This complacency becomes especially tempting when we are given symbols which soothe our sense of civic duty while not actually having any practical effect (the primaries—and maybe even voting in general—spring to mind). These symbols, when interpreted in light of the Constitution as a talisman, allow us to believe we are fulfilling all that the Constitution requires of us; we can then simply have faith that those in charge know what they are doing.

Where we stand

The worth of the Constitution as a symbol— as an unchanging bedrock— must, therefore, be tempered by the awareness that such blind faith is necessarily dangerous.

What we gain from this view, then, is the ability to function mindlessly. Mindlessness about government is not always a bad thing; faith allows us the freedom to have jobs, families, and lives without fear of the imminent breakdown of society. What we lose, though, is the desire to monitor, and to challenge, the government; we lose the principle of government “by the People.” And if we are not careful, what might rise in its place is government “by the Diebold,” “by the Supreme Court,” or “by the Halliburton”— that is, government by the structures that realize the truth about our changeable, manipulatable Constitution and are willing to exploit it.


Webs Webs

r11 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:40:02 - IanSullivan
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