Civility and the Vanishing Constitution
Congress opened its most recent session by engaging in a symbolic reading of the United Constitution. A few days later, one of its members, Gabrielle Giffords, was gunned down at a Tucson, Arizona constituent event. The irony is palpable. We the people weren’t too impressed with the legislative lip-synch on Capitol Hill.
It’s one thing to have lawmakers read a document forged in the struggle and bloodshed of another era. It’s quite another to give that document practical meaning and effect in a world centuries removed from its composition. I suspect Jared Lee Loughner may have taken matters a little too literally when he opened fire on the Congresswoman and others. Ideas can be liquid fire.
Anecdotal evidence mounts that Mr. Loughner may well suffer serious psychiatric illness, so the temptation exists to try to sweep his act of violence under the rug, to say it is the act of an unhinged mind. But most mentally ill people do not act out in violence. What the mentally ill lack is the restraint most of us possess. When they act, their actions sometimes speak volumes about impulses those of sound mind have the sense and ability to repress.
Hence, the hand-wringing about whether the state of political discourse in this country is responsible for the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. When politicians seek to mobilize supporters with martial and military metaphors and symbols, they are now accused of inciting violence. This is utter silliness. When was the last time we saw an American politician burned in effigy on the streets? Such symbolic acts of protest are as American as apple pie. So too is vitriol; just read newspapers in an earlier age to see all that we have lost in vigor trying oh-so-hard to play nice. We are far too restrained in our speech, each of striving to be sensitive to the ubiquitous feelings of others; and let’s not forget a penal code that expands annually, making some sorts of speech a crime.
The disturbing truth about Jared Loughner is, I suspect, that far too many Americans can understand why he acted in violence. The gap between the reality and the rhetoric of our lives continues to widen. From the right come cries for mobilization over a lost liberty. The federal government grows in power at the people’s expense. The Tea Party wants to take government back, and give it to the people. It is a rhetoric of alienation and displacement, of people who feel their institutions lack the pragmatic traction to yield tangible benefit in their lives.
A similar rhetoric takes shape from the left, although the focal point is on equality. An increasingly smaller percent of Americans control an increasingly larger percentage of the nation’s wealth. Bankers are bailed out and grow rich while ordinary Americans lose their homes, their livelihoods and their sense that the future is a welcoming place. This too speaks of alienation and displacement.
The rhetoric of the left and the right converge at a new flash point: the American Dream is now an illusion for many more Americans than we care to admit. Sure, most of those dislocated and dispossessed can still rally ‘round the flag to engage in a little patriotic gore. The trouble is that patriotism doesn’t mean as much as it used to if you believe either that the government is out of control or that plutocrats have seized all the goodies.
Most of us soldier on in silent desperation. We hope for an economic recovery that will lift all the foundering ships from which we bale water. We listen to the intelligentsia paid handsome salaries to interpret it all for us from their safe perches on television and in the nation’s newspapers. They want us to believe – they need us to believe – that Jared Loughner is just a sick pup. If we can believe that about Jared then we can feel safe. We can ignore the reality gap growing in our midst as the nation is transformed into a plutocracy where the rich get richer, government grows more powerful, and we like sheep are bidden simply to trust and obey.
Did Congress realize it was playing with fire when it read the Constitution? The Constitution is a revolutionary document, written in the blood of patriots, and speaking of the needs of a people who believed a distant power had asserted power inconsistent with their welfare. The silly and repulsive play-acting of elected officials reading the Constitution had the sound of Nero’s fiddle. The hopes of many are burning. We expect more than lip service to the ideals of a nation and a people who proclaim that they were conceived in liberty. We the people now complain not of King George, but of King Congress.
Angry rhetoric did not create Jared Loughner. Neither did permissive gun laws. What created Jared Loughner was a climate of opinion than is frustrated, and at times angry, about a nation seemingly adrift. Playing at tea parties, and conducting constitutional seances, won’t address what ails most Americans. Neither will gunning down elected officials.
Jared Loughner’s gunfire are shots heard from coast to coast. I suggest the lesson we should learn is not that we need more civility or more polite discourse; we certainly don’t need fetishistic readings of the Constitution. We need a commitment to force the sort of change in our society and social structures that will produce more liberty and equality for all. Jared Loughner channeled the rage many feel; eliminate the rage, and there will not be another random shooting