December 30, 2010

The Constitution Deserves Better Than Rote Recital

You would think that I would applaud the reading the Constitution in order to open a session of Congress. But I'm not doing that.

I used to be a Roman Catholic. Part of the Roman Catholic Mass involves collective recital of a variety of prayers. As children and teenagers, Catholics go to class to learn the appropriate responses to various phrases recited by the celebrating priest during the various rituals within the Mass -- when to stand down, sit up, or genuflect; when the priest says "X" you say "Y," and so on. And then you go to Mass and you do these things and you do them so much that they become automatic.

Although I haven't been to a Mass at all for at least five years and I haven't really meant it for over twenty,* I'm quite confident that if I walked in to a church, alone, right now, I could recite all the congregation's responses to a priest's saying the Mass without use of a Missal (those little guidebooks they distribute on the back of the pews). Such is the power of memorization and imprinting, especially on an impressionable young mind.

While the classes Catholics take are supposed to teach the young students the importance of the words they are saying, the fact of the matter is they don't do that very often, and even the ones who do absorb these lessons and take them to heart often find themselves just going through the motions, and in candid moments they will admit this. Their minds are not engaged on what they are saying; their statements are automatic and even reflexive while their thoughts, if any, are elsewhere than the subject matter of the Mass.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a more universal example of the same phenomenon: through heavy rote repetition, intellectual meaning is lost. My guess is that only rarely are people given instruction in the meaning of the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, and even if they are, if they are made to recite it, every day, they just do it on autopilot and don't think about what they are saying. They go through the motions, conform to peer pressure, and make an outward show of patriotism without actually feeling particularly patriotic -- the emotional experience becomes that of a duty discharged or an affirmation that they are within the "in-group".

They don't consider that the Pledge is essentially a military exercise. Why are there flags in the first place? So soldiers on the battlefield can identify which combatants are friendly and which are hostile. Pledging allegiance to a flag is stating which side of a fight you're going to be on.

They don't consider what it means to say that the flag "stands for" a Republic. They aren't thinking about the fact that the United States has a republican form of government, a representative federal democracy with a division of powers; they are very likely not thinking about what alternatives to republican forms of government might exist, such as monarchy or military dictatorship or theocracy or policies selected through the mechanism of chance.

At least in the early twenty-first century, it strikes me as unlikely that they are really reflecting on the inclusion and origin of the word "indivisible" in the Pledge. If they did, they would have to intellectually confront the fact that the Pledge is a relic of the aftermath of the Civil War, and that none of the original Founding Fathers ever recited it or anything like it; it is not nearly so ancient or immutable as they might feel comfortable believing.

The final clause of the Pledge is quite ambiguous in meaning, an articulation of a high national ideal and one to which we as a nation hope to strive for but no one should have much difficulty coming up with examples of how we fall short of achieving it. People who engage in rote recital of the Pledge certainly are not going to pick up on the challenge inherent in that phrase to help the nation do better, to be freer, to extend liberty and justice in a more universal way, than we already do.

That's because rote repetition of a series of words is not about encouraging critical thought. It's about producing an outward conformity on the part of those who engage in the ritual. Individual critical thought is not necessary and often detrimental to this sort of conformity.

Someone who thinks that maybe the secession question hasn't really been settled by now, and that it remains a theoretical possibility for a state to lawfully secede from the Union, ought not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, because the Pledge insists that the nation is "indivisible." Someone who thinks that an individual state is a sovereign nation participating in some sort of a grand Constitutional alliance with forty-nine other sovereign nations -- and yes, there are those who think this way, and some of them hold high office -- ought not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with its insistence that the United States is "one nation" rather than "several nations." Someone who thinks that certain people in the United States are not entitled to the same kind of liberty and justice afforded to other people -- if they think that enemy combatants seized on the field of battle and imprisoned by the American military are not entitled to due process of law, access to counsel, or the ability to peacefully walk away from their American captors -- ought not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because they don't really believe in "liberty and justice for all;" at best, they believe in "liberty and justice for some." I think my position on the "under God" clause is already well-known.

But of course the failure to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in a setting where others do so is a rather dicey proposition. Not reciting the pledge when others do so is very likely to be interpreted as an expression of contempt for the United States. When everyone around you stands and places their hands on their hearts† and you don't, they're going to look at you funny. They're going to think less of you. And you're identifying yourself as "not a part of your group." So that's the reason people recite the Pledge -- to conform, not to actually express fidelity to anything.

So when I see that the incoming Congress is making a public spectacle of having a ceremony in which the Constitution is read out loud to the House of Representatives at the start of the session, I start to wonder:

  • How many Members of Congress are going to be in the Chamber when the reading takes place?
  • Of those Members, how many are going to listen to the reading instead of doing other kinds of work like, say, talking to one another about the government?
  • Of those Members who really do listen, how many are going to take the time to understand what is being read to them?
  • Will any single Member of Congress change his or her behavior in office one bit as a result of participating in this ritual?
  • Can't the same purpose be achieved by distributing physical copies of the Constitution to each Member?
  • Members of Congress are already Constitutional officers of the United States and supposed to be possessed of at least average intelligence -- haven't they read the Constitution already? Weren't they all taught this stuff in high school?
  • Has anyone given thought to the fact that the Constitution is susceptible to multiple reasonable interpretations by people of strong intellect and good faith?
  • Will this ceremony be repeated in future Sessions of Congress, and if so, to what effect?
  • If reading of the Constitution becomes a de rigueur ritual, will its substantive meaning atrophy with repetition, the way the vitality of the Pledge and the Mass has done?
  • The initiation of this ritual seems to be strongly associated with the incoming Republican majority; will this ritual therefore evolve into a political football, an expression of partisanship rather than one of unity and common citizenship?
The likely answers to these questions displease me so much that what seems on its face, to be a good idea and a nice thing to ritualize, has a real danger, at least over time, of diluting the importance of that which it seeks to buttress. The Constitution is too important to all of us to use as a political football.

So I'm calling this a nice idea but it's not one that we should allow to become an intellectually-dead ritual, so it should be something that if done again at all, is only done rarely.

Now, I do like the idea of all bills needing to include a claim to Constitutional authority in principle, but again, there is more symbolism than substance here and I suspect that this will result in a lot of verbiage but not a lot of actual thought. It will be easy for a Member to include one line in every bill saying "Congress has authority to enact this legislation under the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution," and that will be that. On the off chance that Commerce Clause authority is later found to be wanting in a judicial challenge to the Constitutionality of the law, a Court should be able to examine other sections of the Constitution for authority supporting the legislation whether or not they are cited.

But at the end of the day, rhetoric and ceremony about the Constitution is not the same thing as respecting and following it. Congress can talk the talk, but the measure of its action must ultimately be in deeds, not words.

* Surprise! Nonbelievers attend religious services all the time. Sometimes they even participate. Why would they do this? I won't speak for others, but in my case, it was to please religious family members. There is an element of dishonesty in so conducting oneself, but I maintain that it is equivalent to the dishonesty that is found when one meets an acquaintance for the first time in several months and says "You look great!" instead of a more truthful observation like "You've gained weight!"

Legend has it that the flag salute used to be an extension of the right arm, with elbow locked at full extension, hand fully extended toward the flag. That form of salute changed in the 1930's because Congress thought it too closely resembled the salute used by Fascists in Europe and Japan.


zzi said...

hey it's old, who cares

Dan said...

You can't fool me, Likko. Everyone knows that non-believers who participate in church services are struck by lightning and/or leprosy, or burst into flame.