Friday, March 27, 2009

On Constitutional Supremacy and other general misunderstandings

I've written several times before at this blog and elsewhere about the common mischaracterization of the U.S. Constitution, by folks at all places on the political spectrum alike, as the "Supreme Law of the Land." I've quoted before William James who is accredited with the saying "there is nothing so absurd than if you repeat something often enough people begin to believe it" (although Thomas Jefferson made the statement long before William James came along, and Jefferson himself picked the phrase up from elsewhere) as it applies to a variety of mischaracterizations and misunderstandings about what is actually said in the constitution and other founding, and otherwise historical documentation.

The phrase "separation of church and state" was never written into the U.S. Constitution and yet many people still believe that it was, and is. You can argue that the phrase is consistent with the provision contained in the first amendment, but you can't argue that the phrase anywhere appears as such in the constitution, or in any amendment thereof. I've also written before about the Declaration of Independence's phrase "All men are created equal" and the way that some tend to leave out the term "created", rending it "all men are equal." Now, I don't know about you, but to me there is a huge difference between the two statements and their respective implications. And of course there are those people out there who mistakenly attribute a phrase from the DoI to the Constitution and vice versa, among other misapplications that are worse, much worse even. But it's all there in black and white for anyone who really gives a hoot about what the actual words are, and in which document they are actually found. The fact remains, though, that we simply have too many sheeple living in our midst who internalize these misquotes and mistatements because they're simply too lazy to check it out for themselves. There can be no good excuse for this, none, not for anyone who claims to believe in the principles contained in the DoI, the U.S. Constitution, etc. Particularly for folks who have access to the internet. Yet these types of mistakes abound even at times among otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, patriotic people.

With respect to the idea bandied about all too often in today's dumbed-down Constitutionally illiterate America, someone will invariably come along and make a statement while arguing a point with me that goes something like this: "...after all, the Constitution IS the Supreme law of the land." Some people will state it more forcefully, utilizing more blatant forms of sarcasm and condescension: "Well, you obviously don't know what you're talking about, nor have you read the Constitution because it says clearly that it is the Supreme Law of the Land." Or how about this one: "You have no right to question the authority of the supreme law!" The way I reply to these various assertions of the same theme is generally dictated by the impression I get from how the statement was made in context of the discussion. But generally speaking I want people to correct their own mistakes through their own research, so I might reply in this fashion: "You might want to look at that again. See Article VI, U.S. Constitution." --Yes, it's important to direct them to the right article, because although they're fond of parroting the statement, they don't know where to find it and there's no way in hell they're going to read through the first five articles to find it. Other times I will simply correct the person in question quoting the whole phrase from the Constitution establishing constitutional supremacy. Which method I choose in a given circumstance may seem arbitrary to some, but believe me, it is usually not. It all depends on the context of the discussion and the individual I'm dealing with - what sort of characteristics he or she exudes during the conversation. But anyway...

The reason I bring this up again is because I was recently involved in a discussion (actually several discussions) over at Alan Keyes's blog "Loyal to Liberty" in which this statement about the constitution being, in and of itself, the Supreme Law of the Land was made on at least a couple of different occasions. In the context of that particular discussion I chose the option of quoting the entire phrase establishing constitutional supremacy, explaining that the distinction between the two statements - the half truth that the constitution is the supreme law, and the whole truth contained in the entire statement - is, from my point of view, a very important, even a vital distinction to make precisely because we're generally in agreement as to the question of constitutional supremacy, where we disagree, however, is in what kinds of laws and treaties and so forth are "made in pursuance thereof." Therein is where Republicans and Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, Religionists and Atheists, Conservatives and Liberals, etc., ad infinitum, tend to part ways. Why? Because this is all dictated by one's worldview, which is generally determined by one's religion or the lack thereof. And yes, the "lack thereof" can easily become, exuding all the essential characteristics of, a religion unto itself (which I think is because human beings are spiritual beings, and there's no way of getting around it, no matter how hard we try).

Again, I want people to realize where it is actually that their differences lie on this question of constitutional supremacy, but more importantly to connect that common source of differences on the subject with what the constitution states about it. Making the half-truthful, last-ditch argument that the Constitution is the Supreme Law, which implies that the other party either doesn't understand this, or that he/she disagrees with the principle, is generally not very helpful in these conversations, not merely because it is a half-truth, but because it is generally meant to elicit a certain kind of response. Nor generally is the other person's reaction very helpful, which usually comes down to something to the effect of "how dare you question my belief in the principle of constitutional supremacy; you think I don't already know this moron?!" But if we can get people to read the entirety of the statement and to begin to reflect upon it, seeing that they'd been previously misinformed, or, incompletely informed as it were, then they might just begin to ask themselves such questions as "under what constitutional principle or authority does the national government encroach upon the rights reserved to the states and to the people respectively in their own spheres of activity?", "how is it that laws made under the authority of the United States, and treaties so made, which trample upon the whole bill of rights, can be said to be made in pursuance of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, or under its authority?", etc., then we may actually be doing something useful, not only useful to the person(s) we are conversing with and the onlookers, but also to ourselves; we may have actually helped to set them upon a journey that will eventually result in their independency from those characters and demagogues who feign a unique understanding of the constitution and our system of government winning to themselves proselytes via the use of half-truthful statements such as those mentioned.

And this is why I say that the term "unconstitutional" is way overused in today's society, again by folks all across the political spectrum. If anything is blatantly unconstitutional, it is the idea bandied about that the constitution is, in and of itself, the "Supreme Law of the Land." It is un-constitutional, or, not-constitutional because there's no basis in the constitution for it, none. In fact, quite to the contrary as I've shown above. But I digress. Very few things I think there are that are as clearly unconstitutional as folks on both the right and the left would have us believe. The same folks, of course, would have us believe that in-and-of-itself constitutional supremacy is fundamentally constitutional when clearly it is not. How then are we ever to trust them on items they declare to be "unconstitutional" when they don't even understand the first precepts of constitutionality in the first place?