Tuesday, September 27, 2011

FLASH: The Founding Fathers Didn't Have the Internet and THAT'S OKAY.

I have been waiting to use this for actual years.
I've noticed an increase in an eternally irritating phenomenon in the past couple of years, and I'd like to try to inject some sanity into the situation.  I speak, of course, of the frequency of the phrase "the Constitution says X is bad/good" applied to issues that the Constitution has absolutely zero commentary on, or else don't have a clear stance.  This has got to stop, people.

That it needs to stop does not mean that I don't understand it, and I think understanding why people are so quick on the The Bible Says trigger is an important piece of the problem.  We're in a wholly new era in terms of information.  Not only are we awash in viewpoints, news and "news," but the Internet allows us to filter out the information in which we are uninterested.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it does allow us to disappear down the wormhole of theory.  There are endless refinements within political thought, and anyone could easily spend a lifetime arguing minutiae within a particular side or alignment.  For instance, my friend Aaron is an enthusiastic and active libertarian who is supporting Gary Johnson for President.  On a regular basis, he winds up in arguments with folks who are supporting Ron Paul; in fact, much of my knowledge about both of these libertarians is spun off of these exchanges.  Within these arguments, there's plenty of simple camp-to-camp bickering, but there are also discussions of how libertarians should stand on various issues and legislation.  All of this is within the confines of libertarianism, so this debate - which is in no way close to running out of steam - is moving on without even touching other political ideologies.  The same arguments go on among my liberal friends and I, and I'm sure among my more active Republican friends as well. This is, to say the least, disconcerting.  Once you figure out what kind of liberal you are, how do you acknowledge valid points in conservatism or actualize the ideology you've worked out?  When will this freaking project end?

I think once you realize this, it's pretty easy to feel like you're drowning in options.  Obama's campaign and election - regardless of how you feel about the outcome - galvanized this country.  People who had never even thought twice about politics started paying attention and started forming opinions.  This is awesome!  Except that it did exacerbate the embarrassment of opinions situation.  So now you have lots of people, all of whom have spent various amounts of time thinking about politics, all engaging in public debate.  In the midst of all this, people want to find a way that elevates their stance or gives them some kind of solid edge.  Recently, the go-to tactic has been to say that the Founding Fathers espoused your position.

Look, it's really easy to cherry-pick pretty much everything written by the Founding Fathers, and to find other people supporting your interpretation.  I've been studying politics for a long time and I can tell you that at this point I can make the Founding Fathers say whatever the hell I want them to, because the great thing about the American government is that it came out of a public discussion.  This is not, of course, to say that everyone was invited to said discussion, but it does mean that we have a great body of work that includes patriots on either side of the debate, Federalist, Anti-Federalist, and even some ideas that don't fit entirely into either camp.  I see your James Madison and raise you Patrick Henry, and so on and so forth.  The problem is that these arguments were not made for sound-byting, they were made for debate, and this means that context matters.  You don't get to be all "so and so said this once so I win" when they said something a lot more nuanced and grey than the point you're making.  That's not fair to you nor to the Father in question.

Moreover, I think we'll all be better off if we accept that there were some things the Founders simply didn't know and did not have test cases for.  We live in an amazingly fast, connected, plentiful time, and many of the checks and considerations that the Founders put in place were simply not built for this era.  Now, that doesn't make their framework irrelevant or useless, it just means that we need to think seriously about what the larger ethic they were trying to codify was and translate it to what we are working with now.  The staggering population growth we've experienced between 1787 and the present matters too.  The Constitution was built in part by examining what had and hadn't worked in other nations and societies up to that time, all of which were on a smaller scale than their modern day manifestations or the current American population.  This is the same reason that socialism brings huge benefits to Scandanavian countries even though their sociopolitical models would be extremely difficult - if it was possible at all - to apply to America.  Politics of the 1700s and before were considered in the context of the time, and there were many fewer people to rule, no matter how you were doing it.

I think it's fantastic that there's such a fight to get the Founding Fathers on our various teams, because it means we still care about what they said and the country they built.  We should still care about that.  But the thing is, the Founding Fathers were on all of our teams...they were working to build a more perfect union (more perfect, not infallible) for all of us, not one side of the aisle or the other.  If we understand them in this way, it will allow us to have a much more robust and productive conversation about how to move their work forward, to the benefit of us all.

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