Monday, January 31, 2005

Fish Out of Water
One of the major accomplishments of the Bush Administration is that they've raised the bar for "holy crap" moments--the sort of stories that slap you upside the head and leave you gasping. After absorbing so many in four years, it can take an especially hefty whack to get our attention. Behold, one hefty whack:
[W]hen told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
Holy crap, indeed--that's fertilizer for fascism.

As to what might be responsible for these attitudes, I'll make a couple of wild guesses. As the scholars quoted in the AP article linked above suggest, not doing enough to teach the First Amendment (and the whole Constitution) is surely part of it--but even when the Constitution is taught, it isn't always taught in a useful way. To millions of Americans, the Constitution is almost like a fetish object. Everybody knows what it is and claims to venerate it, but far fewer people know that it's a document arrived at through political processes that was designed as a template for other political processes--in other words, we treat it like a dead artifact instead of a living document, as if it sprung whole from the brain of the gods and is to remain eternal and unchanging. And when we do treat the Constitution as a living document, we want to mess with it in ways that illustrate our profound misunderstanding of what the Constitution is for, with amendments against flag burning or same-sex marriage.

We're far less likely to acquaint ourselves with the ways the Constitution protects us on a daily basis, and how its protections have functioned throughout our history. A living document is only alive when people can sense that it's alive. When I was student teaching (eight years ago now), I had to teach a district-mandated curriculum called "The Law and You" for a week. This was supposed to be where my freshmen learned about the legal system. But the curriculum dwelt on things easily tested by multiple choice and short answer questions, like the difference between the circuit court and the district court, how many judges are on the Iowa Supreme Court, and so on, and I knew my kids well enough to know they were going to go face down in such material--and so would I. So I decided to teach them about the law by examining cases that would seem real to them--trespassing, hit-and-run, censorship of the school newspaper, and so on. We tied the discussions to the broader legal issues involved, and to ideas of civic responsibility, too. My reward came the day a student known mostly to me for sleeping in class came up after the bell and said, "Are we doing this again tomorrow? I love this!" We took something dry and impersonal and made it real and alive--and if I could do it with traffic laws, it could be done with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, too.

So we aren't taught about the Constitution in a way that makes it vital and alive. But we've got another related problem, and it's with our point of view. Because we're taught from birth that the Founding Fathers were geniuses, and that the system they designed has been self-evidently perfect from the first day, we believe that there's no way the system could ever run off the rails. By treating our political institutions as snapshots of perfection, we lose our ability to critique them when necessary. And so, if the government ever takes it upon itself to censor newspapers, for example, it must have a very good reason for doing so, and who are we to say otherwise? If the heirs of Washington and Jefferson do it, it must be OK. Right?

But maybe there's a more immediate reason for why young people seem to us so careless about their rights. Think about the world your average teen has grown up in over these past several years. They've been repeatedly told by parents, teachers, political leaders, and other authority figures how much danger they're in--from strangers, drugs, sex, and, for the last three years, terrorist evildoers under the bed. Some authority figures are fond of suggesting that bad thoughts--political, sexual, cultural--represent the worst dangers of all. Why shouldn't kids who've been brought up on such talk think that the people charged with protecting them from danger should have the right to do so by any means necessary, even if it's by censoring opinions and thoughts that used to be OK? After all, this is an era like no other, right?

You don't need me to tell you that we ignore the Constitution and Bill of Rights at our extreme peril, even if they're so much a part of our lives that we take them for granted. Fact is, these documents affect our everyday lives to such a degree that the rights we enjoy because of them make us like fish who don't know they're wet. At least until the pond dries up.

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