When I was a 7th grader at Eastview Avenue Junior High School in White Plains, New York, we began each day in our homeroom where attendance was taken and announcements were made. We also rose to pledge allegiance to our flag and nation. But in Mrs. House’s homeroom every now and then we also recited the Preamble to the Constitution. Everyone in that classroom knew it well:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
We learned that while the Preamble did not have the effect of law, it was the filter through which laws would be made and it framed the substance and the purpose of those laws. It boldly and clearly articulated the marching orders and “gold-standard” mission statement for legislators, executives and judges pledged by oath to be guided by those standards. In Eastview Avenue Junior High School and beyond we learned that adherence to the tone and purposes of the Preamble was the most difficult and challenging task in any true democracy since we were also taught to honor and respect people of different ideas in this global and domestic melting pot we proudly called the United States of America.
But today, in a nation where we routinely ban defective products because they may have caused injury in a half dozen occurrences nationwide and permit weapons that slaughter over 35,000 people every year, the spirit of the Preamble becomes twisted and lost in a strange and contradictory way. Some blame it on the 2nd Amendment that everyone knows applies to what the federal government can and cannot do as a safeguard against a tyrannical central government. It does not dictate what state and local governments can or cannot do with respect to firearms control. The Amendment was written specifically so state and local governments can do as they wish regarding the use of arms to protect them from arbitrary rule of an out-of-control central government. Under the terms of our Constitution and a reasonable interpretation of the 2nd and 14th Amendments, states and local constituencies may ban any and all firearms if they choose to do so. Legislators at every level of government know this but still fail to act on it despite their oath-driven obligation to ensure “domestic tranquility” and/or “promote the general welfare”.
Instances of ignorance or defiance of the nation’s mission statement as articulated in the Preamble abound in all three branches of government. Legislators, executives and judges are often far more attentive to those forces that help them gain and maintain office than the wishes and interests of the people and nation they are under oath to serve and in doing so they demonstrate either ignorance of the framers’ intent or their greater allegiance to a quid-pro-quo marriage to private interests or both.
That message was learned by us in school and it was illustrated in real time by the Army-McCarthy hearings, an unhappy offshoot of the Communist witch hunts of the late ‘40’s and early ’50’s. But in those days, demagoguery and unproven innuendo and charges usually fell victim to an outraged citizenry that in the end typically defended the rule of law and the higher interests of democracy. This does not imply that do-gooders were always the order of the day but, rather, that the forces of justice across the political spectrum were on the march, sometimes slowly and at other times more rapidly but typically against strong, vocal and often violent opposition. Grit and determination usually carried the day even though that progress was frequently at a glacial, incremental pace. But that’s the way true democratic republics work and while the system is not without flaws it is the best model we have.
Differences in opinion abound in a democracy. That’s its greatest strength. But that difference becomes something else when you raise discourse to a level of hatred clothed in subjective and shifting mantles of good and evil. Reconciling differences becomes exponentially more difficult when opponents are framed in a manner that makes you want to hate them when those differences of opinion are viewed as un-American or inconsistent with one’s religious or moral standards. That is what is happening in this nation today and it alone is far more dangerous to the continued viability of this democracy than ISIS or any foreign power. It is the result of two forces that are emerging in this country. One, of course, is the “dumbing down” of the nation to the point where any message can masquerade as the truth because people don’t know enough to detect the difference. The decreasing ability of our citizenry to recognize or even care about truth or falsehoods forces them to focus on the messenger, not the message. When that happens we are excused from even listening to the message because we don’t like the messenger. That alone is dangerous to a democracy. The second force is a child of the first. It is the steady drumbeat of commentators who ignore truth and make a living ratcheting up what should be simple civil discussion to the level of hatred of others whose opinions are characterized as treasonous and/or helping our enemies. They, more than any other force have managed to mainstream hatred when in truth, it is those purveyors of discord who are doing more to weaken this nation than the entire universe of ISIS followers who are less likely to attack us because we are destroying ourselves. To them, America is on auto pilot to its own unraveling. Attacking us would only serve to unite us so why bother?
Another truth learned in school and later strongly advocated when it was my turn to teach was that elected officials have a responsibility under oath to serve all of the people in a given constituency including those who did not support that legislator in the election. Lowell Weiker, the insightful Republican senator from Connecticut, talked about that in Room 72. Democracy doesn’t end with elections. Great legislators do some soul searching before a session of the legislature to determine if what they will be considering is also in the interests of opponents in their district. They should attend legislative meetings and try to craft new laws with those people and their concerns also in mind. If that happened, we would see much greater progress than we currently witness under the heavy hand of those hard-liners of all parties who wrongly think that a true democracy includes overriding, all-or-nothing attitudes and outcomes. Elected officials who simply conduct their jobs by saying “no” or work to make the other party or the President if he or she belongs to that party look ineffective don’t have a clue about how representative governments should work. “No” is not a policy and it does not create an atmosphere for progress. But most of all it dishonors the person, the institution he or she serves and his/her own constituency by revealing a fundamental lack of legislative and civil maturity and a misinterpretation of the meaning of his office and how it addresses the overriding mandate of the Preamble. What makes America great are not the noisy demagogues but, rather, those who work quietly and courageously to gather together people of all backgrounds in order to move forward as one. Look at any form of American currency. It has been in your pocket all of your life, “e pluribus unum”, out of many, one. Those who work toward that lofty goal are the real heroes and the ones who understand what makes our nation truly great.
Dev Patel played the role of a smart, young journalist, Neal Sampat, in HBO’s The Newsroom. In the final installment he confronted a team of new editors for the news department’s website who, in Neal’s extended absence, had transformed what was an adult outlet for serious news and analysis into a cheap, pandering site that played to popular nonsense. Like so many other “news” outlets in today’s online world Neal’s beloved website was re-purposed to attract the most uninformed viewers who wouldn’t notice the difference between substance and garbage. Upon meeting the new editors, Neal simply said, “You embarrass me!” Speaking for those of us still alive who spent our 12th birthdays as members of Mrs. House’s homeroom and who now witness the politics, players and media in today’s America, “You embarrass us!”
I still remember the words and the moment over a half century ago and now, more than ever, I treasure them. “Paul, would you lead us in reciting of the Preamble?” It wasn’t an idle chore. It was an honor.