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The Philodoxer
Thoughts on writing and publishing, and the various sources of entertainment...
A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.

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THE PHILODOXER for 03/19/2006
If We're Wrong, We'll Fix Ourselves: The U.S. Constitution

The Constitution of the United States of America

Driven by what forces I know not, perhaps that incessant desire to refrain from willful ignorance or nostalgia for that time in elementary school when I was forced to memorize the document's preamble, I recently bought a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Sure, I could've found it for free online, but like the Unabomber Manifesto, it probably would've just rotted in my hard drive. There's something about a book that asks to be read... plus, if I buy something, my brain tells me I better at least give it a shot. Seven bucks is a Carl's Jr. combo.

My version is small, but not the smallest-about 125 pages. The document itself, including Amendments, is about 70 easy-to-read pages of text with lots of white space, couched between somewhat jingoistic introductions by David Osterlund and Chief Justice Warren Burger, and multiple retrospective essays. Among the latter are two small prizes: "The Story of the Constitution," which is a neat encapsulation of the circumstances, arguments and compromises that birthed the document, and a chronology of the important events that led to its acceptance among the American colonies.

For whatever reason, the most fascinating aspect of the U.S. Constitution for me is Article V and its entailments, which is to say the Amendments. This prophetic section, which comes toward the very end of the original document, seems to me the crux of its success. We may be wrong, it says in essence, and if we are, we'll fix ourselves. It's a striking admission and provision, only possibly born through a rare combination of humility and a desire (or practical need) for true equality.

Along similar lines, there is a fascinating phrase that keeps popping up among the 27 Amendments. It's this one: "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." It maybe seems obvious to add this clause, but like most anticipatory actions, its genius only hits you when the shit hits the fan. "...By appropriate legislation" is a simple sentence applied on rare occasion -- in amendments outlining citizenship and protecting the democratic right to vote -- tacked on to deny the exploitation of loopholes by the ugliest injustices, largely slavery and its close kin prejudice. It's a failsafe against the unpredictable... sort of like toilet paper: you don't use it all the time, but you better have it when you need it.

The existence of Article V is most significant in light of the U.S. Constitution's resistance to preemptive strikes. Amendments to the document do not seem to be made until a serious problem actually arises, rather than in anticipation of one. In one of its few failures -- in the amendment prohibiting the "manufacture, sale, or distribution of intoxicating liquors" -- we find the powerful phrase "by appropriate legislation" invoked outside of reference to prejudice annulments. Whatever lofty ambition the 18th Amendment had for an alcohol-free America, it got booted back to the Stone Age by the 21st Amendment, which unequivocally repealed it.

My desire in reading the U.S. Constitution is clear to me now. The question was simply, is this thing all that it's cracked up to be? Frankly, yes. Concise and prescient, the document is a small bit of brilliance, not created in isolation, but as a product of the thousands of years and dozens of varieties of governance that came before it. Its language is beautifully pragmatic, though its effects are not necessarily. Streamlined practicality is not its aim. Nor is it Plato's Republic, divorced from the realities of man and woman's tendencies. It is a working model for the creation of a moderately practical system of equality, never in denial of people's unpredictable propensity toward doing stupid and amazing things.

-- Abel

<< 03/12/2006 | 03/19/2006 | 03/26/2006 >>

Discuss this column with me in World Famous Comics' General Forum and at Pop Culture Bored.
Also, visit my website at www.abelgpena.com.


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