Bruce Watson: Constitutional metaphors
LEVERETT — From the time our children first learn about the Constitution, from the day first-graders are told they live in a democracy, the metaphors come thick and fast. Our Constitution is “a well-oiled machine,” “an instruction manual,” “a contract with the future,” “a living document.” Our democracy is “a conversation,” “an experiment,” “a work in progress,” a “ship of state.”
Well now, Uncle Sam. How are all those glowing metaphors workin’ out for ya?
Would any of us operate a machine with a handful of ball bearings that ground and groaned until the shaky contraption shut down? Would we sign a contract that began, “The party of the first part agrees to do exactly as the party of the second part says or else we’re trashing this contract and we’re outta here?” And how long would we converse with citizens who screamed and ranted until we couldn’t stand it, then sat at the metaphorical table blaming us for walking away?
The day care antics behind the ongoing government shutdown have turned time-tested metaphors into, well ... dinosaurs. And not those cool “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs that nimbly hop through the woods, but those huge plodding beasts that look so kindly there munching grass while Comet Tea Party hurtles toward them. That’s the dinosaur in the room. Extinction looms.
So what should we call an “instruction manual” in which “the right to bear arms” once meant muskets but now means semi-automatics with 30-round magazines? How “living” is a document that lets one-third of the Senate represent 20 million people while just eight senators represent 100 million? What can our “experiment” prove when its findings are routinely ignored, mired in committee or locked down in deep denial? Who would sail on a “ship of state” steered by the rats?
Now comes the hard part, and this will be on the test. Our democracy, we hear over and over as if on a skipping record, is “broken.” But two-thirds of our citizens have never heard a record skip, and almost that many are equally ignorant about the function of a ballot. Our Constitution is “not a suicide pact,” some say, yet its arteries are clogged and it just keeps wolfing down double bacon cheeseburgers. If we could upgrade our senile institutions, we would not need new metaphors. With, say, an iConstitution, we could have a cool, colorful document, wireless and hand-held. We could unveil fresh models each fall, with new features fixing old “bugs” such as the filibuster and John Boehner.
Likewise, if we could digitize our democracy, we could call it a social media democracy where everyone logged on hourly to see what Congress — and ex-lovers — were up to. When billionaires and right-wing think tanks bankrolled gridlock, we could “unfriend” them and they would be GONE! From our lives. Forever. And if we could turn our creaking government into a reality show, the millions too distracted to vote would tune in weekly to watch “America’s Got Three Branches of Government.” After following the backstage bickering of real-life Congressmen, Americans could vote every last one of them off the Hill.
But our Constitution was written on parchment, and democracy, so we’ve been told, is messy. Parchment is impossible to upgrade. Messes, when the spoiled brats who made them start kicking and screaming and holding their breath, fester forever. Seems we’re stuck with huge hulking dinosaurs. Here comes that comet. Once it hits and the damage is done, can whatever survives the carnage at least try to evolve?
Bruce Watson’s column appears twice a month.