One of the more misguided protests I remember seeing (on television) occurred in the aftermath of a 1989 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gregory Lee Johnson had burned an American flag as an act of political protest, and the state of Texas had charged him with criminal flag desecration. The Supreme Court had struck down the Texas law, holding that Johnson had a right under the First Amendment to express his point of view by burning a flag, despite the likelihood that many Texans would be offended. Outraged at this decision, a group gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court building to burn a black judicial robe in order to communicate their disgust and disapproval. The irony of exercising the freedom to burn one American symbol as a protest against a decision affirming people’s freedom to burn another American symbol seemed to be lost on them.
To me, the Constitution of the United States has always represented two things above all: co-creation and restraint. Co-creation, because of those first three words in the Preamble: “We, the people.” Ever since I first learned the Preamble from watching from a Schoolhouse Rock cartoon as a child, those words have fired my imagination, conjuring an image of a whole nation of individuals uniting to express their hopes and take action together. Of course, the Schoolhouse Rock version of Revolution-era Americans as civic equals is a myth: It took a Civil War and a series of Constitutional amendments to end slavery and guarantee women and people of all races the right to participate in the political process. But the inclusive depiction of ordinary Americans owning and co-creating the text strikes me as a useful symbol of the ideal. When we talk about freedom of speech or freedom of religion, it ought to be from a place of shared, “we, the people” understanding developed through the experience of working together to give them meaning.
I associate the Constitution with restraint because the idea that people are different, and that those differences should be honored and not stifled or banned, runs through the document like an electric current. The original (pre-Bill of Rights) text about the structure of the federal government is famously concerned with checks and balances, which is the idea that spreading power around to people with different perspectives and priorities is the best defense against tyranny. The Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, is all about restraining the government, or a majority of the people, from imposing its perspective in a way that denies minorities the opportunity to say what they want, worship as they wish, own property, and enjoy other freedoms. I find it deeply inspiring that we live in a society in which our foundational text declares that we treasure diversity and will never bully anyone to silence because we see things differently.
When I see a protest like the robe-burning on the Supreme Court steps (and many more recent variations on that theme), I don’t want to ban it. But I do want to have a conversation with the protestors about their purported patriotism, which seems uncomplicated by an appreciation for the values that the Constitution embodies. Co-creation and restraint: 223 years after the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia (on September 17, 1787), those are the ideals I’d like to see us all celebrate.
Note: You can read the original text of the Constitution here, and the 27 amendments adopted since that day in 1787 here and here. For anniversary #222, I wrote a post proposing that U.S. Senators be apportioned among the states at least partly based on population (not two per state). Read that post here: The Real Problem with the U.S. Senate (hint: it’s in the Constitution)