Kirstein Address on “Constitution Day” Panel, September 15, 2009

Constitution Day, which is actually on Sept. 17 as if it matters, should be ignored and this university (St Xavier in Chicago) should engage in academic freedom civil disobedience and avoid any connection with such a governmental requirement. Senator Robert Byrd, a former K.K.K. member who to his credit voted for President Barack Hussein Obama and eloquently opposed the Iraq war, initiated this boosterism with legislation, but we should not comply with unfunded federal mandates dictating higher education content since it invariably bleeds into nationalism and patriotic education which is the antithesis of critical thinking and liberal education.

Senator Byrd, Democrat of West Virigina: his head is superimposed but joined the K.K.K. in the Jim Crow south. He has distanced himself from his youthful support of domestic terrorism.

Yet I never say no to student invitations and this is the second time I have participated in such an activity that implicitly, however subtly, suggests adulation of a founding document based on racism, slavery, genocide, sexism and misogyny.

Yet the next best thing is to insure that the Constitution is seen for what it is: a fake, class-based document that selectively confers democratic freedoms as elite class interests expropriate its meaning. Americans should not revere the constitution, gush over the Founders’ alleged touch of genius, exaggerate its protections of our supposed freedoms, anoint it with Biblical reverential inspiration and bow down to this graven image as the protector and enabler of our nation and well-being.

This view was advanced by George Bancroft (1800-1891) in the nineteenth century. Bancroft was known by some as the “father of American history.” He was a secretary of the navy, an architect of the imperialistic, racist Mexican War, minister to the United Kingdom and Germany and wrote a ten volume history of the United States which, while breaking new ground in subject matter, such as exploring the colonial period and using primary sources, was basically government propaganda in the guise of history. Many of these volumes were written before the general emancipation of slavery in 1865. Since Bancroft was indeed an anti-slavery Democrat, this quotation is even more astonishing for its hyperbolic display of Constitution love:

“The Constitution establishes nothing that interferes with equality and individuality. It knows nothing of differences by descent, or opinions, of favored classes, or legalized religion, or the political power of property. It leaves the individual alongside of the individual…. As the sea is made up of drops, American society is composed of separate, free, and constantly moving atoms, ever in reciprocal action … so that the institutions and laws of the country rise out of the masses of individual thought which, like the waters of the ocean, are rolling evermore.”

The Preamble to the Constitution appears to be progressive and inclusive:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”

Establish justice? Promote the general welfare? Secure the blessings of liberty? Slavery lasted over three-quarters of a century after the Constitution was adopted in 1788. We had a Jim Crow apartheid system, similar to South Africa, until 1965 almost two centuries after the meaningless little document entered into force. The subjugation of women, with particular reference to the lack of voting rights, remained in force under the Constitution for another century and a half until 1920. And these epochs of shame continued even after the Constitution was amended with the ten Bill of Rights articles in 1791.

To merely read the Constitution, and it has some rhetorical virtues to be sure, does not tell the story. It’s not what it says but whether it is enforced. It’s not what its rhetoric is but who interprets it such as the Supreme Court. It’s not about strict construction; it’s about the power elite from business to politics to the media defining how it is implemented.

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For example, take the gun lobby and the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It does not expressly confer a federal right to bear arms outside of a state militia but just say it does, form a treacherous organisation such as the National Rifle Association, and hire Charlton Heston as your spokesperson if someone thinks killing kids in drive bys, presidents, spouses and children, Beatles’ singers, college students and professors on campuses such as Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois are appropriate prices to pay for the freedom to carry handguns and assault weapons. Tell the next dead cop’s family whether conservative law and order advocates of “right to carry” protected their father or mother in their stupid and selfish perversion of the Constitution.

Read what the Constitution says but understand the realities of power and the blinding effects of Constitution love. Who controls the government and power in this country is much more important than the Constitution’s alleged democratic provisions. Do not believe that the Constitution protects your freedoms or your rights and do not be lulled by the opium of patriotism, reverence for American founding documents and the notion of American exceptionalism.

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A historian, who disagreed with Bancroft’s glorification of the Constitution was the great Charles Beard. He wrote one of the most important histories of the twentieth century: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States in 1913. This is a quotation influenced by the materialist theories of Karl Marx whose death preceded Beard’s work by only thirty years:

“Inasmuch as the primary object of a government…is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes …must obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government.” Beard is stating that elites make sure those in government make rules that advance their interests and failing that take over the government to suit themselves.

Beard researched the backgrounds of the fifty-five men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention. Most were lawyers; most acquired wealth derived from land, chattel slavery, early manufacturing, or shipping. Forty of the fifty-five speculated or owned government bonds which would appreciate with a stronger centralised economy. (Howard Zinn, Peoples History of the United States, 90-1).

According to Howard Zinn: “Beard found that most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Native-American lands; slave owners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.”

Beard noted in his progressive analysis that slaves, indentured servants, women and property-less males were not present at the Constitutional Convention, much less Native Americans who discovered the country.

This is why Marxism is so valuable as a component of critical thinking and pursuit of the truth. Prior to Beard, few historians adopted an economic analysis of history. It only emphasised power, politics and white-elite male rule. Marx introduced a materialist view of society that saw economic forces as the dominant motive force in political economy. While Marx exaggerated economic determinism and overlooked the essentials of non-economic forces, it drove Beard and modern progressives in many disciplines to expand the search for the truth from the vantage point of economic forces.

People do not control the Constitution but vested elite interests control the Constitution. The masses, the working class, the 46,300,000 without health insurance, the 13% unemployed Hispanics, the 15.1% of African-Americans who are unemployed, [compare to 8.9% white unemployment rate], the 13.2% of the American population living in poverty, the 18.6% of seniors living in poverty despite Medicare and Social Security and the 35.1 million on food stamps (now called Electronic Benefit Transfers!) don’t benefit from the Constitution. Adults who wish to marry others of their own gender have no national Constitutional protection. It is merely a shell, a veneer that conceals the realities of America’s class system. Those with power, with or without a rhetorically benevolent constitution, will continue to run this country and the world with bombs, arms sales, multinational corporations, nuclear non-proliferation for non-white countries and agribusiness interests with a smattering of democracy and civil rights so as to prevent a full scale insurrection here at home.

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William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879)

It is time on this so-called Constitution Day to recognise the meaningless Constitution should be abandoned, and possibly burned as it was outside of Boston on July 4, 1854 by the glorious abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who described the pro-slavery document as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” Let’s replace it with international law, that is creeping into Supreme Court opinions in such areas as the death penalty, which is much more progressive and supportive of democracy, the dignity of the human person, and international peace and security.

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Judge Billings Learned Hand (1872-1961)

No less an authority than Learned Hand, the iconic judge of the fifth circuit United States Court of Appeals and possibly the greatest jurist never to serve on the Supreme Court, affirms much of my presentation:

We “rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts…Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” (quote in Haridakis and Ferris, “The Use of ‘Speech Zones,’” in Morgan, 9/11 and the New Legal Landscape, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 52.)

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