The Accidental Podcaster: We The People
Last week, as I prepared materials for our campus resource room, I got into a discussion about why schools across the United States at all levels have to have activities and discussions centered around Constitution Day. It was a valid question, and I explained about how the observance came about because so many people didn't have a good understanding of what the Constitution was and the importance of the framework the document provides. "Right," my fellow conversationalist replied, "I get why it's important and people should know about it, but really, how often do they use that in their day to day lives?"
The question threw me a bit, because if you're an American citizen (as we are), the answer is "all the friggin time."
On Sept. 17, 1787, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention adopted and signed the new Constitution for the United States of America, replacing the Articles of Confederation which had united the individual states during the Revolutionary War. The new Constitution established a unified republic with a much stronger centralized federal government—one nation, as opposed to a confederation of sovereign states. The document outlines how the republic is to be governed; according to the preamble, the Constitution was written "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." It establishes a balanced government structure and states the specific powers and responsibilities of each branch, as well as how those officials come to power. The Amendments to the Constitution lay out the specific rights of every American citizen.
So why is this important? A number of reasons. Far from being a historical document, the Constitution was designed to be a living document to serve and protect the growing Republic. The checks and balances built into the three branch system of government were put in place from the onset to ensure no one branch ever became too powerful, as well as set specific rules for how new laws would come into effect. This is to protect the rights of the citizens, as is laid out in the first ten amendments (also known as the Bill of Rights). Without a working knowledge of the rights afforded them, society can't stand up against injustices when they occur and run serious risk of losing freedoms.
And for those of you new to RCM, we are very big on personal freedoms.
Enjoy the fact you have a right to vote in our upcoming general travesty election1? Depending on your race, class, and gender, you have the 14th (citizenship), 15th (right of citizens to vote regardless of color), 19th (women's right to vote), and 24th (abolition of poll tax) amendments to thank for that. Amendment 26 dropped the voting age from 21 to 18 due to this crazy notion that if one is old enough to fight and die for their country, they should at least have a say in how the place is run.
But representation in government is just one aspect. Amendment 16 allows the government to collect income tax - something a lot of readers will bitch about, but roads, schools, emergency services, welfare services, and so on don't pay for themselves. I actually had this argument with someone a few years back and got the response "Well, the government will pay for it," but then that same person was dumbfounded when I immediately asked "Where do you think that 'government money' comes from?" Seriously. If you've ever received a grant for school, had a policeman stop to pop the door lock on your car for you, or driven on a highway, that's tax money. That's where that funding comes from. That's why I don't bitch in April when I write my checks out to do my little bit.
I could go on about all the other things that hit us every day as a direct result of the Constitution, but that could easily fill a book and I've got a deadline to meet for publication, so we're going to skip ahead to my absolute, hands-down, this-affects-every-minute-of-my-every-day favorite right, which is so important it is literally #1 on the list of Amendments:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is insanely important in any nation that wants to call itself free. What this says is that the government cannot dictate how I think. I won't ever be punished for not following a specific religion, as is the case in some countries. If I witness some grave injustice, I have the right to peaceably protest. If I decide to publish an article about why Candidate Z is a moron, the government can't put me in jail for it. I can openly debate ideas, which, again, is not something afforded everywhere (go read Joshua Hammer's The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu or Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran for a excellent examples of this). And you know what? So can everybody else. Dissenting views are vitally important to keep people thinking for themselves - if you disagree with something, you need to be able to articulate why. If you agree with something, you need to be able to articulate why. Only by constantly examining and re-examining our own thoughts and beliefs can we grow as individuals and as a society.2
But there's also an important thing in here that is often missed, especially when talking about freedom of speech or religion. Consider the scenario I mentioned above about my hypothetical piece on why Candidate Z is a moron. Let's throw in the added detail that I get a little impassioned in the piece and decide to make my point by likening said candidate to a miscreant with a dubious affection for donkeys and suggesting heavily that said candidate's ill-gotten wealth might best be confiscated and used for their immediate deportation to a heavily fortified gulag. For sake of simplicity, we'll assume my mastery of the English language is such that I managed to do this in a way that avoided outright slander or hate speech. I send my draft to Varyar for proofing, he reads it over and immediately bans me from ever letting it hit RCM's front page (he probably also advises counseling over the vitriolic donkey comments).
Is Varyar violating my right to free speech?
This has been an accusation slung around quite a bit on college campuses and in mainstream media at large - somebody's piece gets pulled, or someone weathers backlash or censure over comments made either on or off air, and immediately there are arguments about whether said person's right to free speech has been violated. Here's the key piece that said people miss: the Constitution says the government can't prohibit these things. The government can't punish or censure me for that hypothetical piece. But Varyar, as a private individual, and RivalCasr Media, as a private entity, absolutely can. The Constitution gives us the right to free speech, but it does not give us the right to avoid censure from private entities. It does not give us protection from private repercussions for our actions, which means that it is on each of us as free and independent citizens to understand that just because we have a right to say something doesn't mean that we necessarily are right to say it. This is why I tell my students to be aware of their audience when they speak or toss something out on the internet - you are responsible for your own actions.
But you can't make those arguments if you don't know what your rights are in the first place.
1 By law, citizens eligible to vote in general elections may register or update their registration to vote up to 30 days prior to Election Day. This year's Election Day is Nov. 8, which means anyone who has not registered or needs to update can do so up until Oct. 9. That said, if you do exercise your right to vote, please, for the love of whatever deities you may or may not believe in, take the time to learn a little bit about the issues ahead of time so you can make an informed choice regarding what you're signing your name to. It seriously does not take that long. Our troops don't go out putting their lives on the line to defend your freedoms just so you can tick off party-line boxes like a sheep. If voting on issues, read through the verbiage to check for riders that erode the stability of programs that actually work.
Know what you're signing your name to.
2 If we didn't, going back to our voting example from earlier, our representation would only consist of wealthy, white, male landowners over the age of 21.