I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.
Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
All valid civil disobedience begins with the understanding that an unjust law is no law at all. In the United States, this principle is usually applied to individual laws. Very rarely it will be extended to a set of laws, such as segregation or slavery. Almost never is it applied, at least in general public discourse, to the more foundational aspects of law in the broadest sense, which in our case would be the Constitution itself. In short, the nation is roughly divided into two camps: the so called Strict Constructionists and those who might be termed Social Evolutionaries. Missed in this dichotomy is a realistic assessment of the document itself. Strict Constructionists, by and large, tend to have an almost religious reverence not only for the document, but for the time in history and the men who created the document. Hearing them talk is almost to hear them preach, and their sacred text is the Constitution.
Social Evolutionists, on the other hand, by their very nature have less reverence for the document's original meaning, and seek to use a hermeneutic of change, altering whatever meaning might be assumed (latent or literal) to serve their social or political opinions of progress. Both sides unquestioningly accept it as the law of the land, and for the most part do not question whether it is just. The U.S. Constitution is, practically speaking, an unchallenged authority. Both sides shriek that the other has no respect for it, and both seek to wrap themselves in it. But does the document deserve this much respect?
It's beyond the purview of a blog to delve into the entire question, but for the sake of cutting more directly to our current situation, it's worth pointing out what the U.S. Constitution is not. It is not scripture, it is not some enlightened, transcendent meeting point between divine law and humanity. The framers weren't prophets, and their handiwork is not sacred. Saying this alone is likely to arouse fury in some quarters, but my opinion is that we really don't have any more time to waste, as a society, on pseudo-mystical nonsense regarding our legal documents. It's rather imperative that we begin thinking more reasonably.
A major step towards thinking reasonably about the Constitution was offered by candidate Barack Obama back in the election of 2008, during his famous Philadelphia speech. In that speech he referred to slavery as America's original sin. It's important for us to take this seriously, and realize several important facts about slavery in America, as they relate to our laws, and specifically the U.S. Constitution.
First, slavery was enshrined in the Constitution. It denied the obvious facts of biology, ethics, and the basic human decency of acknowledging African-Americans as people in the eyes of the law; going so far as to encode a method of false population statistics which would make it virtually impossible for them to obtain freedom under the law, ever.
Second, this enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution was a contradiction of the philosophy of the American Revolution, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. It was therefore a violation of any hopes we had to build a nation on true freedom, and in many senses a betrayal of the American soul from the outset.
Third, this problem was not solved by Constitutionally sanctioned means, but by the force of warfare and a suspension of Constitutional Rights (in other words, things got so bad under the Constitution that we abandoned much of it until we could force it to be amended). Call it America's "original sin" or a "betrayal of the spirit of '76", but the Constitution itself was only altered to a more just reflection of human dignity by the force of the bloodiest war in our history.
Why is this important? Because, from the outset, we should be aware of the built-in potential flaws in our system, and the dangers of ignoring them. People in our society too often forget this, and equate law with morality and justice. It's important to remember that they are different, and that, as stated earlier, an unjust law is no law at all.
Friends of mine have asked me to clarify my position, as to why I have chosen not to vote this election cycle. It has been suggested that I might be neglecting my civic duty by abstaining, and that any real influence I might have on making things better must be obtained by working within the election system. This may be true, but my evolving opinion on the matter runs contrary to it. Between now and the election, I will try when I have the time, to clarify why, and by doing so, live up to my end of the burden of public discourse--to do my civic duty, if not by voting, then by this mode of pamphleteering.
I believe that we must finally confront some severe problems with our system of government, and that voting only perpetuates the problem. The goal of future posts will be to justify this opinion. The discussion of slavery above was merely to make clear, to Strict Constructionists and Social Evolutionists alike, that there are times in a nation's history where we must go beyond both their categories, and address deeper problems than can be reached by staying in the system itself.
I recommend everyone who hasn't read Henry David Thoreau's highly important essay, "Civil Disobedience" (1849). While Thoreau's solutions may have veered precipitously towards anarchy (which I don't condone or think tenable), we shouldn't dismiss his diagnosis of many of the problems facing America in a structural sense, many of which are just as pressing now as then.
I hope readers of this blog will find the discussion worthwhile, and be inspired to serve our nation intellectually and otherwise, in a manner not being encouraged in the present political culture, which is a disgusting exercise in raw power grabbing and manipulation by powerful, immoral, and increasingly identical parties.