The Demon Constitution

Hemlines go up. Hemlines go down. So too, apparently, does the Constitution in the rhetoric of the deeply passionate.  To celebrate Constitution Day, Drake Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, is hosting a speech entitled “Guns, Speech, and Sex: The Rise of Constitutional Extremism.”

“In recent years, the Constitution has become an article of faith in the worst possible sense,” Franks said. “It is increasingly invoked to justify irrational and destructive agendas in a way that strongly resembles the way religious extremists use the Bible to advance fundamentalist views. This constitutional extremism occurs on both ends of the political spectrum: in the Right’s obsessive focus on the Second Amendment and the Left’s equally obsessive focus on the First. Though their targets are different, constitutional extremism on both the Right and Left is united in the privileging of the powerful.”

Rarely has anything so monumentally idiotic been said, no less at a law school on a day designated to honor the Constitution. But the coined phrase, “constitutional extremism,” is catchy. Rhetoric like this allows the weak-minded to rationalize why no rules should impair their achieving whatever goals they deem vital, at whatever the cost.

As for the “Left’s equally obsessive focus on the First,” that smacks of disingenuousness. These “First Amendment absolutists,” another catchy phrase enjoyed by the intellectually challenged, are hardly progressive.

A student at Princeton, who apparently hasn’t kept up with fashion, reveals the fallacy in her defense of trigger warnings and safe spaces:

At this point it is exhausting to list the ways the free speech movement fails to be anything but hypocritical. I find myself attempting to rationalize the logic of a matter-of-factly reactionist movement, where there may be none at all (and quite deliberately). I am not arguing that all freedom of speech advocates wish to employ unnecessary harm and trauma on fellow human beings. However, as I stated in a previous article, reactionist movements arise because the status quo sustains many of us, especially those of us with privilege. My incentive to shift the status quo is that the privileges I’ve received as a black woman are in fact not a rule in this nation, but necessarily the exception.

Free speech, the concept embodied in the First Amendment, is a “reactionist movement” because it sustains the status quo.  If you don’t understand this, this is why:

For most, if not all, white, heterosexual, cisgendered males who are also able-bodied and young, this may not be so clear. With recognition of our privileges and on our own campus, I hope that we continue to think critically about how free speech advocates may very well be participating in a long legacy of maintaining the status quo. Soon, we all must consider the status quo as not only a scheme that benefits a select few, but also one that I believe cannot continue unbounded if we wish to be leaders for the millennial generation.

Hopefully, that clears up why constitutional rights are a “scheme that benefits a select few.”  If you just shed your “privilege” and “think critically,” you’ll get it, unless you’re a “white, heterosexual, cisgendered male,” in which case you (most, not all) are hopeless.

Don’t laugh at this ridiculously childish grasp of civil rights.  This is what’s being told to students at a law school by a law professor. This is what’s being told to students at an Ivy League university. This is what’s shaping the minds of people who will someday grow up and be expected to take their place in society and maintain the social contract, hold positions of power and influence, sit in judgment of others.  And they believe that the Constitution doesn’t exist to preserve the rights of the people against the government, but as a wedge to maintain the status quo at the expense of their politics.

The marginalized. The victims. The survivors. A new language has been developed of words that mean whatever every Humpty Dumpty says they do, and are sufficiently malleable to never constrain anyone to a definition. But the goal of putting the self-interest of the few above that of the many requires people to buy into the notion that the Constitution is a tool of oppression. Hence, the catchy phrases.

This is hardly the first time the Constitution has been under assault. The phrase, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” has often been lifted from Justice Robert Jackson’s 1949 dissent in Terminiello v. Chicago, arguing that our foundational rights should give way in the face of whatever transient fears reflect the fashionable hemline du jour. It gave us the disgrace of actions like the internment of Japanese-Americans in Korematsu.

Unfortunately, the deeply passionate never learn from the mistakes of history. Or to be more precise, they wrap themselves in the certainty that their feelings are entirely different, their feelings are right. The lessons don’t apply to them.

The “suicide pact” quote became the rallying cry after 9/11 as a justification for relieving government from the constraints of constitutional limitations in the face of terrorism.  It raised another legal maxim, “Inter arma enim silent leges … In times of war, the laws fall silent.”

To those whose purpose is to diminish the Constitution to achieve their ends, perhaps they believe we are at war, a war with whatever their feelings demand. Perhaps they believe that their feelings are of such overwhelming importance that all reason, all rights, are worthy of sacrifice to accomplish their ends. This isn’t exactly unknown amongst ideologues, who are certain that their goals are righteous and there is nothing more worthy than their accomplishment.

Their weapon is not merely catchy phrases to diminish the value of constitutional rights, but shaming by ad hominem anyone who doesn’t share their ideology. We seem particularly susceptible to both, cute phrases and name-calling.  The question remains whether the rights embodied in the Constitution are sufficiently important to reject this latest effort to change the height of hemlines to suit the cries of the self-proclaimed victims and marginalized.

There are no barbarians at the gate this time, no one threatening to bomb our tall buildings. But as before, fashion trends change, the catchy phrases wane in popularity and the names shrieked at those who refuse to succumb to the demands of the deeply passionate are easily ignored. So what if they say mean things about you. Hemlines will rise and fall again, and people will laugh at their ridiculous outfits and wonder how anyone could have ever taken them seriously.

The Constitution is worth protecting. And these efforts to undermine it with law school speeches denigrating those who support constitutional rights as “extremists” will, if all goes as it should, reveal them as the intellectual disgraces they are. Students may be able to grow out of it. Academics have no excuse. As for Drake Law School, there is no explanation for having someone speak on Constitution Day to your students about the worthlessness of constitutional rights.

7 thoughts on “The Demon Constitution

  1. Patrick Maupin

    You said “Franks” without saying “Mary Anne” so I had to click on the link just to be 100% sure.

    Where was my trigger warning?

    Can you even imagine the extent of the damage that caused? I may have to pull money out of my barbecue fund to pay for professional help. I hope you can live with this.

  2. Jonathan

    The tendency to conceptualize everything as a movements, a community, or the like, is a great muddler of thought. Free speech is a principle that may be invoked by reactionaries and progressives alike. It is itself neither. I think the best (most idiotic) bit in the Princeton piece is: “Let us also not forget that safe spaces, controversially and commonly thought of as disallowing certain speakers from speaking on college campuses, are often created through students’ successful freedom of protest.” And Franks seems to have missed, among other things, the fact the left long ago lost its faith in the First Amendment. So-called liberals grow more illiberal by the day.

  3. Marc R

    If white cis (this isn’t a comp sci term?) dudes have to step back from a point of privilege to get objectivity then shouldn’t the alleged denoted unprivileged also take a step back to have a common language of a paradigm. Otherwise it’s two ships passing in the night in radio silence. It’s like nobody read Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance.

  4. Jim the Squid

    Its a thing I have noted over the years, this tendency of people who cry out for justice for their particular view of rights and wrongs. They have a way of twisting the language to mean that their chosen victims must be assuaged by the disenfranchisement of another group. I believe that somewhere there lies a fundamental disconnect between ethics and morality in their reasoning. How else to explain that they cannot grasp that The Constitution applies to all human beings irrespective of citizenship, unswayed by social status, uncaring of race or creed. Justice implies that one side is chosen as right and must therefore win, The Constitution acknowledges the rights of both sides as equal. This is the real argument, in order to “win” someone’s rights will have to go. They seek not equality, but mastery. When The Constitution is called a technicality, and it’s defenders extremists, I wince because men have died to guarantee their right to expel such ignorance.

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