In my office, we listen to music everyday. It’s just part of our culture. It’s how we get things done. We sit at our computers, talk on our phones, and listen to Neutral Milk Hotel or David Bowie playing in the background. So, this means that if we’re lucky, we might happen to put someone on hold just in time to catch the chorus of “Oh! You Pretty Things.” This is basically like the in-office equivalent of seeing a shooting star. It makes a person feel sort of lucky and gives him a reason to smile for a second or two.
Because I inherited the desk with the detachable speakers, I more-often-than-not get to play DJ, which is a rare privilege and duty. A few weeks ago, I came across on online radio station that only played ‘karaoke hits.’ The website highlighted artists such as Men at Work, Vanilla Ice, and Sonny and Cher. It seemed like the natural option sure to please the disparate tastes in any formal office setting. Soon we were all softly singing along to that rare canon of tunes that you love to hate, hate to love, and think you know all the words to. It turns out, however, that few of us knew all the words to “Tide Is High” by Blondie; even fewer knew the words to Laura Branigan’s 1982 chart-topper “Gloria.” Instead, what we really had taken to heart were not the words of these songs, but the synthesizers and horns that make them recognizable. Sure, occasionally a phrase or two from the chorus would come to mind, but generally, without knowing the words to sing along confidently, the most we could do was hum with enthusiasm and the vaguest sense of familiarity.
Karaoke hits are not the only things like this in our culture; there are a lot of things that we only know fragmentally or incompletely. Take the phrase, “You talkin’ to me?” A person does not have to have seen Taxi Driver to know this line. I knew this line long before I had ever even heard of the film. But still, somehow along the way, I acquired this bit of our common lexicon and could roll it out whenever I wanted. Same thing with the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, Psalm 23, and the Preamble to the Constitution. Throughout my life, I’ve had to recite all three for class credit.
I remember memorizing the last of these in the fifth grade. As I recall, I spotlessly recited the whole Preamble, paying close attention to pronunciation and phrasing: “We the people of the United States (breath) in order to form a more perfect union (breath)…” It’s a good thing I nailed the recitation then and there because it’s proven thus far to be a one-time-only engagement. Having not really had a reason to publicly recite it since, I have to confess, I’m a bit rusty. I remember key phrases: ‘insure domestic tranquility’ and ‘do ordain and establish this Constitution’ come to mind right away. But I would be hard-pressed to offer an error-free presentation these days.
And as for the rest of the Constitution, don’t even ask. Like most people I can rattle off what the First and Second Amendments defend, or tell you which Amendment formally abolished slavery. But that’s not particularly impressive. These are like the Greatest Hits of the Constitution and everyone can pretty much sing along; but Article IV, Section 1 – Full Faith and Credit of the States – that’s a real B-Side. You have to be a pretty big Founding Documents Head to know that by heart.
It’s too bad. We’re talking about the bedrock of our nation, the document that has guided us for over two centuries, and I barely can tell you how it is organized, let alone what it actually contains in any real detail. Somehow, given that it lies at the very heart of my liberty, this seems, well, wrong.
Or maybe, to be more precise, insufficient.
I take some comfort in the way in which Barack Obama describes his students at the University of Chicago, where he taught constitutional law for ten years. He has said, “Sometimes I imagined my work to be not so different from the work of the theology professors who taught across campus – for, as I suspect was true of those teaching Scripture, I found that my students often felt they knew the Constitution without having really read it.”
I can identify with that. I love the Constitution. I believe in the Constitution. I trust the Constitution. I just don’t know the Constitution. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because as a citizen of the United States, I happen to have a supreme civic duty: to every four years cast my vote for someone who will solemnly swear to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of his or her ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I feel that if I’m going to expect someone else to take on the job of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution, it only seems appropriate that I take a look at the thing and maybe take down a few notes.
I suspect that I am not alone in my somewhat superficial relationship to the Constitution. Certainly, many and perhaps most Americans know key passages but have not read it from start to finish in quite a while, if ever. Lately, I have had the urge to dig out my pocket-sized copy of the Constitution and spend some time just reacquainting myself with its wisdom; preparing myself to responsibly support a candidate who can preserve, protect, and defend it. As we all know, the 2008 Presidential election is already set to be the longest in our history. Some have bemoaned the inevitably protracted nature of the campaigns, but I think it actually presents all Americans with one very important and appealing opportunity: to not only begin familiarizing ourselves with the candidates, but to also begin reacquainting ourselves with the institutions which these candidates seek to serve.
The Constitution is the framework for our government, our liberties, and our national character. But it is also a direct appeal to us today. For this, we need look no further than the Preamble, where we find a single word that calls out to each of us: posterity. We are the posterity – the future generations our Founders dreamed of. For that reason, we must recognize that while the Constitution was conceived of to defend us as citizens, we as a citizenry were also conceived of to defend the Constitution. We are just as accountable to it, as it is to us.
For those of us who believe Obama is truly best suited to serve as the next President of the United States, we are especially called to understand the importance of the Constitution in this campaign. He has said that its elaborate machinery – its separation of powers and checks and balances and federalist principles and Bill of Rights – are designed to force us into a conversation, a ‘deliberative democracy’ in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.” We already know that the election of Obama will require persuading others to our own point of view and building alliances of consent with a vast cross-section of good-willed Americans. But in order to begin mobilizing that ‘deliberative democracy,’ it is incumbent on us to first reacquaint ourselves with the elaborate machinery of the Constitution.
It simply will not suffice to hum with enthusiasm and the vaguest sense of familiarity. No, it is time we take the words to heart more completely so that we may know them with confidence. Only then can we can continue the work of forming a more perfect union.