Well, no wonder I have so much trouble! The Indianapolis Star recently published the results of a poll, commissioned by the National Constitution Center, that…
Well, no wonder I have so much trouble!
The Indianapolis Star recently published the results of a poll, commissioned by the National Constitution Center, that disclosed the (embarrassing) extent of American ignorance about our most defining documents–the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The poll revealed both an "abiding reverence" for and an appalling ignorance of the Constitution. More than half of those polled did not know that there are 100 United States Senators; only six percent could name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (and a whopping twenty-four percent couldn’t name a single one!). Slightly more than a third of the respondents believed that the Constitution makes English the official language of the country, and a scary one out of six thought that it establishes America as a "Christian nation." There was more, but you get the drift.
Why should we care if citizens can’t regurgitate the basics of our legal system? Can’t we be perfectly good people without knowing how many Senators we send to Washington each term?
To ask that question is to answer it. Of course we can be good people without a grounding in American history and government. What we can’t be is good citizens. And people who are not good citizens are a threat to all minorities, whether those are political minorities, religious minorities, racial minorities, or gays and lesbians. Indeed, in one way or another, at one time or another, all of us are in the minority.
Without citizenship education, we have no common vocabulary, no shared understanding of the rules. How long would a soccer or baseball game last, and how much fun would it be, if no one on the field knew what the rules were?
How do we explain to people unfamiliar with the First Amendment that the "coming out" episode of Ellen cannot be censored? That the school board in East Allen County cannot choose to stigmatize gay students on the grounds that their "lifestyle" is inconsistent with "Christian values" [sic] ?
How do we explain to overzealous municipal officeholders that The Word has every bit as much right as the Indianapolis Star to be sold on the public streets?
How do we explain to people unfamiliar with the Fourth Amendment that the police cannot arbitrarily stop people because they "look like they don’t belong here," or because they are seen exiting a gay bar? How do we discuss why entrapment for "indecency" is wrong?
How do we explain to people unfamiliar with the Fourteenth Amendment that "equal protection of the laws" means that all citizens have rights, not just pleasant or popular or "moral" ones?
The ICLU’s mission is to make government play by its own rules. When politicians who don’t know the rules are elected by people who don’t know the rules, our job becomes virtually impossible.
Right now, the only defense for individual rights against the tyranny of the state and the reach of popular majorities is the judiciary, and the independence of the judiciary is under unprecedented attack. Robert Bork is leading a right-wing effort to amend the Constitution to allow the recall of judges who strike down legislation "the majority" wants. If that happens, the uniquely American system of checks and balances will be gone forever, along with individual rights.
And at the ICLU, we will feel pretty lonely out here in the wilderness.