“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [sic] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
These words have given me solace over the last few months. I have often found solace in the Constitution, like other people turn to the Bible or the Quran. Not that I don’t also take some solace in religious texts, but the turmoil I’ve been feeling, while spiritual in a sense, is definitely about men, and their laws. So I look to our foundational documents, and this is what I meditate on.
The Preamble to the US Constitution, which is what I’ve quoted above, essentially functions as our national mission statement. It declares our aspirations for this enterprise-it is what we are striving for. We never said we were perfect. Right there, front and center, we admit that we are trying to form a “more perfect union.” More perfect implying, there is room for improvement. And there will always be room for improvement. So right there at the top, we admit that this is a process; the nation did not spring from Washington’s temple fully formed and raring to go like Athena-no matter what the Apotheosis of Washington would have you believe. We are a work in progress. We will always be a work in progress. We said so right at the jump.
But what else did we say? What other aspirations would we eventually hitch our wagon to, when we made a Declaration of Independence in that hot Philadelphia summer? Justice. Domestic Tranquility. Common Defense. General Welfare. The Blessings of Liberty.
How are we doing on these?
We are certainly not tranquil here domestically. It’s another hot summer (itself a political fact in a world where science is up for debate), and Justice isn’t being served in cases like that of the murder of Philando Castile. Our Common Defense has become our Common Offense, as we move to ramp up troops in what is now the longest war in American History. (Where, again? Oh, Afghanistan. Yeah, that’s still going on), as ISIS has become the predominant threat in an entirely different part of the world. General Welfare? Well if the congressional leadership has their way, 23 million Americans will be unenrolled from health insurance, which might have a *slight* effect on their general welfare (and yes, a recognize some of that number is from healthy people choosing to leave the markets, but that is part of the problem at the heart of “general” welfare). And the biggie: the Blessings of Liberty? Well, with a revamped travel ban in place, I guess we were really focusing on the “for ourselves” part of that clause; “our posterity” will not be reviewed kindly for it.
So overall, I’d give us a D+. The only thing keeping us from failing entirely is the curve (of history).
Which all means that this Fourth of July I’m finding it a bit hard to be star-spangled. I don’t consider myself a fair-weather patriot, although I suppose I might agree with Sarah Vowell and her Partly Cloudy one. It’s not “my country, right or wrong,” but “my country, my duty to make right when wrong.” I’ve written before about the difference between Patriotism and Nationalism. Patriotism is saying that America is great, right now, because we are constantly admitting our short comings and striving to perfect them. We are great, because by and large our people believe in justice, fairness, liberty, and equality, but we are not without fault. Nationalism is when we say we want to Make America Great Again, without acknowledging the internal conflicts, injustices, disparities, and inequalities and that prevent our greatness. Blind allegiance is anathema to a more perfect union.
It is not weakness to admit that we could be more perfect. To admit that you need to constantly tend the fires of liberty and justice, because people are imperfect and we create imperfect systems. It is not weakness to say that we have a long way to go, while celebrating how far we have come. It is not weakness to want to be better- for us to ALL be better, not just some.
It is not weakness and we declared it, right at the start, 241 years ago today. Happy Independence Day, everyone. May it be a step towards a more perfect union.