01 November 2007

Idealism and realism, again

Last year I wrote about idealism and realism, two qualities whose constant struggle with each other--on the world stage and in the individual human heart--is (I'm convinced) one of the driving forces of history. Today's American Studies class at the New Humanitarian Institute showed me how close my feelings are to the surface in connection with that struggle.

Today's class was on the United States Constitution. As I was preparing for the class, I found a number of nice video clips I could have used, including these two serial clips from the U.S. Senate's "Mr. Constitution," Robert Byrd, and this blunt assessment of our present "war on terror" situation from the USC's Howard Gillman. But I finally decided that I just wanted to present the Constitution in a simple, unembellished lecture, with a handout that included the main vocabulary and the text of the Bill of Rights.

I talked a little about the intellectual roots of the Constitution, and about the problems the U.S. experienced under its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. After talking about the drama of the summer of 1787--including the morally vacant compromise decision to count 3/5 of enslaved people in weighing state populations--we came to the ratification campaign, and the role of the Bill of Rights in convincing skeptical voters to approve the new Constitution. I then looked at those first ten amendments one by one.

Some of those amendments really hit home in terms of the idealism in our country's DNA. (I also wondered out loud whether the drafters, if they knew what we know now, would have been more careful about the "right to keep and bear arms.") I spent significant time on the extraordinary ideals of due process and right not to bear witness against oneself.

Then we came to amendment number 8: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." At that moment my pride in my country's Constitution washed right up on the shores of Guantanamo Bay. I had to stop and collect myself. Our administration, adrift on so many other matters, has been razor-sharp on one priority: finding ways to marginalize the Constitution, and the ideals behind it, in order to "take off the gloves" and act with righteous ruthlessness against those they deem, in their sole wisdom, to be beyond the reach of our supreme laws, our extraordinary attempt to codify human decency in national policy.

One student, noticing how deeply I felt about the Bill of Rights, asked me whether it wasn't right to torture people who have information we need. Of course I brought up the issue of effective interrogation, but beyond that, we have to ask what it does to the soul of the torturer. And what does it mean for us to abandon any sense of the image of God in the other, even the terrorist? But, for Americans, the whole subject should be moot. The Constitution has already spoken.

. . . But who is listening? As Howard Gillman and many others have pointed out, the Constitution doesn't enforce itself. It's always up to us to advocate its continued application! And Gillman makes an important point: Even when previous governments set the Constitution aside (examples: the Alien and Sedition Acts; Lincoln suspending habeas corpus; the coerced removal of Japanese Americans), it was done in broad daylight. Our current government does not even want us to know when it is playing fast and loose with "We the people."

One other thing: Here I'm acutely aware of how irritating those lectures from American leaders are, on the failures of Russians to live up to democratic ideals. Not that I'm in any mood to romanticize our reality here. If we wanted to, we could see a trend in the increasing visa restrictions, the reduced cooperation with OSCE election monitors, and other signs I could mention. But if the expatriates in Russia all start talking down their host nation, that just reinforces the suspicions of those who like their presence least. As with many other countries, Russia has a xenophobic element as well as an expansive, welcoming, "after all we're just normal" side to the national persona. But if expatriate trash-talking gets into an unhealthy tangle with the xenophobes, there's no place for that cycle to go but down. I choose to look for the constant signs of common sense and normalcy, not to mention warm hospitality, and I choose to remember why I'm here--because of love.

I can't think of anything efficacious about sour realism.

My first-period conversational English class yesterday morning was pleasantly interrupted by a group of first-year students with costumes and trick-or-treat bag. During the second period, the whole school assembled for a Halloween event that included a musical introduction, a Halloween story from the character on the right, a heavy metal parody and a Roma dancer, and (my favorite) three students who were given five minutes to compose poetry based on short lists of words given to each.

Comedic improvisation is a staple of Institute events and parties, and is also a longstanding Russian art and tradition that I was never told about at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies. The most famous manifestation of this is KVN, whose well-organized and nationally televised competitions are among Russian television's longest-running programs. (Take a peek at this KVN league site. And if you'd like a taste of the rapid-fire humor--the site gags and comedic timing, and the great reaction shots of the jury members, will carry the fun across language barriers--do a search on "KVN" on Youtube. Example.)

Righteous links:
  • Senators Feinstein and Lugar present S Res 321 (PDF) "expressing the sense of the Senate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (relevant Friends Committee on National Legislation page here.)

  • Vietnam-era antiwar demonstrations grew with time; Iraq-era demonstrations are shrinking. Tom Engelhardt on demonstrations, civic values, and alienation.

  • The golden boy of moderate "seeker-sensitive" evangelicalism, Bill Hybels, is publicly labeled a pacifist! "The evangelical crackup" by David D. Kirkpatrick.

  • "Through a Lens, Darkly," by David Margolick: A glimpse of the world of Elizabeth Eckford of the "Little Rock 9" who integrated Little Rock Central High School fifty years ago.

Another wonderful European blues clip with Memphis Slim and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, "My Gal Keeps Me Crying"--

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