The Urgent Beauty of Our Constitution
Dear Unknown Friends:
At this time of worry in America, it is urgent that we be clear about what America’s government fundamentally is, what makes the structure of that government beautiful and right, respectful of people’s lives—of our lives. There has been, of course, terrific injustice in America; but the governmental structure of this land, outlined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, is just and has made the countering of injustice possible. If we don’t value it accurately, if we take it for granted and don’t feel we have to protect it, our nation can be turned into something fearfully, horribly different.
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that “all beauty is a making one of opposites.” This is so of the beauty of the US Constitution and its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. Our Constitution insists that America, in its treatment of people, honor simultaneously such opposites as agreement and disagreement, sameness and difference, oneness and manyness, freedom and security.
Aesthetic Realism is not political. It is about ethics and aesthetics. And ethics and aesthetics are what I am writing of now. Aesthetic Realism shows that beauty is ethics, and is the one thing practical. Is the legal structure of our nation practical? Or is our Constitution good only when things go “well,” and to be ditched when there is a crisis? Is the Constitution, with its tripartite government and guarantees of freedom and justice, not only practical now but terrifically necessary, to be safeguarded and treasured?
“Hurray for the First Amendment”
It is an honor to reprint here Mr. Siegel’s poem “The First Amendment and the Red, White and Blue.” This 1956 poem says that to love America you have to love the First Amendment. The poem appears in his Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968). I have written about Mr. Siegel’s tremendous care for America; and we can see some of it in this poem and in his 1968 note to it, also reprinted here.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and religion, and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Through Mr. Siegel’s note we can see that this amendment says it is imperative America be a oneness of sameness and difference, agreement and disagreement, affirmation and questioning. That is: for America to be herself she must give people a right to differ from, disagree with, question what persons leading the nation do.
The most dangerous thing that can go on in a nation is like the ugliest thing in a person. There is something in everyone that feels, “I want my way, and anyone who disagrees with it should shut up; anything that interferes with my way should be done away with.” And in the national field, people who want their way unquestioned, unopposed, hate the First Amendment. They would like the First Amendment not to exist, or to be rendered meaningless. The desire to make one’s way the only way is a form of contempt: it is an aspect of the feeling that oneself is much more important than the outside world. From contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, have come both mental weakness and all the injustice in history.
What Does the Flag Represent?
In the weeks since September 11, there has been an attempt by press and politicians to create an atmosphere completely contrary to the meaning of the First Amendment. There has been an effort to have people feel anyone who questions choices now being made in the name of America, particularly military choices, is against America and even is a traitor. This is horrible. The anti-First-Amendment atmosphere is hinted at in a November 9 New York Times article, which notes delicately that “mostly...dissent [is] absent from American television.”
There is nothing that stands more for America than the First Amendment, which says questioning in a nation is a means for a nation to be true to herself. Flags abound now on American cars and homes and lapels. And the flag is beautiful; it is infinitely lovable; it is, as George M. Cohan said, grand. But we have to see what the American flag means. In his poem Mr. Siegel says, musically and plainly: “Anybody who doesn’t love the First Amendment, / Doesn’t love the Red, White and Blue.” If we make the flag mean “Anybody who questions a certain policy or action isn’t a good American,” we might as well wave and wear a swastika; for it is not the red, white, and blue we are loving.
Aesthetics & Ethics vs. Dictatorship
Another way the US Constitution puts together sameness and difference, agreement and disagreement, questioning and affirmation is in the three-branch arrangement of our government. Like the First Amendment, the fact that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are designed to “check and balance” each other is a saying by the US Constitution: Questioning, criticism, has to be at the very heart of our government, or that government will not be true to the American people!
The framers of our Constitution worked hard to eliminate the possibility of a dictatorship, because they knew a person with power could want his way regardless of what might be just. In issue 148 of this journal, subtitled “Having One’s Way,” Mr. Siegel writes:
History...is full of how monarchs and others were set on having their way; and history tells in its fashion of some of the sad results.
Recent executive orders by our President bring up richly the matter of the beauty and ethics of our Constitution; of whether the Constitution is an interference to be gotten around, or whether there should be checks on the ability of any person to have his way. An article in the November 15 New York Times says of these executive orders:
The Bush administration has moved swiftly...to expand its...law enforcement powers in ways that are intended to bypass Congress and the courts, officials and outside analysts say.
Every one of us would like to issue an executive order: “I want the world on my terms—and fast! And I won’t stand for any questioning on the matter!” This feeling in people, though ordinary, is always ugly and has cruelty with it. In the instance of a national leader, the ability to have things on one’s own terms and unquestioned affects millions of people, often in the most crucial, intimate, agonizing, life-or-death ways.
In relation to the latest executive order—instituting trials by military tribunals for non-citizens suspected of terrorism—we are hearing more of what the Times called “dissenting views.” I quote the following, not in order to say what Congress should or should not do, but because it’s beautiful to see people stand for that oneness of affirmation and questioning which America truly is. The November 16 New York Times reported:
Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, took to the Senate floor today...contending that the White House was bypassing Congress and unilaterally expanding its powers. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee,...added complaints about other recent administration actions taken without Congressional participation. Mr. Leahy said tonight that he would hold hearings...and that he would expect Attorney General John Ashcroft to answer questions at them.
What this is about is the aesthetics of the US government: a structure which says, through its three branches, that the way to be for America is to have opposition or questioning. And the times we are in are showing what Aesthetic Realism itself is based on: that aesthetics is urgent ethics; that beauty is the same as justice, and is our greatest necessity.
I did not expect to be thrilled by the conservative columnist William Safire. I have liked him most when he is writing about English grammar. But in the Times of November 15 I read a column by him that did thrill me, because it was a standing up for the true America, the aesthetic, ethical America. I quote some passages of Mr. Safire since they are really about those opposites fundamental to our Constitution: affirmation and questioning. They are about the fact—which our Founding Fathers tried to organize into a governmental structure—that the desire to have one’s way must be questioned, checked:
A president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens. Intimidated by terrorists..., we are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts.
In his infamous emergency order, Bush admits to dismissing “the principles of law and the rules of evidence” that undergird America’s system of justice....Panels of officers...will sit in judgment of non-citizens who the president need only claim “reason to believe” are members of terrorist organizations.
...His kangaroo court can conceal evidence..., make up its own rules, find a defendant guilty even if a third of the officers disagree, and execute the alien with no review by any civilian court....Non-citizens face an executive that is now investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer or executioner.
In his sentence beginning “Intimidated by terrorists,” Safire implies that national fear can be exploited to have Americans give up what’s best about this nation, what’s crucial to America herself. The idea is: if people are scared enough, they’ll let their leaders do about anything—to other persons. (That needn’t happen, but it often has.) So we come to the biggest opposites: Self and World.
We Come to Self and World
Aesthetic Realism explains that our lives consist all the time of our self and an outside world that includes other people. The most awful things in human history have come from the feeling, “To take care of myself, I can’t be concerned if others are hurt.” There is a feeling in America now, “Who cares if foreigners aren’t given certain rights—I’m worried about myself and my kids.” There is a desire not to see that, for instance, innocent people could be executed—and also a not caring much if they are.
The Roman Terence, the Englishman John Donne, and the Americans Walt Whitman and Eugene V. Debs all have statements saying that oneself is not apart; the fate of others is one’s own. Since we’re talking about America, I quote Whitman’s great line about the oneness of himself and another: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” To see that our fate is deeply equivalent to that of others is not only beautiful but necessary. For example, once you start giving away others' rights, things do not stop there: soon you will find your own rights are gone.
The Judicial System & the Opposites
The matter of self and world has to do centrally with the fairness of any judicial system. Another term for the outside world is the facts. And in TRO 148 Mr. Siegel explains:
Our desire to have our way is always accompanied by what the facts are....Having one’s way...is equivalent often to having contempt for the facts not consonant with having one’s way.
The chief purpose of a fair trial is to get the facts. Like the First Amendment and the tripartite organization of our government, “the principles of law and the rules of evidence” were come to so that someone’s desire to have one’s way could not run the show. Much injustice has certainly happened within the US court system; but deprive people of that system and, as Safire indicates, the facts have hardly any chance at all.
Let us take a statement by US Attorney General Ashcroft, defending the military tribunals. In it, one’s own notion or way has already superseded the facts:
Foreign terrorists who commit war crimes against the United States, in my judgment, are not entitled to and do not deserve the protections of the American Constitution. [NY Times, 15 Nov.]
This statement is so wild that it is shocking its logic wasn’t commented on throughout the media. I’m not even speaking now of the fact that “war crimes” are mentioned though the United States is not at war. (Only Congress has the power to declare war, and has not done so.) What I refer to is the fact that in this statement Mr. Ashcroft has decided in advance that the persons who will come before military tribunals are indeed terrorists and have committed crimes; he has already convicted them! Since they’re guilty of terrorism, he says, they don’t “deserve” a constitutional trial. But the very purpose of a trial is to find out if a person is guilty. When you convict a person first and on that basis determine how to “try” him, it’s quite clear you have a sizable “contempt for the facts.”
In ordinary life, in our thoughts to ourselves, we often condemn people for “injustices” to us without trying to see what is true. That too is “contempt for the facts.”
Through all the worry in America, there is the chance, which is also a necessity, to ask what America really is. Because of Eli Siegel’s great honesty and courage and knowledge, Aesthetic Realism is the means to answer that question—and to be true to ourselves and the real beauty of our land.