Resilience & interpretation

I know many of the readers who follow this blog are not citizens of the United States. Perhaps you have been hearing about the contenders for our upcoming presidential election and feeling some dismay. Perhaps you are particularly concerned about calls for identifying citizens based upon their ethnic background and religious choice.

If so, I assure you that there is push-back here from people who recognize that persons such as Mr. Trump embarrass the nation. It appalls us to see a person who feels he can ignore the U.S. Constitution running for the presidential office simply because he has money and recognition…although the free and open laws of the country permit him to proceed.

Trump’s proposal to identify some of our citizens by creed or heritage violates the Constitution in several ways. It violates Amendment One’s provisions for freedom of religious expression, and Amendment Four, the right to privacy; and the section of Amendment Five that relates to being held answerable to a crime and deprived of liberties without due process of law; also, Amendment Fourteen Section 1. Many, many U.S. citizens know that such proposals are merely rabble-rousing slander and could not be enacted without completely controverting the Constitution. These people are not wealthy entertainers, and they do not make the news, but they exist and–with any luck–they will vote.

A person running for the highest office in his country should know its laws thoroughly, but nothing in our Constitution says he (or she) must. We citizens are to blame, as clearly many of us are not terribly familiar with the laws of the United States of America, either. U.S. citizens should become more aware of our responsibility to learn about the Constitution, the importance of the vote, and the need to be rational thinkers when we go to the polls. Our democracy’s founding documents were drafted by people who earnestly, if perhaps idealistically, believed that human beings are capable of rational decision-making.

Granted, they also thought they were granting voting rights to property-owning men. The Constitution has been altered over time; it is a resilient, flexible, and enduring piece of prose that’s been the source of frequent interpretation.USConstitution From a literary standpoint, resilience and interpretation are what keep “classics” alive and relevant as works of art, though close readers can also use context, history, and speculation about original intent to examine a piece of writing they love and respect.

I have no idea of how I will vote next November. But I do know I will consider, more than personal values, the values of the nation under whose laws I currently reside. I’m reminded of the wisdom-teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew–

He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Matt. 22:21

The people listening to Jesus went away “amazed” (Matt. 22:22). There is something ambiguous in that response that speaks to me today, something worth meditating upon, something worth interpreting.

~

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Rights & responsibilities

I recently assigned a short reflection essay to my freshman college students. The topic was the rights and responsibilities of voting; I asked which mattered more to the student: the right to vote, or the responsibility to vote (or if they were equal in importance). I then requested that they explain their reasoning.

Let’s just say that I didn’t get too many deeply-considered responses, and I could mention that more than one student wrote about ballets instead of ballots.

But before I sigh too deeply or launch into a rant about the lack of interest young people show about governing the country, I must stop myself. After all, these students are 17 and 18 years old. They have not felt engaged in the process of self-governance of any kind–with a few exceptions–including the responsibilities of adulthood in most of its forms. They are still being financially supported by their families. They have meal plans, so they seldom have to go food shopping, budget their dollars and their nutritional needs, or worry about going hungry. They are emerging from the narcissistic and peer-driven teen years and haven’t had much reason to examine public policy or how it affects them. They haven’t learned yet about fallacies, straw men, slippery slope reasoning, ad hominem attacks, circular arguments, and the ways certain uses of rhetoric can persuade us from rational paths.

They do not usually even understand rationality. They are all emotion and denial, but there is an underlying current of curiosity beginning to stir in their souls. Usually.

At least a few of my students, all of whom are “beginning” writers who lack confidence in written expression, produced brief reflections on what rights are and how they differ from personal, cultural, community, or social responsibilities. Even the least reflective students recognized that the Constitutional right to vote is crucial to a democracy; the more adventurous students argued with themselves about how important it is to “vote well” (ie, to be an informed citizen when one casts a vote). A few decided that if a person votes based on looks or culture or without an understanding of the issues or of how our government operates, that citizen is irresponsible, and it would be better if such citizens refrained from voting.

Then, most of these students added that they would not be voting this November, because they are uninformed.

If my classroom is representative, the US presidential candidates have not been effective among the youth vote. There were a number of students, however, who felt that the privilege of voting is so significant that they fully intend to vote in this election (their first ever); and they say they intend to inform themselves of the issues that matter both to themselves individually and to the nation as a whole.

One-fifth of my class plans to vote. Voting turnout usually runs from 36% to 55% nationally–I have looked at several sites and gotten conflicting numbers–so my students indicate a lower-than-average turnout rate. I hope that after they’ve spent four years in college and taken philosophy and marketing and communication and history and criminal justice courses, they will be more likely to participate in the “responsible” part of being a citizen who has the right to vote.

Here’s an amusing interactive site where anyone can learn a thumbnail definition of logical fallacies: http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/