Misinterpreting Emerson: A Meditation on Consistency, the Constitution, and American Exceptionalism

When I first started working as a disability examiner for Social Security, we had no desktop computers, just Wang terminals; nor could we communicate via email, just intraoffice messaging whose default was “reply all.” Hence, I established a wide reputation for pedantry early on. The topic was one on which I have often pontificated in the intervening thirty-plus years. One of the system administrators reached outside his bailiwick and sent the following message to everyone at Disability Determination Services; I still don’t know if it was meant as a challenge or a request for information:

Who said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?”

And here was the presumptuous reply of the newly-trained disability specialist who got herself fired a few years later for her fairly consistent audacity over time:

No one. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” [emphasis mine]. Those are two very different ideas.

I confess that I was so ready with the retort because a high school classmate had burned Emerson’s words onto my brain when she asked Mr. Crawford, our teacher in freshman accelerated English, “What does Emerson mean when he says that consistency is the hemoglobin of little minds?” Now that I think of her question more carefully, I realize that her howler actually contains an astute metaphor of its own. But I digress. Actually, I haven’t even begun the topic from which this extended rabbit trail would be a potential digression! So I’ll proceed apace.

A number of convergent topics in the last week’s news (so-called) have inspired my topic today. Gunmen in two separate American cities killed 29 people in the space of one day. Twitter suspended the account of Mitch McConnell’s campaign team after it posted a video of violent protesters threatening the Senate Majority Leader’s life at his home in Kentucky. The gun-control lobby has gained traction on both sides of the congressional aisle, and even Donald Trump has advocated expanded background checks and “red flag” laws. On its editorial page and even in its news reports, the venerable beneficiary of the First Amendment, The New York Times, seemed to advocate restricting the right of free expression.

So what connects all these seemingly disparate ramblings of a superannuated academic who cannot decide between pettifoggery and the general fog of faux hippiedom?  It all comes down to the aforementioned consistency–one of the core values of my world view that I have somehow (if inconsistently) been willing to ignore in my quest to make my politics fit my world view.

In my long history of teaching, speaking, and writing, I have made no secret of my zealous support of free speech and its first cousins, freedom of the press and of religion. In these pages alone, a search for “First Amendment” yields six results, ranging in protagonist from Harvey Weinstein to Colin Kaepernick and in plot from current events to my own (closely related) struggle with the troubling dilemma of Democratic versus Republican in our increasingly polarized society: Sticks, Stones, and Mayhem in the Marketplace of Ideas, Erasing History: The 2017 Version, Charlottesville, Boston, Berkeley and the Desecration of the First Amendment, Let Me Count the Ways, The Land of the Free, and Yellow Fleas. Because free speech on campus is such a fundamental value in my professional life, I have presented a faculty workshop on the topic, assigned it as the focus of a rhetorical analysis, and once even made it the required topic for the final research paper of the semester. I have such a fundamental disagreement with my husband, who escaped from Czechoslovakia just after the Soviet tanks invaded in August of 1968, that freedom of the press is  one of those topics on which we have simply agreed to maintain silence. And I am stuck in the time warp when “Berkeley riots” connoted the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, not the 2017 efforts to squelch–with fire and violence–the very freedom celebrated on that same campus a half century before.

By contrast, my support for the Second Amendment has been . . . well, limited. I drank the Kool-Aid dispensed by the left during my college days and decided that our devotion to gun rights was misplaced. I created bitter antagonism when I argued with my father and my uncle about their membership in a gun club. In the aftermath of the”Greensboro Massacre,” I told my husband that if he followed his intention of joining the National Rifle Association, I would join the Communist Workers’ Party (just to keep the record straight, he did; I didn’t). Otherwise, because so many of my family members, friends, and colleagues are ardent supporters of the right to keep and bear arms, I have mostly remained silent in my belief that crime in the United States would be much less deadly if there were fewer guns in fewer hands.

A few days ago, however, listening to a diatribe on right-wing talk radio (because I renounced my long NPR habit in the wake of #MeToo), I suddenly realized that I was wrong. Devotion to the American Constitution demands consistency, nor is it folly to say so. And with all my faculties, I do profess such devotion.

I have often wavered in my belief in American exceptionalism over the almost fifty years since I became the beneficiary–the victim?–of academic freedom on campus. I have argued vehemently that college is the place to learn to think for oneself because I learned that skill at the University of Arizona between 1971 and 1975. Although I haven’t admitted the error publicly until now, I have realized for some time that I didn’t actually learn to think for myself; I just learned to think differently. That is, I substituted what I might have called the sound reasoning of a couple of history professors for the blind allegiances of my parents with their Zeitgeist weaned during the Depression and tempered by the Second World War. I won a prestigious fellowship and came to UNC-Chapel Hill as the darling of the history department, only to become persona non grata after spouting one too many of the radical beliefs inculcated into me by John Hosmer and Dr. Mering. As recently as the 2016 election with its “Make America Great Again” mantra, I was willing to posit that America was never all that great to begin with.

But I now know that I must return to the terra firma of my 1950s upbringing, when we were not ashamed to proclaim the values of American culture, when we believed in the melting pot, and when “E pluribus unum” was more than unintelligible gobbledygook printed on our money. Those values rested–and rest–firmly on the constitutional foundation of the United States–the fact that our country was invented out of whole cloth with a constitutional government “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men recreated equal.” And without the Bill of Rights, that Constitution would never have been ratified in the first place.

I do not argue that we must take the Bill of Rights as we find it, as strict constructionists and with no possibility of interpretation. In fact, much of my belief in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers lies in their prescient notion that they were creating a living document for the ages, not a static set of rules to be followed in lock step even when historical circumstance changed. But what I do argue fiercely is that we must accept or reject the Bill of Rights in toto. We cannot decide capriciously to honor or reject individual civil liberties based on the issue du jour, as I have unthinkingly been doing all these years. Nor, if we hope for the United States to maintain its position as leader of the free world, can we raise an entire generation, as we are now doing, to believe that fear–of terrorists, of offending others, of discomfort, or of a piece of machinery with barrel, stock, and trigger–can ever be sufficient cause to second guess the Framers of the Constitution and play fast and loose with the protections afforded us in the masterwork with which they put our country into motion.

Sadly, these protections are under assault from all sides. Speech codes and trigger warnings on college campuses, along with the efforts to silence those on the political right, signal a clear disavowal of the First Amendment, and the radical efforts of some to restrict or deny gun ownership reveal a similar repudiation of the Second. Policies resulting directly or indirectly from the terrorist attacks on 9/11, including the USA PATRIOT Act, the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, and the ongoing abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, trample on the protections afforded in the Fourth, Fifth, and Six Amendments. The creation of sex-offender registries violates the spirit if not the letter of the Fifth Amendment. And Federal withholding of highway finds to force states to raise the legal drinking age and comply with the 55 mph speed limit represented an obvious end run around the Tenth Amendment.

Equally concerning to me, though, is the tenuous relationship to the Bill of Rights of my own students, who I can only assume represent a fairly accurate cross section of the lower-middle-class post-secondary student population. On the one hand, they are woefully unaware of the actual provisions of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. I once mentioned the concept of civil liberties in class discussion, listed a few of the better known ones, and then asked the class where these rights were guaranteed. Not a single student responded. Nor do they care when they learn that their rights or those of others might be infringed. Many students over the years have said that they would not mind having their homes searched or their bank or library records examined because they have nothing to hide. And more and more in recent years, they are completely wiling to sacrifice the right to free speech if exercising that right might make someone feel pain or discomfort.

I don’t know what the solution is. The media have abdicated their position at the forefront of a free society, the education system has stopped teaching in favor of “facilitating,” and much of the population has forsworn the vigilance required of true patriots. Therefore, I will simply close with the following age-old reminder:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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. . . .

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Only by knowing and unwaveringly championing these all these rights and opposing with all our might those who seek to challenge them can ever we hope to ensure that the great American experiment, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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