Monday, March 27, 2006

America the Ignorant

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exorcise thereof, or abridging the freedom or speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Recognize this? If you do, sadly you are in the very tiny minority of US citizens who did. A recent released several weeks ago by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that less than 1 percent of adults who responded to a national poll could identify the five rights protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America- freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and the right to petition the government.

Not to despair however. With our infatuation with popular culture 52 percent of the respondents could name at least two characters in the Simpson television family and 20 percent could name all five. While half could name none of the freedoms in the First Amendment, 54 percent could name at least one of the three judges on the television program “American Idol,” and a quarter could name all three.

Americans know nothing about their constitutionally guaranteed rights. We are constitutionally illiterate. David Anderson, executive director of the museum noted that, “there was a depth of confusion that we weren’t expecting.” “I think people take their freedoms for granted.”

Believe it or not it gets worse. Twenty one percent of the survey respondents said the First Amendment included the right to own a pet. Some 17 percent said that the First Amendment contained the “right to drive a car,” and 38 percent believed “taking the fifth” was part of the First Amendment.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. We are in danger of losing our basic freedoms. The Constitution is being undermined and we are too ignorant to stop it. In a recent speech to corporate lawyers at Georgetown University, newly retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that the United States is in danger of edging toward authoritarian government or worse: A dictatorship.

O’Connor specifically pointed to the barrage of criticism of the courts from the Republican right from people like scandal-ridden Tom Delay who after the courts refused to save Terry Schiavo’s life last March said, “ The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” Delay later called for the impeachment of the judges involved in the Schiavo case.

Theses attacks on the courts, O’Connor said,” pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedom. Statutes and constitutions do not protect judicial independence- people do.”
An independent judiciary is essential to protect our freedom and individual rights from the potential tyranny of the other branches of government; otherwise those rights would amount to nothing.

In the course of exercising this independence sometimes the courts must correct a president who tries to assume the mantle of a dictator such as our current imperial president or even strike down a congressional enactment. Of course, this sometimes more than upsets the politicians, but not exercising their constitutional right to do this would upset the checks and balances so vital to our democratic government.

This balance is especially crucial now that we have a president who thinks he was elected king and who routinely attempts to subvert the Constitution and a congress who is helpless to stop him. In these times it is essential that we have a judiciary to check these abuses of power; otherwise there is nothing to stop us from slipping down the slope to a dictatorship. That is why O’Connor warned: “We must be ever vigilant against those who strong-arm the judiciary.”

We live in perilous times. Some believe we may soon be forced to choose between freedom and security once and for all. But when Americans have little clue as to what those freedoms are, they choose from ignorance not knowledge and that ignorance may cost them the freedoms they take for granted. As Justice O’Connor concluded: “It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls to dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.” The beginnings are here and we are woefully unprepared to avoid the ends.

David Goldberg