September 11, 2022
by Stephen Stofka
I hope that those in the UK can find some common ground in their grief over the Queen’s death this week. Britain was still recovering from World War 2 when the crown was laid on her young head in 1952. Seventy years later, the political culture has fractured over Brexit and the repercussions of leaving the EU. There is much needed investment in a nation that has barely managed 2% growth in the past decade. In three years, three Prime Ministers have led the Parliament. The long reach of the Queen’s lifetime can help us lift our heads and take a longer view of events. When we mark history in lifetimes, not years, the beginning of our nation was about three lifetimes ago.
For most of mankind’s history, production harnessed human or animal energy, the thermal energy stored in wood and coal, and the kinetic energy of falling water turning a mill. In a world with only gradual change, there was little need for rapid communications technology. The men – yes, all men of property and standing – who crafted and voted on the U.S. Constitution lived in a world limited by crude animal and chemical power for energy, transportation and communication. John Adams, one of the Constitution’s signers, spent weeks traveling from his wife, family and farm in Braintree, Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today, a person on a bicycle can make the journey in three 10-hour days.
The discovery and refinement of oil as an energy source changed our society and our politics. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the Reconstruction Era were ratified at the dawn of a new age of energy and communications. The telegraph had only just come into use just prior to the Civil War. Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859, two years before the start of the Civil War. Those who passed the initial ten amendments and made the amendment process so difficult lived in an era where transformations of society occurred over decades or centuries. The amendments meant to protect people from the yoke of a regal government now shackle us to a historical reality that no longer exists.
America was built on a lack of consensus between regions, between a newly emerging urban population in the north and a rural population harnessed to the land in the south. In 1776, the colonies had first cohered as a mutual defense pact against the British and the encroachment of the Spanish and French on colonial territory. The seven year war of Independence liberated the colonies from British rule in 1783 but left the colonies with a large debt. Their mutual defense pact gave a lot of autonomy to each of the thirteen states but the central government had little power or authority to tax the individual states. By 1787, that confederacy was on the brink of failure, unable to pay its debts and largely isolated from international capital markets. Under those dire circumstances, the colonies ed anew, drafting an entirely different pact that initiated America 2.0.
The American Constitution embodied the divisions of regional interests and the differing ideological principles of its founders. The proceedings were so combative that the deliberations were sealed from the press for fear that exposing the rancor between delegates would doom the process. Three lifetimes later, we exhibit the same level of discord as our founders. Our Senate has become an insipid institution, crippled by parliamentary rules that make any Senator the ruler of his own nation, the King of Negation that stops most legislation from reaching a vote in the chamber. For 25 years, the House has passed Continuing Resolutions (CR) because they cannot pass a budget on time (Wezerek, 2018). Some years the budget is never passed and the government operates under a year-long CR.
On this 21st anniversary of 9-11, we still live in its shadow. The precautions at the airport, the fastidious matching of our names, letter for letter, hyphen for hyphen in our identification. Our nation grieved together, our Congress stood together and passed the Patriot Act. That was the end of togetherness. A common grieving does not knit a nation for long. Our media speaks a common language but the discourse – the assumptions and values that form the bedrock of our perceptions – are so different. Why? Because our Constitution has died.
Distrustful of each other, the Constitutional delegates forged a pact that was difficult to amend. They bound it so tightly that it could not expand and breathe. It is like a dead Pharoah mummified in tightly wrapped cloth and buried deep within a pyramid of time. Each year, the justices of the Supreme Court venture into the tomb to ask questions of the dead Pharoah. When they emerge into the sunlight, the people gather round to hear what the dead Pharoah has revealed. The justices speak in tongues – discourses that are intelligible to some people and babble to others. The Civil War was America 3.0. Let us grieve that our Constitution has died and adopt a new pact to celebrate America 4.0.
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
Wezerek, G. (2018, February 7). 20 years of Congress’s budget procrastination, in one chart. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved September 9, 2022, from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/20-years-of-congresss-budget-procrastination-in-one-chart/