Friday, August 25, 2006

Paragraph Twelve

Everyone is equal before the law. No one shall be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, colour, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other opinion, property or social status, or on other grounds.

The incitement of national, racial, religious or political hatred, violence or discrimination shall, by law, be prohibited and punishable. The incitement of hatred, violence or discrimination between social strata shall, by law, also be prohibited and punishable.

The Constitution of the Republic of Estonia

The reason I talk about America so much is because it's fascinating. It's all around us - in culture, commerce, politics... It's put a lot of effort in positioning itself as a beacon, a frontrunner and the pinnacle of Western civilization.

Then you look more closely, and lo: something's wrotten in this fine country. I'm reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and I see that it's been there for a while. But I wasn't aware of it growing up. All through the Nineties, America had a massively positive image around these parts. USAID, the Clinton government's support for Estonian independence and integration into the First World (OK, they could've been a bit faster to recognize us, but we'll let it slide) - it was easy to become enamoured with the faraway land of possibility. So what if their movies were silly.

I spent a month in South California in 2003; but by that time I was already heavily critical of America. So many things about it seemed infuriatingly, self-evidently backwards - not just different from the way they were at home, but wrong. I've never put much faith in the political leaders of my country, even the ones involved in the restoration of independence - but at least they were doing things right in a general way! But what I knew of America, of how it works on a real-life level, was disturbing and occasionally disgusting. The American dream that was so dear to me, had shattered.

More and more I found myself thinking, "What have you bastards done to my America?"

The reason this happened was that great American invention (by a British scientist in a Swiss research facility) - the World Wide Web. By the late 90s I had a Celeron 300 and a dialup account, and most people I met were Americans.

Because the audience of the Internet was (and remains, in vital terms) predominantly American, so was the content. But content is ubiquitous. Suddenly I, and thousands - then millions - of people like me had access to something which was previously Proprietary and Confidential. By natural means information and opinion had previously been segregated, bound to the western hemisphere. Limited to viewers and participants who took its peculiarities for granted.

But I didn't. The more I absorbed the real America, the more I was astonished, then outraged. This is the City on the Hill? What the fuck?

The Internet had exposed foreign markets to that which the American promotional machine did not want getting out - the American mindset. A mindset represented in - and now, heavily affected by - the Constitution, the prime law of the realm. Here in Estonia we've got a rather shiny new one, from 1992, and we like to show it off. It was written by a bunch of folks who had just liberated themselves from decades of occupation by a foreign agressors (and centuries by various others, before a short stab at independence in the 1920s-1940s). They had to make it work as the basis for the functioning of the entire country.

And the Americans are also quite proud of their Constitution. Oldest democracy in the world and all that, the Bill of Rights, liberty and justice for all. I'd skimmed it, and it seemed a trifle quaint, but essentially passable.

Just recently I had one more encounter (not my first) with that curious artefact of American thinking - the dichotomy between the people and the government. Even though in America elections can go down to the level of dog catcher, the government - and particularly the federal government - is seen as a destructive, evil monster, barely tolerated and certainly distrusted.

Now, this is a strange notion to an Estonian. In 15 years of independence, we've never - not once! - had a government last from one set of elections to another. Kicking the PM out of office is a routine affair, and the President doesn't actually meddle in any business of running the country. Hell, our Constitution starts out by stating, right there in Article 1, that the supreme power in the country belongs to its people. It's an idea that seems fundamentally, indisputably right - the only way it ought to be. Yet the Bill of Rights only has it in the 10th Amendment, which says that any power that the federal and state governments don't fancy for themselves gets handed down to the people.

Oh, fine - it's just political pretty talk, and it's the spirit of the Constitution that counts, not the letter. The Constitution is the ultimate expression of the will of the people, right? They've got freedom of speech and the press, religion, trial by jury, even that ridiculous weapons thing - but alright, freedom and all that.

The encounter I mentioned was a reaction to a newspaper article about a man wearing a T-shirt with Arabic writing on it, being kicked off an airplane. This, I said, was preposterous! Another example of the Bush administration and its lackeys spitting on essential civil liberties! The Constitution protects the man's right to self-expression!

The answer, from people who can in no way be considered Bush fans: "Um, no. The Constitution is just for what the government does. Private businesses can refuse service to anyone, for any reason."


OK, leave out the fact that airlines as providers of an essential public service have to play by slightly different rules from your local pub. The Constitution is just for the government?

Silly undereducated American, I thought. And went on Google to check the text of the Bill of Rights and find the right quote.

Except it wasn't there. The 1st Amendment says that Congress can't make a law that legalizes discrimination - but it doesn't mean discrimination is illegal! Hell, I understood why the text didn't mention equality on the basis of skin colour. But actually, if you read the text, the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination!

The main body of the US Constitution deals with checks & balances. They didn't bother thinking of the people until they were done with it, and had to amend it. Even then, there is no fundamental national law equivalent to the quote at the beginning of this article - something that you could not imagine a modern, democratic, free country and society without.

A nation's Constitution is a reflection of its mentality. It's quite obvious that the American mentality could use a major overhaul. Perhaps they should start with a new Consitution, one that lives up to all the hype.


Anonymous said...

"A nation's Constitution is a reflection of its mentality."

True enough. Although what that says about the UK's bodge of different bits of paper held together with string and the ever popular "custom & practice" I'd hate to think. Sometimes I think the main reason no one wants to change it too radically in case it unravelled. It's easier just to let well alone.

Turning to our cousins across the water the main issue is that their founding fathers didn't think of America as the nation - so their constitution is more of a Masstrict Treaty (their equivalent of the Treaty of Rome didn't work too well). I don't think Philo would be alone in opposing a change.

Anonymous said...

More and more I found myself thinking, "What have you bastards done to my America?"
Man, tell me about it. In fact more and more I'm thinking of leaving, more and more I'm thinking that the US isn't a hill I'm willing to die on. Basically I'm less and less willing to excercise citizenship in an environment hostile to citizenship.

One wonders, too, how cognizant people are of an empire's decline when they're in the misdt of it...

Anonymous said...

It is unfair to compare a small, all-white country with a big, diverse USA. Parliament democrary certainly has its own problems. When a party gained majority status, they can virtuall rule like a dictator. Also because most of votes concentrates in big cities, big cities are favored by the government.
If USA does not have a good system, they have already broken up long long time ago. The fact that there were so many European wars in the past says something about parliamentary democracy.

antyx said...

"When a party gained majority status, they can virtuall rule like a dictator."

It's extremely rare, in a multiparty system, that any one party achieves the absolute majority.

"Also because most of votes concentrates in big cities, big cities are favored by the government."

The government favours the largest part of the population. Sounds democratic. And a coalition government allows the representation of minority interests.

"If USA does not have a good system, they have already broken up long long time ago."

They tried. Led to the bloodiest war in American history.

"The fact that there were so many European wars in the past says something about parliamentary democracy."

Actually no, it says absolutely nothing, because parliamentary democracy has not been used in most of Europe before WWII. The fact that there have not been any major conflicts involving European states for sixty years, however, does say something about parliamentary democracy.


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