Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Constitutionally Speaking

I have this curiosity about the Constitution.

Y’all need to understand that I was not force-fed US Government in school, because I went to school in the UK. Due at least in part to my upbringing, I often compare the attitudes in the UK and Europe, with those here in the US. That is not to suggest that one is better than the other, only to acknowledge the differences, and maybe get hints as to where different societies can learn from each other.

This means that I am only slowly beginning to understand the implications of your Constitution, and am generally playing catch-up with those around me. It also means that I am not simply persuaded that the Constitution is the best thing since before sliced bread just because my parents, teachers, preachers, TV tell me so. I do, however, get that the Constitution simply *is*, and that there are few around right now who could be trusted with making any significant changes, even should changes prove to be wise and necessary.

I will say, upfront, that one can only admire and respect the United States, for achieving so much in such a short period of time. It would be easy for a Brit to criticize the political process here, safe in the knowledge that our 1000 year Parliament has had time to perfect it’s operations . On the other hand, there are indeed checks and balances at work in Europe, that clearly do not work here.

Reading today about how the 4th Estate has been busy swallowing whole the propaganda of the Administration, thereby colluding in the deaths of over 4000 Americans, and many tens of thousands (at least) of others, I am wondering about the 1st Amendment.

It is reasonable to suppose that the Founders considered the Bill of Rights to be the core principles of the Constitution, just as it is sensible that the document be considered as a whole, and not just a sum of individual parts. I know people struggle with that last bit, especially the gun ownership lobbies, who don’t like *whole* discussions, they even attempt to parse individual words and phrases when discussing the 2nd, but I digress …

It’s probably not too much of a stretch that they chose carefully the Amendment that would be read first. After all, they were guys who fled religious persecution, and would, no doubt, be very eager that freedom from such, together with freedom to worship should be right up there, numero uno. They quite reasonably, to my mind, attached a similar degree of importance to the Right of man to speak his mind, although I do wonder sometimes why they chose to vest that Right in the Press. Nonetheless, the principle is established.

So ….. does it work?

Well apparently not. I can see that the Founders were a body of men who believed that a free and unfettered press was as significant a check on the three branches of government, as they were upon each other. I sit back and admire the vision and the concept both. The problem seems to be that free speech appears to carry very little with it, in the way of responsibility. Sure there are some laws restricting what can be said under certain circumstances, but that hasn’t stopped the Pharmaceutical industry using advertising to pressurize doctors into prescribing. In the UK the advertising of Ethical Pharamaceuticals on radio and TV is banned. The public, it is suggested, is not the customer. The public cannot prescribe the products, so the marketing is restricted to those who can. This is not a perfect system, it relies on doctors keeping up to date, and not succumbing to industry incentives, but neither does it lead to a society where masses of people are conned into believing that they do not need to change lifestyles, because WE have the PILL that will cure it.

The Founders, however, charged the Press with the role of Guardian Angel. There are notable examples of them fulfilling this role admirably. Watergate would, I guess be the obvious one. In the current climate, however, the need has never been greater for the Press to defend the Constitution, defend the people and preserve the principles on which the nation was founded.

Yet never has there been a time when they apparently do less of any of this. Fox News, for example, is one of the worst mainstream offenders. Faux News is a good moniker. But need Fox be like this? Fox is owned by News International, a Rupert Murdoch entity. Rupert Murdoch is Australian and, forgive me Rupert if I read you wrong, cares little for the USA, either for or against, and cares principally about simply making money. He does this any way he is permitted, and he is very good at it. RM will, and does allow Fox News to operate any way it chooses, as long as it makes as much money as possible, or paves the ground for his other activities to make, or continue to make money.

Let us hop over the Pond for a moment. News International also owns The Times (London), The Sun (Lon. Daily tabloid) and Sky TV, including Sky News. While Sky News was always considered a little *tabloid* in it’s presentation, it regularly won awards for good, investigative journalism, and was seen as reasonably a well-balanced an outfit as most of the others. It was (dunno about is) regarded as a genuine news organization in a way that Fox simply is not.

So what gives? The UK has no *free speech* Amendment. Speech in the UK is actually able to be very tightly controlled, in a manner that would have Americans howling in anguish, yet the UK isn’t disintegrating, society there is peaceful and well ordered as most. Companies have their ads banned, yet we still produced both Glaxo-Smithkline and British Petroleum.

I am beginning to wonder the issue of the 1st Amendment. While fully supporting the ideas contained therein, I do wonder why the US has allowed it’s provisions to be perverted the way they appear to have been. Almost to the point of allowing ANYTHING, because the 1st Amendment is the Holy Grail, even when the facts in front of your face every day suggest that this is far from the case.

I might return to this ….. I am constantly reminded of the Rights Americans believe they have …. Rights and Freedoms. From where I stand, the reality appears to be that Americans have, actually fewer rights and freedoms than they think they have. Indeed in my 45 years in the UK I rarely had to listen to my countrymen discussing their rights and freedoms. Sure it happened, but not often, yet I actually believe that the absence of a written Constitution enshrines rights rather more effectively that the reverse. A curious irony.

It’s almost as if the Government got rid of the difficult bit (the granting of rights to citizens) in the title, then went about implementing the small print in such a way that means that citizens have very few meaningful rights, even though we sure can point to all the ones they have. Does free speech mean much when you are subject to *at will* firing? Being the quickest example I can think just now.

I suspect that the Founders were decent and idealistic. They were also smart, and quite deliberately charged the Press with a solemn duty towards the American people. Oh how they have been let down.

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