It's not a long amendment: 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.
Certainly the amendments regarding prohibition and suffrage and defendant's rights are longer. But those specific freedoms enummerated within the first amendment are not small things. Not in terms of the historical context in which they were set down, nor in terms of the degree to which those freedoms have contributed to our national identity.
1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free excercize thereof;
Every American child is taught the surface value of this freedom, again and again as they progress through elementary school and into highschool. As Thanksgiving roles around, teachers go into a frenzy of praise for the brave Puritans who, owing to conflicts with the form of Protestantism that was taking over England, took off for the New World, in search of a place where they could worship as they pleased. Teachers tell it rosily, and make it seem as though the Puritans were victims of a bullying and unforgiving Church of England, when in reality they were an even more zealously stern sect of Protestants who didn't approve of the papistry of the emerging High Anglican church. But that's not really the issue here.
First, second, third graders don't learn much about the religious wars of Europe. They get into high school, and even that it's glossed over. It isn't discussed the extent to which this is a truly revolutionary law, in age where religion was legislated by monarchs -- and supported through copious amounts of bloodshed.
To American school children, Bloody Mary is something one says into a mirror three times, to prove one's courage to a giggling bathroom full of shrieking friends at a slumber party. You wait expenctantly for a blood thirsty ghost to appear, and you know nothing of the flesh and blood woman behind the ubran legend -- the queen who earned the soriquet well for killing her own citizens, due to their religious persuasion. We don't hear much about the executions of Protestant English men and women under her reign, nor the corresponding violence done to Catholics under the kings and queens that would follow her.
We don't learn much about the early pogroms of England, or even really spend a lot of time thinking abotu what this precious bit of law would have meant against the tides of Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy. We don't think about the fact that we, as Americans, have written protection against recreations of the ghettos of Poland, the Inquisitions of Catholic Spain. We will never -- this amendment promises -- persecuted (lawfully) for the manner in which we seek our Gods.
It is so much more than words on paper. "A land where the Puritans could worship God in their own chosen way," that's what American school children learn that this country - our country - was even at the outset.
This is the bedrock of what our elementary school teachers tell us that we *are* as a nation.
The freedom of religion - the promise that Congress will never make any laws respecting the 'establishment of religion' and the subsequent seperation of church and state (a much besieged seperation under the current administration which seems bent upon turning America from a republic to a conservative theocracy) -- is a truly wondrous thing.
"Give unto God that which is God's, and unto Ceasar that which is his," goes a quote that I've just butchered. That is what this part of the first amendment does; it renders unto the secular government the power to legislate all things but the spiritual. It admits to a broader freedom than perhaps even the following freedoms do.
It says that there are certain parts of each man and woman that are inviolate, and nothing but his or her own. The soul, the essence, what have you, which reaches toward some higher believe, some moral power -- or not, as you choose. That's the key word: choice.
This law admits that you cannot make a law regarding thought. You can't make a law regarding belief. In fact, this law says, it is immoral to even try.
In my eyes, there is no thought more truly American in nature.
2. Congress shall make no law...abridging freedom of speech
And if the government can't tell you what to think, this freedom makes it clear it can't -- and won't -- tell you what to say, either.
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," said Voltaire. In a perfect world, this would be a universal interpretation of the freedom of speech -- it's mine, I can tell you that.
There are people in this country who are homophobes. There are people in this country who are bigoted, and racist, and prejudiced. We have misogynists, misanthropes, neo-Nazis, fundamentalists of every stripe. Some Americans are just offensively stupid, and others inexcusably vulgar, and some are just plain mean.
I have heard people across the entirety of America say things that have filled me with moral indignation, and righteous outrage. I have been demeaned and insulted on the basis of my gender, my religion, even on occasion my (presumed) sexuality.
And the wonderful thing - the truly infuriatingly wonderful thing - is that these people can legally say and do these things. Americans can be as disgustingly, hatefully narrow minded and unaccepting as they please.
And becuase of that? I have the right to say what I please, as well. I can say in an open forum that I find the actions of the Bush adminstration in the arena of foreign policy to be hateful, erroneous and frightening. I can say that what is cringingly referred to as domestic policy is, in my eyes, a blot upon our national record.
I can say that I disagree with it. I can say that I think it's just plain wrong. I can say that it's asinine. I can say that it's a fucking awful time to look at my goverment, and try to find some semblance of the country I love so much.
Do I believe that flag burning is free speech? Yeah, I do. I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that burning a flag is a pretty clear statement about how somebody feels about America.
Do I get how flag burning can be offensive? Yeah, I do.
But you know what? So is any one of the litany of derogatory words bandied about so easily, and so often by so many people.
I think that any book bank-rolled by the KKK is offensive. I think that the propaganda of the Bush administration is, on occasion, offensive.
Doesn't mean that I think people can't and shouldn't be allowed to say these things. On the contrary - I disagree with them. I vocally disagree with them.
And I don't know how true it is for me to say that I'd literally die so that some asshole could call a friend of mine a perverted faggot or a filthy dyke, but I do know that I'd never, ever, support any law that tried to stop them from being able to say any damn thing they pleased.
Is free speech important? You bet your sweet American ass it is.
Without free speech -- with censors telling us what we could say and couldn't say in our day to day lives, restricting our freedom to express whatever we think and feel, what right would any of us have to ever utter the word 'freedom' in regards to our country again? And how could we, as a 'purveyor of freedom' to the 'beknighted' countries of the world that we're so kindly taking our time and energy to 'liberate', look ourselves in the mirror ever again?
Hypocrisy is nothing new to America. But an America that doesn't fight for its right to say whatever the hell it believes, in my mind, would be something beyond hypocritical. Something - to me, at least - unforgivable, and less than what any of us should aspire to be as *people* - let alone citizens of any nation that we profess to be proud of.
I don't really know if there is a word for such a betrayal of ourselves as a people, but the great thing about the first amendment is that if there was? I could shout it to the roof tops until my throat bled, if I so chose.
3. or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
Freedom of assembly - like freedom of speech, it builds on what comes before it. We, as a nation governed by this Amendment and the Constitution to which it is attached, have the right to a) believe what we will, b) say what we will, c) and meet with anyone who we wish to do it as more than just a lone voice crying out in the wildnerness "This is injustice, this cannot stand."
Yeah, the freedom of assembly applies to groups that can be offensive. Yeah, the KKK can legally hang out, and believe racist things, and say racist things, and do it in huge convention spaces, so long as they aren't plotting to bomb a church, or commit other violent acts. Yeah, NAMBLA can hang out and talk about the beauty of man-boy-love, and so long as they don't have their hand down an eleven year old's pants as they do it, then that is perfectly legal.
I don't like them. But I don't say that they don't have the right to assembly. Because they do, if they're US citizens. We all do.
It's why the NAACP exists after so many govermental attacks upon it during the Civil Rights Movement. It's also why in my freshman year of college, I was able to walk down the streets of NYC with a bunch of other giddy college students beating bongo drums and yelling stupid things like "MOVE BUSH, GET OUT THE WAY" and show that I, along with the living, breathing mob around me, didn't believe in the Iraq war. Not in my name, we said.
And we said it -- all of us -- together. We have that right. We have that freedom.
For all the rhetoric of freedom I've used in this essay so far, and for all the rhetoric of freedom that is bandied about our political stage these days, I think sometimes we forget what the literal meaning of that word is.
I have the right to stand with a group of my friends in front of the house of the man who has a direct line to people who can shoot the button off a coat from the top of a building blocks away, and I can call him an immoral disgrace to the people who he governs. And it is not legal for my government to drag any of us away, and throw me into a cell, and deny me food, or water, or counsel.
I can say these things about the leader of my country. I can say worse, if I so choose, and he can not have me publically executed.
This is such a young concept in the history of the human race. It's such a fragile one. And it's such an incredibly vital one to the American identity.
Freedom seems like such a small word when measured up against all it can and should mean, here, in this country. It's nothing more than a handful of letters, to stand for all of that. It is something worth fighting for.
It's something worth dying for, when it's under legitimate threat. I don't disagree with our sitting president on that. I just disagree with him on what constitutes a creditable threat.
4. ...and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
And this -- this coup de grace. This is the founding fathers giving teeth to all of those freedoms. This is the founding fathers protecting us from what they saw happening under the absolutist monarchs of their age.
It never fails to move me, that phrase.
Think of it: not only can we worship Gods our leaders don't believe in, not only can we decry their Gods as false idols if we really want to, not only can we set up goddamned knitting circles in which we meet to talk about how much we disagree with what our leaders and neighbors and forefathers have done, but if our government tries to take those rights away from us we can seek redress.
We can make our goverment admit that it was wrong. We can, through our laws, get an apolgy and redress for any wrongs done to us by Congress or the President.
When our government does things that are morally reprehensible -- the Japanese internment camps during WWII being a prime example -- our government can be forced to make amends through legislation and monetary redress to the people it has wronged.
The fact that we have this right means to me, that we also have the obligation to use it to enforce our freedoms. This phrase does more than offer us the option, it gives us the solemn duty to take up our part in government.
And that is - simply put - something that every single person who lives in the United States of America should be so proud of that they could fairly burst from it.
The founding fathers did not give us idle freedoms. This Amendment to the Constitution isn't simply ink scrawled across some moldering scroll somewhere. It is the living heart of this nation.
We don't have a shared cultural experience to draw on to form our identity as Americans. We don't have eons of struggling out of the Neolithic age together, building a monarchy. We're -- for the most part -- a people of transplants. What do have, though -- what makes us a *nation* and not just a country -- is nothing more than an framework of ideas. Some of the most incandescent and fiercely moving ideas in the history of government, if you ask me.
Some people reading this might shake their head and thing it reads as the ranting of someone starry-eyed, and young, and in love with what little they think they know of history and politics. And I'll come right out and say it: yes. I am starry-eyed. Yes, I am in love with this country. Yes, I am young.
But I don't ever want to stop being starry-eyed about the concept that people are free to be who they are. That's the real meat of the First Amendment. I don't ever want to come to a point in my life where I am not moved by that.
And I don't think I will ever stop loving this country. I don't think I have that in me. America is not perfect. Yes, there are hundreds of curtailments on free speech, and freedom of assembly, and certainly there are challenges that face America today that would have been so utterly alien to the minds of the men who built this government that it's difficult to fathom what they would have said or done.
Am I disappointed in America sometimes? Am I horrified with America sometimes? Absolutely. But I don't feel that I have the luxury to let myself feel so betrayed by some piece of legislation that is being considered about what I can and cannot do with my body, or my love, or my words that I stop taking full advantage of what it is to be the recipient of these neccesary freedoms.
John Locke said that government was a contract between the governed and their leaders, and if anything else that social contract is the crux of what our country was modeled on. When you start seeing America's warts to exclusion of all else? Then you have an obligation to speak up. When you feel that your government is letting you down, then if you don't put your shoulder to the plow and start pushing toward what you believe should be, then you are letting your government down.
That's what I believe.
And I recognize that my opinion is not the only opinion. I recognize and welcome differing points of view. I wouldn't want to live somewhere that I couldn't say what I thought, and I wouldn't want to stifle somebody else's opinion either.
That's my point: we all have the right to our own, particular points of view, and as enraging as it can be sometimes, as hard as it can be to understand the ideas articulated by people who disagree with me, it's glorious that they do.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his love poems to God as though God were a small child, in need of protection. In one of his poems, he says something ot the effect of, "God, I am afraid. What will happen to you when I'm gone? Who will take care of you?"
I understand that poem more in relation to my country, than my spirituality. What will happen to America if free discussions and open debates don't occur? Who will take care of our government, if we don't have the freedom to do it?
It's a frightening thought.
That's why the First Amendment is so important. That's why I can't read something like that article without an utter feeling of bewilderment. I simply cannot fathom it. I don't know how to be an American without holding the Bill of Rights up, as a standard of that national faith.
I'm leaving the comments on this post open, and I encourage you guys to say anything you want to, and if you disagree with me, or with anything I've said, then that's really cool. I just ask that you do it respectfully, and have to admit that I'm really crappy at answering comments in any kind of timely fashion.