Wednesday, January 6, 2021 — Insurrection Day.
I sat glued to three screens watching an American disaster unfold in real time. Americans who, by and large, look a lot like me stormed the United States Capitol. Incited by the president himself, an armed mob of insurrectionists erected a gallows on the Capitol steps, roamed the halls of Congress seeking to “hang Mike Pence”, asked “where’s Nancy?” while toting zip-ties and tasers, endangered national security, and murdered a police officer.
I was stunned, but not shocked. I’ve grown up among these people. This result was inevitable. I’m only surprised it’s taken until 2021 for this festering boil of unaddressed racism and willful ignorance to finally erupt in open treason.
It’s easy to point at Donald John Trump, the arsonist-in-chief. Or the toadies, sycophants, grifters, and evildoers surrounding and enabling him. Or the morally bankrupt party, money grubbing (traditional and social) media, and impious religious leaders that provide him matches.
But condemning the actions of the arsonists and the striking of all those matches fails to address the glaring problem of why the house was so thoroughly soaked in gasoline in the first place.
This nation—more precisely, white men like me—has never addressed and atoned for its original sins of racism and genocide, the effects of which soak the foundations of this country as surely as gasoline endangers a home.
The Constitution is a Verb
On my seventeenth birthday, almost forty-six years ago, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
I don’t go into my National Guard service much. I was in the Army Band, I joined to pay for college, I never so much as had to read the word “combat,” and I left under bad circumstances (a general discharge for being a drunk, basically).
But I swore that oath and I still believe in it. The problem is, a whole bunch of white men who look like me also swore that oath and believe that what they were doing on Insurrection Day was fulfilling that oath.
There are myriad reasons they’re wrong, of course. They’re whipped up by The Big Lie, they’re brainwashed into false victimhood, their righteous anger has been malevolently redirected away from the true causes of their malaise.
The one I’d like to focus on is their misunderstanding of the Constitution. They think of it as a sacred text that enshrines their God-given rights, which they interpret to mean The Way Things Should Be. Their Constitution is a noun.
It’s not. The Constitution is a verb.
Yes, of course, the document “The Constitution” is a noun. But its function is a verb: to constitute, to be a part of a whole. In that document is the establishment of three branches of government, checks and balances, rights and responsibilities, but all these exist in service to many different states full of different people constituting one nation—to form a more perfect Union.
It is that which we swear to protect. A system that allows all us different Americans to thrive together. The system that was constituted by our Founders for six specific reasons.
You cannot defend or reform that system by perpetuating injustice, shattering domestic tranquility, endangering our common defense, threatening our general welfare, and abusing the blessings of liberty. That way lies disunion.
What If We Repealed the Second Amendment?
There’s a little thought experiment I like to conduct with my fellow white guys from time to time, just to see where they stand on the Constitution and defending it. They’re almost always gung-ho Second Amendment guys, so I ask them if they support the Constitution’s right to bear arms.
That’s obviously bait for the trap; of course they support the right to bear arms. I’ll bring up that for the first three-and-a-half years of the Constitution, we didn’t have the right to bear arms. And we’ve only had an explicit personal right to bear arms for a just over a dozen years.
The better-educated know that the Constitution was ratified in June 1788 but the Bill of Rights wasn’t added until December 1791. The real fanatics know the Supreme Court only interpreted a personal right to bear arms in the Heller decision of 2008.
I’ll ask, “Were we America between 1788 and 1791, when we didn’t have a right to bear arms?”
Of course we were. That was an oversight. It was fixed. I agree with every point they make. “Our Constitution was flawed, so we amended it. Our Constitution is beautiful because it provides us a non-violent political way to amend it, right?” They agree.
Now I spring the trap. “Okay, let’s say, fifty years from now, an amendment is proposed to repeal the Second Amendment…”
Usually I get interrupted here. Never happen! Let ’em try! Come and take it! They’re already revealing themselves, but I soothe them. “Look, I don’t think it would ever happen and it’s not something I would ever support. But go along with me. Suppose an amendment is proposed to repeal the Second Amendment. It passes the House and Senate and it is ratified by three-quarters of the states. You no longer have the right to bear arms.”
They’re mad by this point, like one gets when someone blasphemes one’s religion.
“And the sheriff comes to your door to collect your now-illegal guns. What do you do?”
There are various responses here. The tough guy types go straight to “from my cold dead hands,” I respond with, “so, you’re going to murder the sheriff?”
Some talk of caching their guns, others of leaving the country. A few go into full-on civil war sequel territory. “Remember, in this scenario, you’re in a minority nationally and at most only 12 states agree with you.”
Almost every time I’ve played this game, the white guy I’m talking to refuses to abide by the newly-amended Constitution.
“So, you don’t really honor and respect the Constitution, do you? Remember, the repeal of the Second Amendment has gone through the exact same Constitutional process that created the Second Amendment. You just like the Constitution when it gives you something you like.”
Non-White Non-Men Have Always Known That The Constitution is a Verb
When I first met Madeline Martinez, my mentor into the world of marijuana law reform, we talked about the Constitution. She remarked, “that Constitution wasn’t written for me,” and I’ve never forgotten it.
When the Constitution was written, it already was a fairly perfect Union for us white guys. We could grab anything we wanted—other people’s land, other people’s labor, other people’s bodies—and everybody who wasn’t us knew their “proper place” below us.
So, of course most of us think of the Constitution as a noun. The system as designed worked quite fine for us, thank you.
Black people, though, fighting from slavery through Jim Crow to Civil Rights, know very well that the Constitution is a verb. That the promise of America lies not in what it is but what it can be—that more perfect Union.
Women know, too, that the Constitution is a verb, as they marched and fought for their place in the electorate, amending that Constitution to recognize their voting rights.
So, how fitting is it that a Black woman, Stacey Abrams, is probably more responsible than anybody for returning control of the US Senate to the Democrats? While Republicans scheme and sue and gerrymander and vote suppress to win elections, Abrams helped Democrats win the American way, by utilizing the tools of democracy bequeathed to us by our ancestors to simply win the most votes of the people.
The MAGA insurrectionists, so festooned in their red-white-and-blue iconography, so indoctrinated into The Big Lie and manifesting in militia cosplay, fought for the exact opposite of what those colors stand for, the peaceful transfer of power enshrined in that Constitution.
Non-white non-male non-Christian non-straight people have been ignored, abused, and killed by this government; they’ve seen their people slaughtered, their land appropriated, their cultures eradicated. They’ve been bombed, gunned down, raped, and lied to by officials acting under the authority of the Constitution.
They never gathered en masse to plant pipe bombs at the Capitol and assassinate Congressional leadership while beating a cop to death. They worked within the Constitution to change the Constitution, even though it was difficult, generational work.
Straight white Christian men lose one election and immediately seek to destroy democracy on the orders of a serially-bankrupt mobbed-up racist rapist.
Fellas, just admit it. You were conned. You fell for The Big Lie. Don’t be so invested in your sunk costs that you’re willing to destroy the Constitution you claim to love. Being a part of a democracy means you have to take the “L” sometimes—Lord knows we Democrats had to when Dubya was selected by the Supreme Court and when Trump was selected by the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote. Or when Obama was denied his third Supreme Court nominee, despite winning the popular vote twice. We have abided by actual anti-democratic effects of the Constitution when it reduced our power, whereas you have attempted to thwart democracy itself when it works as intended.
Take the “L,” Republicans. Then go back to the drawing board, erase the “Trump Rulez, AOC droolz” graffiti, and get to work crafting an ideology that can win votes from someone other than an old straight white rich 700 Club member.