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“Tear Up The Constitution!”

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

“The US Constitution’s great gift to
the cause of international democracy is contained in its first
three words. The rest of it can go…. Checks and balances, separation
of powers, and the rest would have to defend themselves in the
court of democratic opinion, something they have never had to
do since ratification. All would be considered guilty until proven
innocent.” Thus Daniel Lazare, a well-known leftist writer.

You can find the latest edition of Lazare’s
suggested itinerary towards a socialist America in the October
Harper’s, under the title “Your Constitution Is Killing
You — A Reconsideration of the Right to Bear Arms,” where
he invites us to face what he regards as the obvious connection
between 240 million guns and “the increase of violence in
our culture.” Lazare regards anyone who does not connect
these two “facts” as a person “determined to avoid”
something utterly true. This supposed increase in violence is
established by evocation of the killings at Columbine High, and
a kindred episode in Conyers, Georgia shortly thereafter, with
“crazed day traders and resentful adolescents mowing down
large numbers of their fellow citizens every few weeks.”

If we are to believe Lazare these killers
come to us courtesy of a “messy and unruly…pre-modern
pre-modern” constitution that obstructs the “neat and
orderly” society desired by all good liberals. Because of
the regrettable reverence in which this same constitution is
held, “we” are forced to stand “helplessly by
while ordinary people are gunned down by a succession of heavily
armed maniacs”. CounterPunch is not sure who the “we”
is here. The time we most vividly remember as an occasion for
standing helplessly by while ordinary people were gunned down
by heavily armed maniacs was when we all watched the Branch Davidians
burn. And later we had to watch the federal building in Oklahoma
City crumbling into rubble in revenge. Should we ban fertiliser
and rent-a-trucks?

As we shall see, Lazare has an agenda which
he does not disclose to the genteel readers of Harpers, but let
us stay for a moment with his premise that random acts of bloodstained
violence derive from the right to bear arms, protected by the
Second Amendment. After all, it wasn’t until the late l960s that
the state — perturbed by civic commotion and the specter of
black power — began its first effort in many decades to impose
any conditions on gun ownership. Why wasn’t the Second Amendment
creating Columbines in the l950s, when kids would take guns to
school because they were going to ROTC class later in the day?
One could more convincingly connect the 240 million guns and
the culture of violence to the vast military adventures of the
past 60 years, to the training and deployment of lethal force
by the state, guarding its interests abroad and at home.

But in fact we’re not sure whether Lazare
is truly interested in gun control, as anything other than a
fulcrum for heaving the whole constitution into the trashcan.
He takes good care in his Harper’s essay to emphasize that liberal
revisionist attempts to exclude an individual’s right to bear
arms from the Second Amendment are no longer sustainable and
that the tide of modern constitutional scholarship has flowed
strongly toward the views of the gun owners. To get rid of the
Second Amendment, he says, you have to attack the constitution
full bore. To understand Lazare’s strategy we have to go back
to another essay, published in New Left Review, where we find
the excited phrases quoted in our first paragraph.

Lazare’s theme here is that we are presently
enduring “a growing crisis of American democracy”,
a phrase which remindeds us of a kindred “crisis of democracy”
detected a generation ago by scholars in the pay of Nelson Rockefeller.
Indeed, Lazare cites one of these same scholars, Sam Huntington,
as the authority for the notion that it was the Puritans who
transported across the Atlantic these pre-modern, messy checks,
balances and separation of powers that obstruct the untrammeled
exercise of popular sovereignty. Lazare should have remembered
that Huntington was one of the intellectuals who dreamed up the
strategic hamlets strategy in the Vietnam war, and that it takes
just that sort of mindset to think that the constitution was
shipped over in a container from eighteenth century England.

“Separation of powers” and “checks
and balances” described something very different than the
baggage brought along by Puritans intent on establishing a church-state
based on covenant theology. The phrases described two centuries
of American political experience in the ambit of British power,
French power, Spanish power, Iroquois power, Cherokee power,
thirteen colonies — with most colonies divided into Eastern
and Western factions. This long experience is what the constitution
embodies. And this is a different experience from the English,
or the French or the Italian, just as those experiences differ
from each other. But Lazare regrets this! How he casts envious
eyes at the constitutional modernity of Western Europe! How he
despises even the Bill of Rights (at which English constitutional
reformers constantly cast envious glances) as either “embarassing”,
“irrelevant” or “hopelessly obscure”. In
the latter instance he refers to the ninth amendment which most
splendidly declares that liberty is not restricted to the freedoms
guaranteed in previous amendments.

To Lazare, the messy constitution has been
a bar to socialism, whose properties he mostly seems to conceive
of in terms of “efficiency” , a quality similarly revered
by the New Dealers who imported much of their modernity from
Mussolini’s Italy. Lazare reserves some of his haughtiest jibes
for “localism”. He bristles with contempt for America’s
“83,000 local governments, everything from city councils
and school boards to such exotica as library boards… All are
elected, all are largely autonomous, and all are intensely jealous
of their ancient constitutional liberties”.

Lazare’s equally overweening about “well-heeled
civil-liberties professionals” who incur his insults for
somehow distracting revolutionary energies from the task of properly
democratising the political structure. Has he any idea how hard
public defenders,the infantry of this “vast US civil establishment”
work; how few they are? You’d think the ACLU, the National Lawyers’
Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights were infested
by as many billionaires as Forbes’ annual list of capitalist
titans. But then, Lazare has no time for any discussion of capitalism,
reserving his abuse purely for the constitution which he apparently
takes to be capitalism’s surrogate and essential expression.

Let us leave Lazare, for the time being, amid
this contradiction. For him, as for many leftists or liberals,
the American political landscape is a place of terror, infested
by heavily armed, pre-modern barbarians. Yet he simultaneously
yearns for a convention that would place the entire constitution
and amendments under review. What does he think the balance of
forces is in our society in on the edge of the millennium? And
if he trusts the masses, why does he simultaneously so fear and
despise them?

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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