I grew up thinking about our Constitutional rights as something akin to what Moses brought back from the mountain. I felt as if they were somehow sacred– as if handed down from God. The rights in our Constitution seemed to come from America's version of Moses' stone tablets. Conversely, if something was not a part of those founding documents, then it must not be worthy. Much of that, I'm sure, was generated from the way that American history is taught. The Founders are portrayed as almost super-human men. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Ben Franklin. Their names ring with the stature of some of our nation's greatest people: our nation's original rock stars!
As I have grown older and learned to better understand how our country works, I have reconsidered this concept of rights – as well as the men who drafted them. I have come to the conclusion that our rights are clearly earthly/human concepts – developed out of a decidedly political process as opposed to anything from "on high". As such, they deserve to be thought about that way. To start, it is absolutely critical that the aura of infallibility be removed from our Founders. With all due respect, they were mere human beings – no different than you and me. They may have been called upon to perform great deeds, but they also – no doubt – suffered from their share of moral failures and peccadilloes as well. I've always wondered how the Founders could be considered so right about everything related to our founding documents, yet so wrong in having the sensibility to think it OK to own and dehumanize other human beings.
It seems foolish to think that anyone, however brilliant and prescient, could contemplate the ways this nation has evolved. Jefferson, quite clearly for example, could not imagine 2006. In writing about the concept of integration, he said "deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites - ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained . . . the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties (would) produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race." Through contemporary ears, Jefferson sounds like the most virulent of racists as opposed to one of our most beloved statesmen. (Go figure!)
If the men who established American rights were "mere mortals", then is there any way that the rights themselves that came from them are anything more? Perhaps we should consider our rights in a more organic fashion. That is, as thoughtful Americans, perhaps we should critically evaluate our current menu of rights – adding and subtracting to meet the needs and sensibility of contemporary America. In psychology, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs suggests that people have to secure their most basic needs before worrying about others. For example, you've got to breathe before you can worry about self-esteem or self-actualization. This concept would seem to apply to rights as well. We have the right to free speech, and the freedom of religion, and the right to a "speedy trial", but do those rights secure our most crucial societal and human needs? What good is the right to free speech if you are struggling just to put food on the table? Is a speedy trial more important than a legal system free of bias and fraud? We are told that we are a democracy, yet Bush v. Gore and electronic voting seem to challenge that.
Let's briefly consider the following rights:
Seriously, can anyone say that the right to bear arms, for example, approaches any of the above with respect to the ability to lead someone toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Many of us voraciously defend some of our current rights, yet excuse exploitation that flows from not being protected from much more critical issues.
This country was founded by wealthy white men for wealthy white men. Naturally, they constructed the rules (our laws, rights, etc.) to serve their interests and to sustain their position. No doubt, the United States of America has become more populist over the generations. Perhaps a 21st Century Bill of Rights needs to be constructed to codify the evolution of our thinking to include protection of ALL Americans. To be clear, these proposed rights are not meant to take anything away from anyone. They are, however, designed to create the even playing field that our original documents profess. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Those are their words, not mine.
Martin Luther Kind said "Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy". A 21st Century Bill of Rights would take us a long way toward that end.
That's our challenge. That's our opportunity!