The Good with the Bad

I don't have the entire Constitution memorized, though I think learning the thing by rote is a splendid idea. I'm pretty clear on certain portions, such as the Bill of Rights, where I know the concepts quite well and have some of the language down pat--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"--but I must confess to a certain shame that I do not have such crucial sections as the Full Faith and Credit Clause committed to memory. When I admit to ignorance of such things, I just don't feel like a Good American.

Many others who are ignorant of these things, however, seem to take pride in that ignorance. Or perhaps what they're doing isn't so much proclaiming ignorance as demonstrating their lack of appreciation for the ideals in the Constitution. Consider the recent brouhaha about the planned construction of Cordoba House, a Muslim community center and mosque, two blocks from the World Trade Center site. Objections to the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" have come furiously from a variety of quarters, including the two Republican candidates for the NY governor's office, largely on the basis of... um... well, it's kind of hard to be sure, but it seems to involve their feelings that Muslims should not be allowed to worship near the site of the September 11th attacks.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sir Bedivere concludes that since all wood burns, therefore everything that burns must be made of wood--including witches. The logic being used in this modern witch hunt is not dissimilar: all the terrorists who flew the planes into the WTC were Muslims, therefore all Muslims are terrorists. And we can't let the terrorists win!

Newt Gingrich attempted to link the name "Cordoba House" to Moorish triumphalism over Christianity, prompting this lovely bit of historical smackdown from medieval historian Carl Pyrdum., while Palin used Twitter to urge her followers to "refudiate" the mosque, a coinage she then attempted to justify by comparing herself to Shakespeare on the basis of his creation of new words. (To this last, I can only reply using my own new words: Ms. Palin, please fworkle your grangly wocking blibberdivang before you plock your worrigorgle completely.)

Even the usually admirable Anti-Defamation League jumped onto the woodpile, declaring its opposition to the construction of the mosque. Abraham Foxman, the ADL's president, even went so far as to say that opposition to the mosque might well be categorized "as irrational or bigoted," but that it shouldn't be built near the WTC anyway. Noting that this position contradicted the ADL's stated mission to oppose "unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens," political writer/TV reporter Fareed Zakaria decided to return the award (and the $10,000 honorarium) the ADL had presented him a few years ago for his actions in defense of the First Amendment.

That Amendment is why, in my layman's opinion, there is no Constitutional way for the government of the city, the state, or the country to deny permission for this construction. The government may not single out a particular faith to support or to suppress, period. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to his eternal credit, stepped up to make that point (and others) at length:

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question - should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another... We would betray our values - and play into our enemies' hands - if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists - and we should not stand for that.
But First Amendment controversies are nothing new; there are collisions between church and state on a seemingly daily basis, whether it's attempts to slide the book of Genesis into science classrooms or arguments about the constitutionality of nativity scenes. Other amendments create equally widespread uproar, particularly the Second, the Fourth, and the Fifth.

Recently, however, the political establishment has been howling about an Amendment that for nearly 150 years has been relatively well-regarded by the majority of observers: the 14th. Amendment Fourteen was one of the Reconstruction Amendments, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War and intended to enshrine in law the consequences of that conflict. The main theme of #14--the famous theme, anyway--is the principle of "equal protection under the law," but the whole first section is worth quoting:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

That first sentence, defining US citizenship, was an important necessity of the postwar era, establishing at a stroke that everyone born in the US, even those formerly enslaved, were in fact Americans. There were plenty of criteria that could be used--who your parents were, how much money you earned, how many loyalty oaths you signed, etc.--but Congress wisely chose a criterion that was clear and objective: where you were born. If you were born in the USA, you were an American. It didn't matter whether your parents were free or enslaved, native-born or immigrant, rich or poor. Your birth certificate was your proof of citizenship.

The Republican Party, quite legitimately, lists the passage of the 14th Amendment as one of its grand accomplishments. It is somewhat odd, then, to find a number of today's Republicans urging the nation to alter or abolish it, or at least to have hearings about the possibility of doing so. Senators Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John McCain and others have been clamoring for such hearings in hopes of doing away with birthright citizenship. Why? Because they don't want illegal immigrants having babies here; according to Amendment Fourteen, those babies are American citizens. And we can't let the illegal immigrants win!

The reasoning behind this clamor is nakedly political: since the Republican base is strongly opposed to illegal immigration, opposing birthright citizenship makes you look like you're trying to do something about it, while the extraordinary difficulty of altering the Constitution gives you political cover for failing to do something about it. (I should note that I am not opposed to doing something about illegal immigration; I just think the method under discussion is unlikely to work.) These Senators and their supporters may feel good about their law-and-order principles,  but I think they may not be considering the consequences of doing away with birthright citizenship.

But for the sake of argument, let's say we do get rid of it. Now: how do you prove you're an American?

"I just AM," you say. "I've never had to prove it before." Well, tough. Before you partake of any government services, we have to be sure you're legally entitled to them. What proof can you offer?

"Could I use a US passport?" you ask. Sure, that would help. If you had a passport. But not every American does, and to get one, you're going to have to give the government proof of citizenship--a task at which you are, let's remember, currently failing utterly.

"Well, I have a birth certifi--oh, yeah," you say. Yes, that may have cut the mustard before, but now it's proof of two things: diddly and squat. Ironically, if you had immigrated legally, you'd have naturalization papers, but because you didn't think ahead and allowed yourself to be born here, you've got nothing.

"This is ridiculous!" you whine. "My parents were both American citizens!" Oh, were they? Prove it.

"Fine! I will! I've got their birth certificates right here!" you exclaim in triumph--a triumph which is short-lived, as you suddenly recall that birthright is not enough to confer citizenship on your parents, either. For all you know, they were illegal aliens. Yes, no matter how far back in your family tree you go, you cannot offer any proof of citizenship on behalf of yourself or any of your ancestors.

There is no form of identification for American citizens. It doesn't exist; it never HAS existed; the United States of America has never REQUIRED that it exist. But if we get rid of birthright citizenship, we will have to MAKE it exist.

But perhaps I'm exaggerating. Obviously those Republicans who want to rewrite the 14th Amendment must have in mind some as-yet-undetermined means of determining citizenship. Perhaps they would simply issue every American an ID card. That would require creating an enormous new Federal agency to collect all the records and issue all the cards, as well as expanding law enforcement to ensure that only card-holders use government-funded projects such as libraries, public schools, and interstate highways. The cost would be considerable, and the authority of government agents would necessarily be broader, but of course no Republican would hesitate to demand that the government be expanded and more tax dollars be spent if it meant protecting Good Americans.

We may not know who those Good Americans are yet, but we can at least be sure that anyone who wants to limit our freedoms or waste our precious tax dollars is clearly not a Good American.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 10, 2010 11:19 AM.

Yes We Canton! was the previous entry in this blog.

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