The Bill of Rights
This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
It is one of the most important documents in human history, and yet few Americans know what it is, where it is located, or why it was necessary. In fact, a recent survey found many Americans who would willingly change the long-standing Bill of Rights simply to solve current, short term problems.
The Bill of Rights is the popular name for the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It is, in a way, the first major act by a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The Bill of rights came into being because the people demanded it. Their experience led them to distrust it, even a new kind of democratic government. They wanted some way to guarantee certain rights against encroachment by government or any other power. The first ten amendments list those rights and freedoms. They prohibit government from interfering with those rights under any pretense. And they command government to protect and promote those rights and freedoms.
The Constitution gives power to the majority. The Bill of Rights restricts the power in order to protect the minority, even if that minority is a single citizen.
If you set no other goals this year, KSL urges you to obtain a copy of the Constitution. Read the Bill of Rights. Discuss it with your family. Help them appreciate the rights and freedoms it guarantees.
Humanists of Utah expresses appreciation to KSL Radio and Television for their outstanding editorial on the bill of Rights (7/17/1991). Don Gale, VP News and Public Affairs for KSL, gave us permission to reprint the editorial.
Free Speech Park
Salt Lake City recently became the first city in the nation to dedicate a “First Amendment Park.” Located on the East side of the County complex (at the corner of State and 2100 South), the park features a speech podium and a stone monument with the First Amendment engraved as the background. Salt Lake Commissioner Mike Stewart told about 300 people attending the dedication that the free speech park will serve the same purposes as London’s Hyde Park and The Boston Common: a place where citizens can freely speak their minds. “First Amendment Park” is a project of the Thomas Jefferson Center of Free Expression, Charlottesville, Virginia, which hopes to erect similar parks around the nation.
The Epidemiology of Knowledge
All through history, there has been a pervasive idea that knowledge can hurt you. We have treated knowledge of certain facts like a disease, something that can spread like the pox and disfigure for life. Withholding information need not be cynical manipulation. It is often well-intentioned. As a matter of personal hygiene, you keep the ones you love from filth, because you don’t want to see them suffer.
The “bubble boy” is an extreme example in the medical world: born without a working immune system, he spent his life inside a sterile plastic bubble. Siddhartha Gautama, the later Buddha, was kept insulated from knowledge inside a pleasure garden for the first 29 years of his life.
The problem with this is that the bubble is as much a jail as a protective barrier. And if the patient/prisoner breaks out, he’s totally unprepared for dealing with germs of knowledge. Faced with the sudden truth that people grow sick and old and ugly and dead, it is not so strange that Gautama concluded that life is suffering, and that the best thing to strive for is to escape from depressing cycle of rebirth.
Public health officials cannot keep individuals from disease, so their preferred solution is to try and keep germs from reaching the individuals. Censors try to quarantine knowledge as well, not to keep people stupid, but to protect the innocent. The patron saint of all book burners was someone called Solimon. I wish I knew more about his background, but all I can tell you is his verdict of books: “If a book says the same as the Koran, it is superfluous. If it says something else than the Koran, it lies.”
Public health measures only work to the extent of our knowledge of diseases and how they spread. We can only hope that our officials will be able to tell bubonic plague from the common cold. We can only hope that they will not rely on witch burnings and shamanic rituals to keep us from falling ill.
There is reason to doubt our censors know enough about causes and effects of knowing. Should we keep the knowledge of how to make poison gas from spreading? Is it dangerous to show naked people in acts of love? Is it dangerous to show clothed people in acts of aggression? Will sex education lead to more promiscuity, to less venereal disease or both? So should we censor? And who should get to decide about what to censor?
Willfully exposing people to all kinds of diseases at once, “so they get used to it,” would be tantamount to murder.
Reality can be similarly overwhelming. I could sit down with a very young person and tell her some things I know: God and Santa do not exist; known life is but a fly speck on the map of the universe; a hundred years from now we’ll all be dead; there are people like Joseph Mengele, Stalin, Vlad the Impaler, and the Delhi sultans; all around you, and undetectable, are rapists, and molesters and loonies with guns, druggies, dealers, dunces and drunks; few people can resist taking advantage of a sucker; and that’s not all, sweetheart.
If I were to do that, the child would probably become a very scared person, unable to trust anyone, quite willing to hide behind walls, shoot first and ask questions later. In fact, I know there are a lot of scared people like that: we call them “macho.”
Rather than keeping knowledge away form people, I think we should prepare their minds to deal with it, the same way we prepare their bodies against killing diseases: by inoculating them when they are young, with carefully monitored doses of filth. That is no pleasure, neither for the giver nor for the receiver of painful knowledge. But it is more compassionate to rear people with little pock marks on their soul, people who can stand to know the truth, than to keep them untried, unblemished, dumb and happy. And fortunately for us, there is no knowledge so devastating that a mature human being cannot deal with it. Not that I know of, anyway.
You may have heard it already: Congress was unable to override the president’s veto on a bill that would repeal the gag rule. As a result, federal Title X assistance will only go to family planning organizations that agree not to mention abortion as an option in case of unwanted pregnancies. Does the Bill of Rights guarantee free speech to everybody but providers of medical information?
The Utah Planned Parenthood organization has decided that it owes its patients all the facts, not just the federally sanctioned ones. Not all its patients need abortion information: in fiscal year 1991, Planned Parenthood had 16,415 patients, only 1733 of whom came in for pregnancy testing. And only a fraction of those were so distressed by their pregnancy that a discussion of their options (adoption, parenthood, abortion) was called for. Even so, to bar one tenth of its patients from receiving “offensive” information, the government is denying PP one third of its former budget, money that was mainly used to provide reproductive health care to low-income women. In the end, that’s where the buck stops.
You can do something to help Planned Parenthood survive its budget crunch: nothing lofty, just bring your business to the people whose stand you support. If you are a woman, you should have an annual exam anyway; that’s the best way to prevent cervical, uterine and breast cancer. You could have that exam done by Planned Parenthood, rather than by your usual doctor, and pay the full fee of $40.00.
There is no standard exam for men (yet). They’ll just have to find another way to show their support: by bringing in their meaningful other, maybe?
What is Humanism?
There is no humanist catechism. There are the Humanist Manifestos, but those are historical documents, and explicitly posited as theses, not as dogma. Humanists at the local level have tried to define what is important to them. Here are some more experiments.
Humanism is the universally shared quest for a better life in our common world. Humanism is community based upon universal respect and mutual affirmation. Humanism is pluralistic and inclusive, open and creedless, democratic, practical, and tolerant.
From the newsletter of the Humanist Discussion Group in San Diego.
Humanism is an approach to living a fulfilling, ethical and sustainable life on earth without belief in supernatural beings or an afterlife. Humanists find joy and worth in seeking and discovering truth: in better understanding ourselves, our society, and our universe. We enjoy creating and experiencing things of beauty: music, art, literature, and other creative endeavors.
Humanists believe that humans are responsible for their own destinies. It is we who create heaven or hell on earth. We choose not to explain the world in supernatural terms, or to look to a supernatural being for salvation.
Humanist philosophy has evolved from the moral teachings of some of the great religions, and additional contributions from thinkers such as Democritus, Aristotle, Lucretius, Spinoza, Voltaire, John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Ingersoll, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell. It is still evolving; we are still searching for new insights.
Humanists seek truth rather than myth, understanding in a place of dogma, reason rather than blind faith, hope rather than despair, self acceptance rather than guilt, tolerance in the place of fear, democracy rather than authoritarianism, equal opportunity rather than quotas, love instead of hatred, and kindness toward others instead of selfishness.
Humanists believe in the fundamental goodness of humankind, and we strive for the fullest realization of human potential. We seek the highest ethical standards, not because we believe we must expiate some original sin, not because we live in fear of a supernatural power, not because we are bribed by visions of paradise in afterlife, but because we simply believe that it is the best way to live. Our goal is to construct a civilization in harmony with our environment, in which each human life can be one of variety, challenge, happiness, and fulfillment.
From “Humanism: A Brief Description” prepared by The Humanists of Colorado.
Who is a Humanist?
If you believe:
- That human beings are capable of making responsible decisions for themselves.
- That moral values are formed within the framework of human experience.
- That, as we reach for maturity, we need no supernatural authority to guide us.
Then, though you may not have known it, you are humanist.
From the San Diego Humanist, newsletter of the Humanist Association of San Diego.
What is a Humanist?
A Humanist is one who, in the basic deliberations and decisions for action in life, has set aside faith and revelation and dogmatic authority, and chooses instead human experience and reason as grounds for belief and action, putting human good–the good of self and others–as the ultimate criterion of right and wrong, with due concern for all other living things.
Morris Storer, quoted in Contact!, the newsletter of the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego
Mission Statement Critique
Overall your mission statement looks pretty good, and I agree it’s a good idea to state succinctly what your basic premises and goals are. Since you ask, I do have some criticism that might yield some improvement. I have a problem with the rhetorical style; it’s a bit too preachy and arrogant in spots for my taste. While I sympathize with the feeling behind the assertive stance, I prefer language that is more careful to avoid the flavor of a dogmatic religion.
My perspective is that of an atheist, and a fairly militant one at that. So who am I to complain about being too arrogant, right? Well, I think it’s just a matter of being sensitive to what I don’t like about religion. I don’t like the authoritarian approach to knowledge. I prefer science over religion, and that means seeking objectivity and verifiability as goals. I’m suspicious of anyone and any group that is too smug in their certainty and tells me they are going to “enlighten” me. It’s not that I’m such a know-it-all, I might well be enlightened, but it’s the presumptuousness of stating it as an introduction.
Statement one says you support the “goals and policies” of the AHA. Not a bad idea since you are a part of the AHA, but it sounds a bit like a statement of faith. Statement two defines the philosophy in terms of the Manifestos, calling them “knowledge” rather than a credo or dogma. Unfortunately, the manifestos are written like a creed. They are a statement of beliefs and assertions that we are asked to accept. Isn’t that a doctrine? They may be derived from knowledge, but they are not knowledge themselves. What is really being offered is a world view, an approach or orientation for living, not a law of nature.
Statement three is the goal to “identify” all Utah humanists and “gather” them into AHA. The humanists I know are pretty independent and many of them may not want to be gathered. The statement is too presumptive, too aggressive. Couldn’t we just let humanists know we are available and invite them to join us?
Statement four “recognizes” that humanism is satisfying and positive and “declares” the “intention” to spread “the knowledge” of humanism. That’s too pushy, too presumptive for me. It has too much of the flavor of the manifestos. Perhaps we could “find that” humanism is satisfying rather than “recognize” that it is. After all it isn’t for everyone. Maybe you could work to “increase awareness” of humanism as an alternative and provide information about humanism, rather than spreading the “knowledge.”
Statement five says we will “educate” our membership. It’s just the way its phrased that bothers me. so what, now we’re educated? I’m probably being too picky here, but maybe we could soften that by “offering education information” to our members.
Nuts! One thing I’ve always disliked about AHA is the endless nitpicking over minor details, and here I go just like the rest. It’s basically a good set of statements, and you’re doing a good job. If this helps, good. If not, please don’t worry about it.
Humanists and the Bill of Rights
As a high school counselor I read many essays written by seniors who are applying at various universities, hoping their thoughts will persuade the admissions officers to grant them entrance. I was impressed by a recent composition wherein a young woman wrote:
“I don’t want to go to college just to take classes, graduate and get a job. I want to taste the reality of knowledge as I drink it in. I want to sit in a quiet library and think about the meaning of life. I want to debate with friends about current Constitutional issues. And I want to write poetry in the shade of an old autumn tree.”
This young woman’s desires are a beautiful example of the human need for free expression and why free expression matters. It matters because it encourages mental growth and character development. She will learn who she is because she lives in a country where she is free to take the journey to self-discovery. Her self-discovery is made possible because our American founders had enough faith in human nature to set up a system of government based on liberty of conscience and the freedom to explore new ideas.
Our founders tried a “Great Experiment” by breaking the bonds from religion, believing that it was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having and maintaining good government.
They had hope–hope that citizens, left to their own particular ways will behave well toward one another. Their belief in potential human virtue underlies the whole idea in the Bill of Rights. (Life Magazine, Fall 1991)
But because human nature has a dark side, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” (James Madison), the early Americans also chose to have a Bill of Rights attached to their Constitution. It was the mechanism created for protecting what they believe to be the fundamental human rights – rights to which human beings are entitled simply by having been born human.
Speech, Press, Religion, and Assembly.
These great freedoms encompassed in the First Amendment were conceived to be the most valuable. James Madison believed:
Conscience is the most sacred of all property, being a natural and unalienable right. Government can give no title to invade a man’s conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or withhold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged.
The freedoms are the “zones of freedom into which the majority was forbidden entry. The Bill of Rights marks those boundaries and zones. It sets legal limits of government’s power” (Ira Glasser, “Civil Liberties” 1991).
Practicing the principles in the Bill of Rights is a fairly recent happening:
For over 150 years the Bill of Rights was paid lip service in patriotic orations and ignored in the marketplace. It wasn’t until after World War I that the Supreme Court began the process of giving real meaning to the Bill of Rights (Life).
In the 1950s we had the liberal Supreme Court which used its influence to expand the rights of individuals against government.
It was a force that ended to thwart the established power. Today’s Supreme Court gives the government great latitude; it prefers to ratify choices made by those already in power (Newsweek, July 8, 1991).
The court is also reversing precedent. Judge Rehnquist wrote, “Adherence to precedent is the preferred course, but not an inexorable demand.”
It is clear that our attention must now be directed toward state legislative bodies and state supreme courts. This will be difficult in Utah, because the overwhelming majority (90%) of our legislators are of one religion, which is authoritarian and patriarchal in nature.
If we as humanists believe that the Bill of Rights was adopted to protect individual freedoms from the tyranny of the majority, then we must become resolute.
We must remember that the American people’s resolve and resistance are what will determine the course of liberty from now into the next century. The Bill of Rights today is about those people who work to bring our ideals into line, about those who are willing to fight, often at great personal risk and sacrifice, to claim the rights that they have been denied. It is about persistence and stamina, and efforts to transform the principle of liberty in to the practice of liberty (Glasser).
In all our idealism, we Americans must remember that our system of government is fallible. Innocent people have been hurt and punished for crimes they did not commit. But it is the best system thus far. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst system devised by the wit of man, except for all the others.” We can only hope to refine its principles through humanistic practices.
As humanists we can celebrate this 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights by:
Rededicating ourselves to the habits of free inquiry, skeptical scrutiny, exposure of government actions to public view and support for the right to express all opinions including, especially, those we find personally distasteful.
In a democracy, opinions that upset everyone are sometimes exactly what we need …. We should also be teaching our children the scientific method and the Bill of Rights (Carl Sagan, Parade Magazine, April 8, 1991)
We as humanists must make sure that our children understand why our civil liberties are essential, not only so they can feel free to “write poetry in the shade of an old Autumn tree,” but to preserve the original ideals an enliven America’s soul.