Saturday, July 11, 2009

Zen and the art of constitution maintenance

Zen Buddhists use a meditative device called a kōan in their spiritual practice. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in the woods where there is no one to hear it —does it make a sound? We've all heard these. Essentially these kōans are paradoxical questions without one single objectively correct response. They are meant to enlighten in the asking —not the answer.

I am put in mind of these imponderables "inaccessible to rational understanding" as we've found ourselves discussing the Honduran "constitutional coup" here on this blog and as that conversation begins to develop around the country.

There is a less subtle mind that simply sees the events of the last weekend in June in Honduras as a military coup. Soldiers wearing ski-masks showed up one early morning, shot off their guns and dragged the president of the country away in his pajamas. The democratically elected president of Honduras was ushered out of office and out of the country at gunpoint.

Seems like a coup, sure enough.

The subsequent actions of the Honduran government and the newly installed replacement president might still give one to read the situation as obvious. The crackdown on the supporters of the ousted president who turned out to protest —the cracking of a few skulls, the arrest of quite a few of those protesters (and the journalists who were noticing) —shutdown of dissenting media outlets —even suspension of the constitution's core civil liberty protections. I know it seems like a coup —a plain old military coup.

But of course there are two sides to any question —and nothing is as simple as it seems. We are told, by the newly installed regime, that the military's actions were at the behest of the courts and the congress and that it was the president they deposed —President Zelaya— who was the threat to the country and its constitution (you know —the one they just gutted).

Zelaya sought to amend the constitution to allow himself to seek a second term in office —something expressly forbidden in the Honduran constitution. He had sought a non-binding plebiscite to demonstrate popular support for changing that provision and the congress and the courts had ruled that even that polling would be illegal.

And just so as to conclude all consideration of the question it is pointed out that this Zelaya was friendly with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuala... Enough said.

But here is where the inscrutable subtleties arrive. This Honduran Constitution we speak of, let us consider the art of its maintenance.

The government backed by the military (and vice versa) is correct to point out that the Honduran constitution expressly forbids amendment with regard to the president's term limits. In fact it is illegal to even "support" such a change —to support anyone who advocates such a thing—to even think about it.

Think about that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 4th

Independence Day. The country comes round to its birthday again. There will be parades and fireworks, baseball, beer and backyard barbecue, images of eagles, red and white stripes, stars on a dark blue background.

With every birthday there comes the occasion for reflection. We might consider our history with pride for what is best in us, and even rue one or two failings. We might ask ourselves if we are old, or still very young.

Every birthday brings us back to our beginnings, and as I write this I find myself pondering that moment that we’ve chosen to identify as our birth, as our first national breath. It was the signing of a document. We don’t mark our beginning as the day of some decisive military victory, or the day some treaty finally recognized our existence. We mark it as the day we declared our independence, and the day we found some powerful language to define our meaning.

I think what makes that moment in our history, and our living understanding of that history, meaningful is something of the poetry in that document we signed 233 years ago. It is something of that poetry that establishes the moment of birth for our country as something more than the date some disaffected gentry signed a pact against taxes and unfair commerce, or made a call for better representation of their interests in government. Had the Declaration of Independence merely been such a listing of grievances and some carefully worded political resolution, I don’t think we would celebrate July 4th in the way we do today. But there is something powerful happening with those words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there is something still deeper as our founding promise is sealed with the pledge of our “lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” There is stirring music in that language, there is also something of substance to those words.

From the very first sentence, we define the American adventure as an episode “in the course of human events.” With those opening few words we state that the charter of this nation and its subsequent fate will be about more than one nation or its privileged people, but rather that these will be a comment on humanity itself. We go on to declare certain “self-evident” truths, and that in among these is the fundamental truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These rights are not conferred by the state, or defined as the due privilege of some select group. They are not ratified by our Declaration of Independence, they are simply, and profoundly, acknowledged, in truth, to exist for everyone.

This Declaration of ours is not about what it means to be an an American. Rather, it is about what we take it to mean to be a human being.