Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading The Federalist Papers: Finding the Roots of the American Democratic Ideal

It's no news to any person with half a brain (even a sleep-deprived Mommy Brain) that American democracy is in the tank -- whether it's been that way for decades or simply since George Bush took office is a matter for debate, and not one I'm particularly interested in.

The point is, it's gone. Our laws are written and passed mostly by lobbyists, who pay vast amounts of money to the right people in Congress to advance or halt legislation to the benefit of their company or industry. (The EU recently got a taste of what American citizens take for granted: the constant presence of these lobbyists pressing for entrance to the office of people writing the new chemical safety standards for the EU.) Politicians' relationship with citizens and voters is a depressing, constant rehash of nonsense sound bites and "us vs. them" pandering. The corruption behind our voting system is so bare that practically everyone accepts it as given -- what's worse, nobody thinks they can do anything about it.

It's hard to remember these days that there was a point to America, when the creation of its democracy was something new and revolutionary and almost idealistic. Not perfect by a long shot, but striving to be something better than what had come before.

I'd like to get back in touch with these ideals, to taste again the intellectual and hopeful basis behind the (now failed) American democratic experiment. So this year I started reading The Federalist Papers, and I'm using this site to mull over thoughts and responses to the ideas set forth in these documents. Please feel free to join the conversation.

A little background: Most of the Western world knows of the US Constitution, and even some of its Bill of Rights and Amendments. The document is used, supposedly, as the factual and philosophical/theoretical basis of every American law. But at the time it was passed, the Constitution did not have universal popular support. Its tenets were fiercely debated, by those who believed it gave too many rights to the federal government rather than the states (for those who weren't aware, the United States is run under a system called "federalism," whereby certain powers are delegated to the states and others to the national central government -- a balance that has shifted to the national level consistently since the country's formation), and by those who believed that a stronger central government was needed for the country to function properly.

The Federalist Papers are a collection of letters written in the late 1700s under the pseudonym Publius by pro-Constitution advocates Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. In the letters these three men laid out the philosophical, political, practical, and moral reasons why the country should adopt the Constitution.

Over the centuries, the US government turned repeatedly to these letters to further understand the founders' intent behind the words and laws of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has used the papers extensively to interpret laws and pass judgment.

So, despairing over the current state of American democracy, I'm going to live in the past for a while, to get back in touch with the bedrock shoring up the often illusory idea that this democracy has striven for something wonderful, even if it failed to reach it.

There are 85 of these letters. I hope to read and respond to one a week, followed by a reading of the Anti-Federalist Papers, written by those who at the time supported, instead of the Constitution, a weaker central government under the Articles of Confederation.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why Pooplosophy? What is Pooplosophy anyway?

A few months ago fellow Mother-with-Brain Julia and I were sitting with our little ones (then 18 months and 9 months, respectively) in a hotel room in a small Austrian village. While the babies slept the two of us tried, quietly, to devour as many pages as possible of our books before the call of mommy-hood was again upon us. I was reading a collection of travel essays by Welsh writer Jan Morris, and Julia was reading a biography of Susan Sontag written by a man she'd gone to university with (Julia, not Susan Sontag). As it was in German, and I only have conversational German, I couldn't read it over her shoulder, so Julia related some tidbits to me.

We spoke in whispers, trying not to wake the two little people, treasuring, as mothers do, a few minutes of adult conversation. We talked about Susan Sontag, and our envy and awe at the people she'd been surrounded by during the early period of her intellectual development. And I think we were both somewhat saddened by the lack of such stimulation in our own lives. "Where," asked Julia, "is the new thought going on now?"

In other words--I thought--where are all the thinkers right now? The philosophers? The post-post-modernists? Where are the intellectuals? Just sitting it out in universities? Who knew? We didn't.

For all the attractions universities hold for those of intellectual bent, I'm not entirely sure that their campuses are generating new thought. I have seen few new ideas come out of the academe, as much as I revere it and often long to be back. They generate great amounts of energy, yes, and enthusiasm, and a whole lot of people hoping to graduate into good careers. New ideas is even less true of think tanks, which seem to exist purely to perpetuate their own unyielding axioms: capitalism is good, capitalism is evil, socialism never works. Whatever.

When I got back to the States, Julia and I exchanged emails--in between taking care of sick children and managing households and visiting friends and dealing with the singular fact of life for the modern mother: it is at all times both extremely chaotic and on the verge of being unbearably dull.

We returned to lives surrounded on one side by other mothers who care little for new thought, or philosophy, or anything beyond diapers, and on the other side by people who grow glazed expressions every time our children's teething troubles are mentioned. It was great, we told each other, to spend a few short days with a person who could move smoothly from intellectual conversation to the trials of shifting a baby onto solid foods and sleeping through the night. It was a rare thing.

It was a rare thing. And why should it be? Why is it that, once a woman has a baby she is expected to either a) give up not only her career but all interesting outlets for her mind (except whatever time she can steal back to read) because clearly people who spend their days wiping spit-up don't have any interest in thinking, or b) spend six weeks to six months awash in the glow of motherhood, followed by dumping the baby in day care so she can go back to subsuming her maternal instincts for the nine-to-five grind of an office workday (often in the case in America, since we have no support system for working parents)?

Mothers are not expected to be intellectual. Wise, yes, in the cheesy Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul style that people can smile over in bed and ignore completely in the day-to-day workings of the world. But intellectual, no. Not a stay-at-home, full-time mother.

Nor are they expected to be philosophical. Or Zen masters.

And yet, it is my daily daydream, my fantasy, to be allowed months on end shut up in book-lined rooms, divining the nature of humanity; or to sit quietly for hours or days at a time on mountaintops, alone, divining the nature of the universe. Sure, I'd love to do that. Historically women were excluded from these pursuits. Why? Because--and I ask anyone to refute me--secretly men knew that they could only achieve great heights of spiritual or intellectual achievement if someone else was dealing with feeding a family, washing dishes, worrying about the health of babies, nurturing wounded feelings, cleaning floors ... in other words, women were busy making life happen so that men could go off doing both useful and useless things, like achieving Nirvana or starting wars.

But I'll tell you what. You can go live in a Buddhist monastery for a year and think you've found enlightenment. You can study philosophy or mathematics for a decade and think you've discovered answers. But spend one day with a colicky baby and all your wisdom will shoot right out the window. Because if you can't maintain an inner peace, or pull on sociological studies to give you strength and humor, while a baby is screaming for no reason at all and a toddler has just smeared poop on the bathtub and your partner is annoyed because dinner is cold and everyone is coming down with the flu, then you don't get it.

The new thought is going to come from mothers. Not only do they truly run the world (but never have the time to acknowledge it), but there is no wisdom greater than theirs, there is no group more equipped to understand the great philosophies and the great thoughts of the past, and to know what will work for the future.

The new philosophy will involve all aspects of life, from the dirty diaper to the book-lined study. Because it will be defined by mothers. With brains.