Reimagining American Community

93476-robert-mugabeLess than a week ago, Zimbabwe adopted a new national constitution.  The preamble:

We the people of Zimbabwe,

United in our diversity by our common desire for freedom, justice and equality, and our heroic resistance to colonialism, racism and all forms of domination and oppression,
Exalting and extolling the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives during the Chimurenga / Umvukela and national liberation struggles,
Honouring our forebears and compatriots who toiled for the progress of our country,
Recognising the need to entrench democracy, good, transparent and accountable governance and the rule of law,
Reaffirming our commitment to upholding and defending fundamental human rights and freedoms,
Acknowledging the richness of our natural resources,
Celebrating the vibrancy of our traditions and cultures,
Determined to overcome all challenges and obstacles that impede our progress,
Cherishing freedom, equality, peace, justice, tolerance, prosperity and patriotism in search of new frontiers under a common destiny,
Acknowledging the supremacy of Almighty God, in whose hands our future lies,

Resolve by the tenets of this Constitution to commit ourselves to build a united, just and prosperous nation, founded on values of transparency, equality, freedom, fairness, honesty and the dignity of hard work,
And, imploring the guidance and support of Almighty God, hereby make this Constitution and commit ourselves to it as the fundamental law of our beloved land.

Of the roughly 200 sovereign nations we got kicking around today, around 125 of them have written national constitutions; the US constitution is the oldest.  It’s a powerful tool, a constitution is, based on the Biblical idea of the written covenant.  And there is an overwhelming sense among nearly everyone who uses the word that A Written Constitution Is A Good Thing.  More conservative commenters note that It Must However Be Combined With A Culture Of Constitutionalism.

But can we say that in the abstract?  Surely you can’t say that A Written Constitution Is A Good Thing any more than you can say A Written Contract Is A Good Thing.  Depends on what it says, right?  To worship the fact of a constitution, as though it’s a technology that by itself will generate good government, must be to miss something… If you are making a covenant, with whom are you making it?  If you are making a contract, what are the terms?  Democracy as a procedure can’t guarantee justice or mercy; neither can constitutionalism.  We can’t use a technique– any technique– to get around the need for good government, and this means, among other things, good governors: magistrates who reflect the character of the best Magistrate, whose magistracy is in fact celebrated (it would just be weird if I didn’t mention this, given the timing) on Palm Sunday.

Could it be that a major problem in Zimbabwe has been not only an imperfect constitution; not only a lack of “constitutionalism,” but …Robert Mugabe?

I’m going to quote William F. Buckley here, and you can all just take deep breaths because even a stopped clock, etcetera.  Also it’s early Buckley.  “It used to be,” he wrote,

that subject matter had precedence over method.  But modish philosophical systems, notably logical positivism, whose rise has coincided with and to a certain extent made possible the rise of contemporary liberalism by providing it with its metaphysical base, have effected a revolution.  Method is king– because things are “real” only in proportion as they are discoverable by the scientific method; with the result that method logically directs all intellectual (to which we subordinate moral and metaphysical) traffic.

The consequences of the instrumental view of life and the transfer of attention from subject matter to method are instantly apparent in various articles of the liberal creed.  Our preoccupation these days… is not so much with the kind of society democracy brings forth in a given political situation, as with democracy itself…

(Up from Liberalism, 1959)

Good government, surely, depends on just laws–i.e. the content of one’s constitution– and on the habits and traditions of a people that incline it to obey the law.  If that is what is meant by constitutionalism and a culture of constitutionalism, well and good.  If constitutionalism is used as a tool in the acknowledgment that we humans tend to be crappy at not being tyrants, that is good also.  If it is an end in itself… then you’re trying to build content on process; the process of constitution-making.  And that never works.

About the Author
Born and raised on Manhattan, a small island in the Atlantic, Susannah Black received a degree from Amherst College and another one from Boston University. She has written for The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Amherst Magazine, The L Magazine, and (in her young and foolish libertarian days) National Review. Having moved back to the New York area, she is now taking her stand in Central Queens, helping to run a sort of boarding facility/rental commune/household for her relatives and friends out of her great-grandparents’ big old house. She is also obsessed with tall ships and in the summers can be found helping to sail a schooner in New York Harbor. She blogs at