I am working on a fifteen-year-old Mac. It had two other owners before I got it. It’s a hand-me-down but I love it because it has been a solid workhorse. And I understand it. But everything is out of date, the processor is slow and the operating system is written in Cuneiform and the applications in various other dead languages. I am told that the best porn is completely unavailable to me because I can’t update my Flash Player. I’m the picture of obsolescence. The slang of the internet has evolved beyond my quaint vocabulary.
I love this old Mac like I love our Constitution. They have both served well in their times. But they are both out of date. They have both been adaptable in a fast changing world but they are now at the edge of their capacity to change. Modifications and upgrades and cludges and amendments are no longer effective and are slowing the system with entropy. It’s time for some new hardware. It’s amazing what a short distance it is between Cutting Edge and Dark Ages.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t expect the Constitution to last forever any more than Steve Jobs thought that the Apple II would be state-of-the-art forever. In fact, Jefferson was surprised that our Republic lasted past his lifetime. He recommended a revolution every generation or so. From time to time everything needs a hardware upgrade.
We have become attached to our Constitution in the same way that I’m attached to this old Mac. I know it’s little quirks and idiosynchronicities. I know how to make it work for me. I’m comfortable with it. Nation-years and computer-years are ways to measure relative life-span much as we speak of dog-years. A decade is an Epoch in computer years. By the measure of World History, a long life for a democracy is a couple of centuries. Our Constitution and this Mac are both old. The dog has already died.
Things wear out. Clothes, machines, relationships, technologies and institutions all wear out eventually. We mend or repair them when we can but at some point they need to be replaced. Our Constitution, as much as we love and revere it, is an abacus trying to function in a world of Cray Supercomputers. When the chips for our governmental computer were designed, it took two weeks to get a message from Boston to Baltimore. There were less people in the whole country than live in NYC today and most were farmers. Our system worked very well in that world. Most government activity happened at the local level. Regional jurisdictions like States made sense. We don’t live in that world anymore.
Since the beginning of our Federal Republic, there has been systemic tension between the central government and the States. It’s built in to our Constitution. From the very beginning it has been the weak point in our Democracy, cause of strife and disagreement and even war. Today this institutional contradiction threatens to once again rend the fabric of our society. We see it in the continuing health care battle and in the budget clashes between States and Feds over who will bear the costs of our social welfare programs.
We have never quite resolved the ticklish issue of whether we are one unified nation or an association of individual states. The argument plagued the Founders and ever since it has confounded our Courts and even led to Civil War. ‘States Rights’ and National priorities have been in perpetual conflict. The two viewpoints have rubbed against each other like tectonic plates for over two centuries. We can always hear the rumbling of an impending quake. It has become the background noise for our Democracy, humming and squealing like the fan in my outdated Mac.
The Poet’s Eye sees two possible outcomes from the structural conflict between State and Federal governments. They both depend on money. One is that our Federal Government will go broke and collapse and the States will form smaller federations or become their own countries. Texas and Alaska would prosper in this scenario. The other possibility is that the States will go bankrupt under the weight of Federal regulation sans finance and become vestigial and largely symbolic entities like sports teams.
The second outcome is more likely because it better refers to our real world. Regionalism is no longer a workable option. Our world is smaller than it was in the Age of Regionalism. When there is a tsunami in Asia, it pours into the living rooms of people throughout the world. As our technology evolves, it will be harder and harder to maintain regional differences and our two-tiered system of State and Federal governments will make less and less sense. The persuasion of mass electronic media has homogenized our nation in the same way that it will inevitably homogenize the world. The memes conveyed by means of television drama and comedy shows and movies and magazines are the templates for our uniformity. Thanks to television and the advertising industry, the American Ethic is pervasively deployed in every corner of our country. We all ‘know’ the mean streets of NY and L.A. as well as Andy Griffith’s small town America. Embedded in every minute of programming are a set of coded values, the memes that we all internalize. No matter where you live in America, you have your Miranda Rights memorized. Teenagers in every zip code know the intricate and infinite implications of the word ‘Whatever.’ Regionalism is no longer relevant except in cooking or marketing.
Nothing would put a gleam in The Poet’s Eye faster than a new, streamlined, up-to-date computer and a new, lighter and more efficient government. I can go to the Apple Store for the computer, for the government, I think it will take a Constitutional Convention. Viva La Evolucion!
You say you’ll change the Constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead–Lennon