(Cross-posted on valuesallliance.org.)
Constitution Day--September 17th--kicked off a week-long program in Indianapolis called "My Daily Constitution." My Daily Constitution is the brainchild of Linda Pollack, an artist from Los Angeles, who realized several years ago that her own understanding of that most important document was inadequate. Since then, she's taken the show on the road, mounting it in a different city each year. She tells us that Indianapolis has embraced the concept with more programs and enthusiasm than the other venues that have hosted it, improbable as that may seem to those of us who live here.
My particular "cafe" was a discussion entitled "Whose First Amendment? Reclaiming the Public Interest in our Media," which I co-hosted with Andrea Price, director of Public Access Indianapolis. (The organization's name is something of a misnomer, since Indianapolis has the dubious distinction of being one of the only two major cities in the U.S. that currently doesn't have public access television.)
Our goal was to explore why it was that the Founders "privileged" journalism by including a special mention of freedom of the press in the First Amendment, and whether the values that they were trying to protect are well-served today, in a media landscape they could hardly have envisioned. (If anyone is interested, my remarks are here.)
Our particular "cafe" was held in the Cabaret, at the Indiana Repertory Theater, a rococo space in which chairs had been arranged in a not-so-symmetrical circle. Approximately 20-25 people had trickled in and filled the circle by noon, the assigned starting time, and a couple others drifted in after that. I do a lot of public speaking, and I have found that the composition of any particular group will generally be predictable, based upon the subject matter--literate folks for a book signing, politically active (and partisan) for a political speech, and so forth. This group struck me as a genuine cross-section of concerned citizens (although the fact that they were "concerned" probably means that they weren't all that representative of Americans as a whole. Or maybe that's too cynical).
It was also a cross-section of personalities, some thoughtful, some annoying. There was the man who was obsessed with the loss of Indianapolis' cable access channel fifteen years ago, and convinced that illegal payoffs had been involved. He talked incessantly (and generally incomprehensibly) and had to be reminded periodically to allow others to participate in the discussion. There was a middle-aged man who wanted to know why high schools weren't teaching students about the constitution. (Good question.) A bearded man who was polite, but somewhat belligerent, when others expressed dismay over the Administration's seeming contempt for constitutional checks and balances. When one participant criticized Bush's use of so-called "signing statements" (see my personal site for an explanation), the bearded one insisted that "all presidents" had issued such documents, and that they couldn't possibly really indicate intent to actually ignore the law.
In short, we were a pretty representative sample of Americana there on the third floor of the IRT last Friday. We were a demographically diverse group--male, female, black, white, young and old--trying to figure out what a 200-year-old document should mean to us and why we should care.
The discussion made it clear that we were politically diverse, too. But as I often am, I was struck--and impressed--by the civility that characterized our conversation, even when it clearly implicated passionate beliefs. Deeply-held divisions were expressed politely. No one called anyone names, or engaged in anything remotely akin to "swift-boating." Even the man who was obsessed with the perceived crimes of those who bartered away our cable access was courteous. Even the man who refused to believe that the President really meant what he said in those signing statements, and who described terrorists as "evil" people was civil to those who disagreed with him. Unlike the strident pundits and negative campaigners who populate our television screens, the conversation stayed focused on the issues.
We didn't solve any problems last Friday. And I don't know if anyone went away with new insights about media in America. But it was sure nice to talk to a group of average Americans who--whatever their politics--came out in the middle of a workday to talk about how we can live up to the values of the American constitution.