Speaking of Women's Rights: What Are Those "Self-Evident Rights," Again?

Friday, October 23, 2009

What Are Those "Self-Evident Rights," Again?

Vacations are great. And then there’s what you learn – or are reminded of. Having returned from a trip to Ireland, where a hotly-contested election occurred during my visit, only to leap back into the various races and initiatives in Washington State, I was brought face-to-face with a sad yet indisputable reality: people in the United States are woefully ignorant about politics, civics, and even our own Constitution, compared with citizens elsewhere.

First, let me say Ireland is a fabulous place to visit, and the people are tremendously friendly. They are also wonderfully well-informed not only about their own country and its governance and politics, but also about the rest of the world. I had conversations with clerks, B&B owners, salespeople, restaurant workers – folks from a wide range of jobs and professions – about the pending vote on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. And they not only had an opinion about it, they had in-depth knowledge of its provisions and implications. “I was in favor of it until I read Article #XX,” a cabbie said. “Its effect on diary and sheep farming in the country will be dreadful, and here’s why: [details and data omitted], an unemployed salesperson told me.” “The opposition government in Germany have pointed out why the treaty will have a good/bad economic result, and I agree,” others said.

And here in the U.S.? Quick: name an ‘opposition party’ (or any party) in either Mexico or Canada. Identify the provisions of any treaty the U.S. Senate should be (but probably isn’t) voting on. For that matter, name the three branches of government in the U.S.

Hope you can, and congratulations if so: you’re in a select minority. That’s right, surveys in 2006-07 revealed that fewer than 30% of Americans can pass a short, basic civics quiz.

Why am I not surprised? You wouldn’t be, either, if you had been present when I testified before the Washington Legislature several years ago about a bill that would have declared that any bill the Legislature passed was constitutional, simply because they passed it. Ummm . . . there’s this thing called ‘separation of powers’, but that didn’t seem to occur to the bill’s sponsor. Or to the House Committee that passed the bill. (It died after that.) That’s why I am so pleased to see that the new President of the Washington State Bar Association (and Legal Voice cooperating attorney) Sal Mungia plans a mentoring program to ensure that by the time children leave the 3rd grade, they can read, write and perform arithmetic and have an age-appropriate knowledge of civics. Teaching about our government, constitution and civics in high school and college is just too late, so thanks, Sal!

Even if we do increase civics education, though, we still somehow have to deal with the polarized, sound-bite, non-thinking, hate-filled rhetoric that this country seems to wallow in. Not that it’s a new phenomenon, or that there isn’t zealous speech in Ireland and elsewhere. But in this country we’ve replaced thoughtful analysis and civil debate with frenzied screaming. And, of course, that is nowhere more evident than in the debate around Referendum 71 here in Washington, which must be APPROVED by the voters so we can retain the full domestic partner law that passed last session.

I wish I had a solution to the shallow shrieking, because “can’t we all just get along?” doesn’t cut it, but alas, inspiration has not struck. How about you: any suggestions?

P.S. In case you’re wondering, yes, I passed the civics quiz, though I did not achieve a perfect score. Oops: that last economics course was a looooong time ago.