The Bill of Privileges

It’s east to forget that the Bill of Rights consists of Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This means that they can be repealed. Some rights!

Although we tend to think of the Constitution as granting rights, this is simply not so. Apart from the fact that its Amendments can be (and have been!) repealed, the very ability to amend the Constitution allows for its Articles to be tinkered with, for better or for worse. Fortunately, thus far the tinkering has largely been for the better. But that’s hardly a guarantee.

It could be argued that no document can grant rights, it can only declare, describe, and enumerate them. The document which paved the way for our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, speaks of, among other self-evident truths, “…certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” The Declaration does not grant these rights, it simply acknowledges them as self-evident. And so it is with all rights. The Constitution does not, therefore, grant us rights, but privileges. Any privilege, once granted, can, by its very definition as a privilege, be revoked.

It recently occurred to me that the U.S. Constitution might benefit from an Amendment XXVIII. This Amendment would prohibit the repeal of the Bill of Rights, as well as Amendment XXVIII. For those who think this must represent the groundwork for some vast left-wing conspiracy, bear in mind that it would prevent the repeal of the Second Amendment, a darling of the right and the bane of the left. So I don’t see that my suggestion would necessarily favor either side in an inordinate manner.

My fear, of course, is that we are living, for the first time in our nation’s history, under an administration which exhibits nothing short of open contempt for the Constitution, and especially for the First Amendment. I am convinced that, if it were possible, they would dispense with this cornerstone of free expression in a heartbeat in order to establish a totalitarian regime. Of course, I am chided by those who scoff, first at the suggestion that the Trump administration is totalitarian and, second, that the Bill of Rights could ever actually be repealed given the hurdles such an effort would have to surmount.

As to the first point, no, indeed, the Trump administration is not a totalitarian regime. It simply wants to be one, as evinced by its scorn for the press, public opinion, science, and — um — self-evident truths in general. I have no reason to doubt that, if he could, Donald Trump would order a bullet to the brain of anyone who looked at him sideways. I wish I could say that I’m exaggerating.

As to the second point, so long as there is a non-zero probability of the Bill of Rights being repealed, we should all be worried, especially with a megalomaniacal, bullying, would-be autocrat occupying the White House. He has forced his will upon our system far enough to become President. Why is it so far-fetched to worry about him actually changing the fabric of our nation as expressed in its Constitution? Check and balances? Hitler had checks and balances, too, until he was granted special powers in response to extraordinary crises. Our own President was granted special powers in the wake of 9/11, and we were fortunate that, whatever you may think of George W. Bush or the war he embroiled us in, he was neither mentally ill nor mentally deficient; he did, after all, exit the White House after two terms, leaving our constitutional democracy fundamentally intact. But what if another tragedy on a similar scale were to occur now? Does anyone seriously doubt that Donald Trump would jump on such an opportunity to seize as much power as he possibly could? Can we be certain that our leaders would not, even inadvertently, grant him sufficient powers to suspend the protections afforded to us by the Constitution? And then, once he held such power, does anyone doubt that he would grasp it with an unbreakable, adamantine grip?

The time to protect our privileges is while we still enjoy them. And that’s both a right and a responsibility.