The point of a constitution

Somewhere in my files there is a proposed draft constitution for Iraq, composed after Saddam was removed and the country began to reconstruct itself without him.

It is a stellar document, inspiring to read. Our Constitution was clearly a model but the Iraqi Constitution improved upon ours in a number of ways. For one thing, it didn’t incorporate slavery; for another, women’s and minority rights were specifically cited and promoted.

It was a constitution for a modern democratic republic.

I was reminded of the Iraqi Constitution when I read the Times opinion piece, “Not Just Another Day of Dissatisfaction in Russia,” by Alexey Kovalev, an editor of an independent Russian news outlet. (The far rosier online title was, “Something Special Just Happened in Russia: Crackdown and coercion are no longer enough to stop people protesting.”)

Here are paragraphs that sparked this constitutional contemplation:

To judge by the [Russian] government’s response, it knows it has trouble on its hands. The crackdown is breaking records. On July 27, 2019, in what was one of the largest roundups of protesters in decades, 1,373 people were detained. On Saturday, around 3,100 were hauled in. At times the process was almost mechanical: In one exchange caught on video, a protester, realizing that a police officer wants only to fulfill an arrest quota, offers himself in place of another — and is duly led away.

The calm manner of that arrest — far from common on Saturday, which saw many ugly displays of heavy-handed policing — harked back to the precursors of today’s protest movements. During the Strategy 31 movement, named after the article of the Russian Constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly, from 2009 to late 2011, protesters gathered in Moscow on the last day of every 31-day month. Though never permitted by the authorities, the protests were orderly and pointedly legalistic.

The Strategy 31 movement. Article 31 — the Russian Constitution’s version of at least part of our First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Many years ago, someone knowledgeable about the Soviet Union told me their Constitution read like a dream. Problem was, it was never applied.

The point of a Constitution is not to emit golden rays of holy perfection from its pages. The point is to effectuate the rights and laws within it.

Nowadays we hear several terms so often I suspect they roll past our ears. “The Constitution” is one, but the mighty one is “we are a nation of laws,” and “we are a nation of laws, not of men.”

The Russians have a Constitution. The Russians have a Constitutional Article 31 (freedom of assembly). But the Russians are a nation of one man, not of laws. Their Constitution sits on its pages but does not live on its streets.

Our “nation of laws” is visible every day, as we read about the application of our laws via the arrests and indictments of thugs who did not assemble peaceably on the Capitol steps, but who allegedly conspired to overturn our government and kill our governors.

A Constitution is a good thing.

A nation of laws which acts upon that Constitution is the best thing.


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