Public Mythology

Who else better to kick off our survey of the mythology transmitted to the public than the "Gipper" himself, Ronald Reagan. An ex-actor and spokesperson for General Electric, Reagan was perfectly suited to and well-practiced for delivering the lines we all want to hear. For example, in the Message for the President for National Newspaper Week , October 10-16, 1982, Reagan's speechwriter stated the following: [1]

A free press is a cornerstone of our democracy.
This may be the most popular of the slogans bandied about. But there are real problems with it. For one thing, the First Amendment doesn't mandate a "free press" in the abstract, only a press free from Congressional legislation. Also, this right, while a "cornerstone" in theory, was actually an add-on, as we'll see; and a "cornerstone" is at the base of a building, not an add-on. Oh, and one more thing - we don't live in a "democracy", we live in a Republic. [2]

Otherwise, the slogan hits it on the money.

In the First Amendment to the Constitution, our Founding Fathers affirmed their belief that competing ideas are fundamental to freedom.
The "Founding Fathers" are the 55 men who attended the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. These Fathers/Framers manifestly did not believe that "competing ideas are fundamental to freedom", not only because the convention was held behind closed doors, [3] with no reporting allowed out or competing ideas allowed in, but also because they rejected the idea of including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution on September 12, 1787, by 10 votes to 0![4] The Bill of Rights came four years later, due to pressure by opponents of the Constitution (not the Framers), and the First Amendment was drafted not by them, but by the First Congress (working from and altering significantly a resolution reluctantly[5] [READ THIS FOOTNOTE!] proposed by James Madison on June 8, 1789, an ex-"Founding Father" who submitted his [6] resolution as a Representative of the State of Virginia[7] ). Contrary to Madison's proposal, the First Amendment ultimately passed by Congress permits State regulation of speech, and therefore rejects the idea that competing ideas are fundamental to freedom.

The message Reagan's speechwriter prepared appears not only in Presidential addresses, but frequently on posters: large type, limited space, and the need to "dumb down" the message for passers-by make posters the perfect medium for shallow, inaccurate messages unjustified by a little thing known as evidence.

Usually, you'll find these carriers of mythological ideology in public "schools", which are too often instead chilly edifices functioning sometimes as a government-administered babysitting service, and other times as the marketplace where the mythological-information transaction between babysitter (sender) and future citizen (receiver) takes place. These "buyers", of course, in loco parentis, aren't given the option of selecting from the intellectual menu. Unfortunately, the "trickle-down" theory of information predicts that a signal will pick up more and more noise as it makes its way down the information pipeline, and unfortunately for the kids, few of their teachers know enough about the Constitution to intervene and pick out the nits from the pablum.

For example, the American Bar Association (an organization which surely knows better) in the '90s distributed a poster to high schools which had on its right side a large picture of Martin Luther King addressing the 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C. [8] On the left side was this caption:

The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech.
Otherwise, it might all have been a dream.

The Bill of Rights doesn't "guarantee" freedom of speech, nor does the First Amendment, which explicitly allows regulation of speech by 50 of the 51 governments contained within the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment, which some see as extending speech protection at the State level, is not part of the Bill of Rights, a term which refers only to the first ten amendments.

The American Library Association came out with a similar poster in 1991, when it celebrated the Bill of Rights by spreading false information about the content of those rights:

Guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment is focused on the sender of information, not the receiver, nor does it mention a generic "freedom to read". Harvard may own the only known copy of a particular book in its library, but that doesn't mean you have the freedom to force your way onto their property to read it. How does the First Amendment stop Texas from passing a law that no minor may purchase an "obscene" book? [9]

During the Bill of Rights "celebration", Life magazine came out with a "Fall Special" in 1991, titled "The Bill of Rights: A 200-year history of turbulence and triumph". When we decode this message, we learn that the fight for rights was a tough battle ("turbulence"), but the battle is over now, and it had a happy ending ("triumph"). We won! Supposedly this means we can rest easy now from here to eternity, our rights inalienable forevermore. We can start dreaming again. Ahh, bliss!

On pages 4 and 5 of this commemorative issue we find an ad from tobacco company Philip Morris, which carried an original copy of the Bill of Rights in a tractor-trailer on its 52-stop country-wide "Bill of Rights Tour". The ad trumpeted this achievement:

[W]e have placed this cornerstone of democracy within the reach of every American . . .
The cornerstone theory has been previously deconstructed.

As far as "reach" and "every" go, there were around 250,000,000 Americans alive when this ad was published, so we would have had to temporarily suspend the laws of physics to allow every American to fit into the truck holding the copy of the Bill of Rights (in only 52 stops), and to get every American to the truck to begin with, we would have had to release prisoners in penitentaries and patients in intensive care units and mental homes, as well as fly back to the States those Americans who happened to be overseas.

[I]t has been protecting the rights of Americans for 200 years.
Which rights, and which Americans? Undoubtedly, the Bill of Rights has protected someone sometime in some way from having their rights infringed. But the more important issues are, who's rights (and which rights) haven't been protected, and why?

It is ironic that Philip Morris, of all companies, would try to tell the readers of Life that the Bill of Rights (specifically, the First Amendment within it) really protects speech and press "rights", since the Federal Government violates the First Amendment by requiring this company to print messages it would rather not print - warning labels on cigarette packs! And have you seen any cigarette ads on television lately? No, none there. So what happened to Philip Morris' "rights"? Where did they go? And if they really don't have those rights, why are they telling us something that isn't true?

But these are just posters on billboards and ad pages in a magazine. In the body of the magazine, we have more space, and more space gives Life more room to be more "spacy". Join us as we enter la-la land:

The first of the 10 amendments launches us on a journey of self-discovery . . .
How does it do that, and how would the writer know how we feel?

As far as anyone knows, Huckleberry Finn never read the First Amendment,
Who could know differently? "Huckleberry Finn" was a fictional character invented by Mark Twain. Since "he" never lived, how could "he" have read it?

. . . yet he embodied it.
In what way could a fictional 19th century boy, or any boy (or girl) "embod[y]" "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . "?

That jerry-built, troublesome afterthought to the Constitution did not merely guarantee a range of personal freedoms . . .
In what sense is the amendment "jerry-built"? There is no language in the First Amendment, Bill of Rights, or Constitution itself that creates a mechanism by which "personal freedoms" would be guaranteed, nor did the Amendment seek to guarantee any rights. Rather, the First Amendment sought to limit Congressional power - and retain the power of State legislatures to limit speech rights.

it said in effect that Americans are free to discover their moral selves . . .
The First Amendment didn't apply to the States, and says nothing about "morality", so this "free[dom]" is illusory.

to say and write whatever we wish, within reason . . .
The First Amendment doesn't say we can say and write whatever we wish - it allows the States to regulate speech. As applied to Congress, there is no "within reason" language in the First Amendment - at the Federal level, we can be "without reason" when we speak and write, and still be on firm legal ground.

Hope is what the First Amendment is based on, the hope that citizens, left to their own rafts and rivers, will behave well toward one another . . .
But if they don't, the States can step in. They've got one thing right: "Hope is what the First Amendment is based on . . ". Since there is no enforcement language in the Bill of Rights, and a system of checks and balances in the Constitution proper that will frustrate those Americans who wish to reverse a policy of governmental violations of the Constitution (coupled with mass media distortions of the text), we can only "hope" that the Congress and/or the Supreme Court does not decide to ignore (or re-write) the First Amendment.

When an American - black, yellow, female, whatever - reads the First Amendment today, it feels as if it was written for him or her alone. [10]
Black, yellow, and female Americans prefer not to be referred to as "it". Inaccurate grammar aside, what percentage of Americans have read the First Amendment? What studies has the writer read that state that 100% of the Americans who have read the First Amendment feel that "it was written for him or her alone"? More importantly, WHY would they feel that way, given that the Amendment allows State legislation against their speech acts? (Maybe they're paranoid!)

Now that we've peeled off the mask of public mythology, let's move to the one broadcast to far fewer people, the one underneath.

Private Mythology

Table of Contents
Download This Book

1 American Library Association, "Banned Books Week '91" by Robert Doyle., p. 58.
2 See If Triangles are Square, America is a Democracy at
3 1 Records of the Federal Convention 17 (May 29, 1787), ed. by M. Farrand.
4 2 Records of the Federal Convention 583. See also Alexander Hamilton's arguments against a Bill of Rights in Federalist 84.
5 Madison called the project of gaining support for the amendments "nauseous", but believed that creating a Bill of Rights would "kill the opposition everywhere" to the new Constitution, and "by putting an end to the disaffection to the Govt. itself, enable the administration to venture on measures not otherwise safe." Madison also stated that "[i]t is certainly best that they should appear to be the free gift of the friends of the Constitution rather than to be extorted by the address & weight of its enemies." [Previous quotes found in a letter from Madison to Richard Peters, August 19, 1789: Madison Papers, v. 12, pp. 364-8). The Bill of Rights was the bone thrown to Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry to stop the movement to have a second Constitutional convention. See The Bill of Rights, E.W. Hickock, Jr., p. 84 (Virginia: 1991), and generally books on the AntiFederalists.
6 The gist of the resolution was proposed by the Virginia Convention almost a year earlier. See Creating the Bill of Rights, ed. by Veit, Bowling, and Bickford (Johns Hopkins: 1991), p. 18.
7 Creating the Bill of Rights, pp. 12-3.
8 Seen by the author. This poster was pinned to a bulletin board at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, New York (in the fall of 1994).
9 "Banned Books Week '91" by Robert Doyle. This ad appears on page 51.
10 All quotes from Life's Bicentennial "Fall Special," p. 9.