(Photo credit: National Constitution Center, courtesy Robot Brainz, Flickr Creative Commons)
There are not too many locations in the world that function as memorials to a few pieces of paper. The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is one of them. It celebrates some quite special pieces of paper: those that make up the United States Constitution. It also celebrates the idea that Americans can still come together to tackle national problems as a unified people. Unfortunately, that quaint notion puts it squarely at odds with more and more elements of the news media that dominate our public sphere today.
Now just to be clear: the engrossed (i.e., handwritten) Constitution, the one that was signed by 39 of the founding fathers, is not here. That document resides at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Although there are historical artifacts to be found at this center, it’s main goal is to act as a forum for interpretation and understanding about the Constitution’s unifying role in American society. It’s often been said that to be American is to hold to an idea—the idea that, whatever our racial or religious backgrounds, we can all live together because we see the world in fundamentally similar ways, thanks to the Constitution. The National Constitution Center takes that principle and runs with it all the way.
The building was completed in 2003 and opened by President Bill Clinton. It stands at the north end of Independence Mall, in direct line of sight with the Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall, where the Constitution was debated, completed and signed in the summer of 1787. It’s a very Modernist and rather unremarkable structure and looks as if it was completed in the 1980s rather than the 2000s. One thing that does make it stand out is a rather famous inscription reproduced at the front of the building. Placed on one of the otherwise-mundane flat exterior walls are the opening lines of the Constitution, reproduced in the same cursive script as the original, with the first three words writ large, just like the original: “We the People.” There’s something about those words that gets most Americans’ hearts racing—including mine.
Although the center is located within Independence National Historical Park, it’s not run by the park service. Instead, it’s operated by a nonpartisan, non-profit foundation under terms set out in a 1988 Act of Congress. It functions as a museum, education center, civic forum and center for genuinely nonpartisan public programs, exhibitions, and live performances. It does this quite well.
The center exhorts visitors to revel in the Constitution’s majesty—and I don’t think that’s an inappropriate word in this context—straight away, by coaxing them to begin their tour at the center’s introductory sound and light show, called “Freedom Rising.” Placed in a large, purpose-built circular theater, this presentation features a live actor narrating the Constitutional history of the United States in 17 minutes, complete with lots of stirring images and even more stirring music. You are compelled to be impressed and moved by the story of the Constitution and its starring role in the country’s life. It is a grandiose presentation. My Scottish side—the side nurtured on skepticism and ironic detachment—wants to see this as being a bit over the top and too earnest by half. But my American side, recognizing the unique and massive role of this document in basically constructing a nation from scratch, is stirred and yes, deeply moved. I have been left with a lump in my throat every time I’ve seen it.
Surrounding the Freedom Rising theater (actually it’s called the Kimmel Theater) is the main permanent exhibition called “The Story of We the People,” designed to drive home the central place of the Constitution in the life of the nation. I once had a journalism professor who told us that you could write a pretty decent book about the history of the United States that focuses only on court cases where the Constitution is an issue. His words came back to me the first time I saw this exhibition and its more than 100 displays and exhibits, many of them electronic and interactive. He was right.
The exhibit where visitors get to recite on camera the presidential oath of office—as defined in the Constitution—got a lot of media attention when the center opened. That’s great for the kids, but if you’re an adult and want to be charmed check out the American National Tree exhibit, a sort of upside-down Christmas tree with touch screens that tell the story of Americans, both famous and unknown, whose lives played some role in Constitutional history.
My favorite video exhibit, however, is the one titled “Ask Ben Stein About the Constitution.” This is a bit of a guilty pleasure, for reasons that will become clear below. Stein is a college professor, author, media commentator and actor, and he was once a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. He’s made a celebrity career of sorts by affecting an elderly, nerdy persona and adding a dry, snarky sense of humor with a memorably monotone delivery. His best-known acting role is his brief appearance in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” where he plays a deathly boring teacher who, calling roll when Bueller’s not in class, keeps repeating “Bueller … Bueller … Bueller …” and receiving no answer. In the NCC he gets his own mini-show that plays on a loop on one of the big interior screens. He’s pictured sitting in a diner, answering children’s questions about the Constitution. While mildly reprimanding the young letter writers for the odd logical inconsistency or grammatical error he manages to throw out pearls of wisdom such as “The constitution is like a big sponge: It can absorb massive amounts of new ideas and ideologies, yet still retain its essential shape;” or “The constitution is like a household we all live in, a written set of household rules.” I find his performance, with his insights, snide asides and bizarre relationship with his waitress, strangely riveting.
Another highlight of the National Constitution Center for me is the Signers’ Hall. This is the large space devoted to bronze, life-sized statues of 42 Founding Fathers who all had a major role in bringing the Constitution to life. Thirty-nine of them signed the thing, among them George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They are all displayed in a sort of large-scale bronze tableau, standing or sitting alone or in small groups and huddles, appearing to be joined in animated conversation. In addition to the 39 signers three founders are depicted there who didn’t sign the thing but attended the Constitutional Convention and contributed so much to the document’s creation that they were deemed to be deserving of a place at the tableau: George Mason, Elbridge Gerry and Edmund Gerry.
But to my mind the most interesting—and creepy—of the statues is that of James Wilson. Wilson was a Scottish-born founder who signed the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution. Here he’s standing on his own, near Ben Franklin’s table, where Franklin is seated with peg-legged Gouverneur Morris bending over him. Here’s the spooky thing: Stand right in front of Wilson and it looks like he’s glaring at you, with this expression of deep-seated dissatisfaction or derision—sort of “who are you and why am I tolerating you?” It sends a chill down my spine.
Wilson aside, the National Constitution Center is not a source of unease but rather a source of hope. In the relatively short space of time the center has been in existence it has gone a significant way toward fulfilling its purpose as a civic education hub and national town hall or sorts, illuminating constitutional ideals and encouraging public engagement in national civic life. It’s unfortunate that it’s fighting against the headwinds of a so-called public debate fueled by an increasingly partisan news media.
The center acknowledges and even celebrates the powerful role of our national media in shaping the national discourse, but it’s less forthcoming about the nature of that discourse, which is becoming increasingly divisive. New technology and the Internet have provided wonderful new opportunities for us all to be better informed about and engaged in public affairs. But are we better informed and more engaged today? I’m not so sure. I worry that we’ve entered a world of technological fragmentation mirrored by political fragmentation. News media outlets, which used to focus on a common discourse and a public service ethic, increasingly turn to serving factions of the public rather than the whole public in their drive to make profits. Web sites, blogs, Twitter feeds, Fox News and MSNBC are all great for giving us more media choices, but they often detract from the things that used to hold Americans together as a people.
Let’s be clear about what’s been happening in this new media revolution that slightly precedes the opening of the National Constitution Center: In the “journalism” realm, more and more extremists, partisans and “shouters” have swapped traditional professional limits—such as objectivity, dignity, and sober reflection—for cheap so-called populism and instant gratification. This sad state of affairs is being driven more and more by opinion-based “journalism”—the talking heads that take up so much airtime on news channels these days.
Much of the time, when people say they’re tired of the news, or they say there’s too much bias in the news, or the news media are “just in it for the money,” they’re often really talking about this opinion-based journalism. This is what we see with the talking heads on Fox or MSNBC or talk radio, blethering for hours off the tops of their heads without doing any serious research or giving any thought to the consequences of their words. Anyone can do opinion, occasionally well but often poorly. It’s the sort of stuff that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert excoriate so effectively on their Comedy Central shows. We should just call this what it is: gossip. Nine times out of ten, it is useless. But it does have the advantage to media outlets of being very cheap to produce; it fills lots of airtime and has proved to be very lucrative both to the media companies and the personalities who practice this sort of “journalism.” Of course, journalism is a misnomer; this sort of content is mean-spirited entertainment masked as journalism. Its leading practitioners have learned to be simultaneously vicious and entertaining—usually by propounding ludicrous and inflammatory statements that nevertheless attract large enough audiences to make them appealing to advertisers. Meanwhile, influence drifts away from the mainstream news organizations that try to do what’s right, and seeps out to the irreconcilable extremes.
And what effect does this have on the broad middle of society, where people just want to get a balanced picture of what’s going on in the world? These folks more and more just check out from the national public debate and turn their attention to mind-numbing entertainment while their representative bodies become more and more divided and dysfunctional.
This becomes an even more serious problem among young people, who are becoming increasingly alienated from a news media they see as irretrievably biased and unresponsive to their needs. One media scholar, David T.Z. Mindich, wrote a great book called Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News. He amasses a wealth of data showing that young people are, indeed, “tuning out” from the news. He argues that when younger citizens feel part of a broad society connected by news media with a common public service outlook—as they broadly did up till the 1970s—they become more connected to society and can effect broad democratic change. When they feel as if the news media have become distant, fragmented and split off into partisan enclaves, they feel powerless and therefore just disconnect. This is the world we’re increasingly living in. The National Constitution Center is a valiant attempt to return our attention to core principles of a founding document that promotes that which unites us, but it is fighting a voracious news media that more often promotes that which divides us.
And what about Ben Stein, the diner-based gent who answers children’s questions about the Constitution on the big screen? Unfortunately, he’s turned himself into just another member of this punditocracy, spouting forth his opinions and biases on all sorts of matters on cable news—modulated, in his case, to appeal to a right-wing constituency. He’s not the worst—not by far—but he’s gotten good at stirring controversy for controversy’s sake. Stein happily engages in the type of mediated opinion-mongering designed to appeal to the baser instincts of his narrow but politically motivated audience, where older, wealthier, right-wing white Americans predominate. I wonder if he has ever considered whether those children he is trying to reach in his National Constitution Center stint are the same children who would run a mile before having to listen to the commentary he and every other pundit puts forth on what they call “the news.”
Ben Stein likened the Constitution to a big sponge, absorbing massive amounts of new ideas and ideologies while retaining its essential shape. I hope he’s right about this, because he and his compatriots are doing their level best to test this principle to destruction.
Mindich, David (2005). Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News. New York: Oxford University Press.
National Constitution Center Fact Sheet. Available at http://constitutioncenter.org/media/files/factsheet.pdf