Endings and Beginnings

August 16, 2011 //

By Chris Phillips

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” —T. S. Eliot

The very first Socrates Café dialogue I held at Collage II coffee house in 1996 in Montclair, New Jersey, was on the question, “What are beginnings?” Part and parcel of the exploration of that question was an examination of questions like, “Is a beginning the same as a first? Does every beginning have an ending?” The Socrates Café group in Montclair has not had an ending; it continues to meet every Tuesday evening after all these years, though it’s had to change location a few times. Hundreds of others meet regularly across the globe. It’s been thrilling to see Socrates Café take on a life of its own. In 1998, the nonprofit Society for Philosophical Inquiry was founding to support ‘Socratizing’ wherever it emerged and hopefully as a result help makes ours a more thoughtful and inclusive society and even a more participatory democracy. The Whitman Institute was its first funder (and I believe it was the first nonprofit to which TWI offered support) and was essentially its only funder for many moons.

Thirteen years is a good long run for a small nonprofit. It’s been a great ride. We’ve decided to give up our nonprofit status, though we plan for the foreseeable future to continue to maintain the philosopher.org website and of course to sing the praises of and support Socrates Cafes and Socrates Café-type gatherings (and there will be two more issues still of Socrates Café magazine).

I’m now in the throes of launching an exciting new nonprofit initiative, Democracy Café, which builds on and expands the objectives of SPI. Democracy Café’s stated objectives and purposes are:

a) to come to a greater understanding of the nature and future of democracy, and to influence its nature and future;

b) to expand the public debate about politics and democracy, and to challenge prevailing assumptions about deference to political leadership and elites, since genuine self-determination and full enfranchisement hinges on direct, continual, active participation by the entire citizenry;

c) to demonstrate that the art and science of government – and of government creation itself — falls well within the comprehension and capacity of ordinary citizens;

d) to create a groundswell of support for a movement that gives ordinary citizens direct input in ‘constitution creation,’ since genuine self-determination and full enfranchisement hinges on such input;

e) to celebrate political ‘unlikemindedness’ as a hallmark of democracy, and potentially create ‘higher coalitions’ or alliances of the politically marginalized (defined for our purposes as anyone from any walk of life or political disposition who feels his or her voice is not heard or heeded in the political sphere) and concerned and compassionate;

f) to publish a quarterly newsletter, and also to create a dedicated political network with a central component in cyberspace that serves to further facilitate the realization of the aforementioned objectives, but as a principal means to facilitate effective face-to-face gatherings;

g) to promote, through a variety of ‘café’ activities that can lead to concrete initiatives, the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness, the realization of which not only demands universal and continuous participation by ordinary Americans (indeed, of people of all walks of life everywhere) in the public sphere.

h) to work towards the realization of ‘democracy without borders.’

There is little question that the idea for Democracy Café would never have germinated if not for fifteen rich years of engaging in thousands of Socrates Café dialogues. In that light, Socrates Café and SPI are not ending; rather, Democracy Café is being born out of that endeavor, and hopefully it too will enjoy a good long ride.

The centerpiece of Democracy Café for the foreseeable future its ‘Constitution Café’ dialogue project, and I’ve written a book, Constitution Café: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution, that will be released on August 22 by my longtime publisher W.W. Norton.

Here’s a description of, and hopefully a compelling justification for, the Constitution Café project:

A nationwide poll conducted in 2010 by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for the Constitution revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans recognize that the U.S. Constitution has a huge impact on their everyday lives. It also revealed that while most older Americans believe the Constitution is fine just as it is, a significant number of young Americans of voting age believe the Constitution needs to be overhauled so that it is more responsive to and reflective of the needs of a modern democratic society.

And yet…. the same poll also reveals that very few Americans have actually read the Constitution — even though supposedly it’s required reading in schools!

If we actually were inspired to read the Constitution, how would we feel about it? Would we want to change it, and if so, which parts? Or would we want to hold a new Constitutional Convention and rewrite the whole thing?

What if reading the Constitution, and reading great history and political science texts about how it came to be, isn’t in and of itself enough to gain a real appreciation for the supreme law of the land? What if, in order to really appreciate what a democratic Constitution is all about, and how it can make or break a democracy over the long haul, we have to take part in the process of ‘constitution creation’?

What if we engaged in a ‘constitutional thought experiment’? What if we held a ‘new’ Constitutional Convention of sorts, and acted as if we were the Framers? Using existing constitutional articles as the starting point, would we come to a more profound understanding of and appreciation for the amazing document created by our Framers — even or especially if we decided to redo the articles? Would we be able to practice imaginative reasonableness, careful listening and equal recognition as we scrutinize a wide variety of proposals, inviting compelling objections and alternatives? Would we be able to reach creative compromise and consensus or even achieve a higher ground?

Enter Constitution Café.

Constitution Café is a space dedicated to the Jeffersonian idea of democratic freedom. Thomas Jefferson derided those who looked at constitutions “like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” He believed that such people “ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.” To him, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Jefferson’s visionary antidote for societal stasis in American democracy, as he told the historian Sam Kercheval, was to take periodically “as a tally, every provision of our constitution, and see if it hangs directly on the will of the people.” Those provisions that turn out not to reflect the people’s will, he believed, should be entirely redone. “Let us then go on perfecting [the Constitution],” he urged, by supplanting “those powers which time and trial show are still wanting.”

Constitution Café springs from this idea: What if Jefferson’s radical proposal was put to the test in some way today? To be sure, he had in mind that this constitutional makeover would be undertaken every 20 years, and over 200 years have passed since he first proposed it. But better late than never.

Constitution Café is a space in which actual and aspiring Americans grapple with how they would sculpt the United States Constitution if they could start from scratch. The constitutional articles that participants construct often address perceived flaws, loopholes and omissions in the Constitution. At times this leads to significant revisions by Constitution Café participants of existing articles or the creation of altogether new ones. The articles that are not meant to be the last word, just a starting point for deeper debate. A paramount objective with the Constitution Café project is to spur greater civic engagement, especially among young people, who all too often are left out altogether, and to instill much keener and deeper appreciate for the amazing existing document crafted by our Framers.

In the course of these exchanges, Constitution Café-goers at times question whether those elected officials who’ve sworn to uphold the existing Constitution are obeying or betraying its strictures. Even more often, they arrive at insights about whether our current Constitution, and the institutions it props up (and that in turn prop it up), are impediments to, or facilitators of, our higher democratic hopes and dreams. This in turn can prompt thoughtful exchanges on whether our Constitution — as Barack Obama, former professor of constitutional law, maintains – has “proved a sufficient defense against tyranny,” or whether we need “to heed Jefferson’s advice to engage in a revolution every two or three generations.”

In making their case for articles to a new Constitution, those taking part reason, persuade, argue, and bend over backwards to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to introduce and convince others to support his or her big constitutional ideas (usually a two-thirds majority approves the final language for any given article crafted by the group). For as Thomas Jefferson had it, one “cannot have his way in all things” when engaged in such democratic deliberations, but must “acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at other times.” Indeed, “(w)ithout this mutual disposition,” Jefferson asserted shortly after he became president — at a time when deep political rifts already were developing among Americans — “we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”

Come join us at Constitution Café, and be part of “a society” of the sort Jefferson envisioned – a society in which self-determination is driven and indeed ‘determined’ by how much input everyday citizens have in formulating foundational laws.

The project has touched a chord among people of widely different political stripes, and it also has received position pre-publication reviews. Hopefully it will continue to spark a much-need conversation among diverse folks about our Constitution.

And now, here’s my publisher’s press release about my Constitution Café book:

“Engaging and informative…in an era of hyper-partisanship, it’s refreshing to read instances of Americans from all political persuasions holding rational, respectful, and thought-provoking conversations with one another.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“A provocative extension of Jefferson’s original plan.” —Kirkus

“As an exploration of current governmental theory and philosophy, the book provides an excellent framework for conducting similar discussions.” Library Journal

“Phillips stays fairly neutral throughout, teasing out ideas that seem, given today’s toxic political climate, almost unconventional in their reasonableness…The end result is a vigorous rethinking of America’s legal framework.” —Booklist

“The United States needs constitutional change, but how to get it done? Christopher Phillips has the right answer. Get Americans talking to Americans about how we can improve our nation. Phillips has combined the approach of Socrates and the wisdom of Jefferson to show us the way.” —Dr. Larry J. Sabato, author of A More Perfect Constitution and Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics

“A truly radical and deeply patriotic book, Constitution Café illustrates the power and promise of democracy, using the extra-ordinary conversations of ordinary citizens to re-animate the founding ideas and documents of this country. America needs this book…now!” —Stephen Duncombe, author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy

“This book represents the best of American democracy — the irreverent and perpetual questioning of authority and received wisdom. Christopher Phillips dares to suggest that we should smash open the Constitution’s glass case and hand it to the people the Founding Fathers called the “mob.” With infinite curiosity and an intellectual integrity that is rare among professional thinkers, Phillips says about the bible of American tradition the unthinkable, the glorious, and the liberating: let it rip.” —Thaddeus Russell, author of A Renegade History of the United States

A central feature of modern political life in the United States is public veneration of the Constitution. The Constitution forms the basis of our understanding of the rights of citizens, it is the last argument of politicians across the political spectrum, and it has the moral gravity of secular scripture. This modern reverence makes Thomas Jefferson’s opinion of the Constitution all the more shocking: Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, believed that Americans should get together every twenty years and rewrite the Constitution to meet their current needs. Essentially, every generation of Americans would rip up the Constitution and start again. In CONSTITUTION CAFÉ: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution, bestselling author and scholar Christopher Phillips puts Jefferson’s radical idea to the test and asks Americans from all walks of life to create a new Constitution.

For over fifteen years, Christopher Phillips has been facilitating national philosophy discussion groups as part of his Socrates Café project. In these meetings, Americans from Main Street to Wall Street, from across racial and economic barriers, gather together to explore timeless existential problems through reasoned and thoughtful discussions. During one of these meetings, the discussion turned to President Obama’s memoir, The Audacity of Hope, and Obama’s statement that it’s “hard to shake the feeling these days that our democracy has gone seriously awry.” Reminded of Jefferson’s scheme for keeping America’s political life fresh and vibrant, Phillips decided to launch a thought experiment on a national scale. Phillips traveled from Colonial Williamsburg to the Mall of America, from the Burning Man arts and culture festival to Boy Scout troop meetings, and asked everyday Americans to reinvent the Constitution. The results are surprising:

A collection of surfers from Southern California, replace our existing presidential election process with a process that blends the intense scrutiny of modern presidential debates with the raucous competition of reality television.

A group of pacifists and soldiers who make military service mandatory for all citizens.

On Ellis Island, a well-read and financially conscientious daughter of immigrants writes the words of Shakespeare into the Constitution, declaring that Congress “shall neither a borrower or a lender be. For loan oft loses itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

A group of grade school students in the Southwest concoct an audacious idea to end all personal inheritance and, instead, funnel the money into a wealth distribution scheme that guarantees every citizen $50,000 on their eighteenth birthday. Though, anybody who “does bad” after their eighteenth birthday must return the money.

From gun control to the Constitutional protection of corporate rights, from the limits of free speech to immigration policies, Phillips’ lively, friendly, and informal conversation pieces show everyday American tackling the most important political problems of our time and coming up with solutions from the absurd to the profound. Throughout these engagements with the new framers, Phillips weaves short vignettes about Thomas Jefferson’s role in the early republic, emphasizing the often ignored radicalism of the basic tenants of democracy and giving readers an image of the Founding Fathers as inspired, but sometimes flawed, human beings.

An image of a political culture free from the profitable rancor and echo chamber talking points that dominate modern media, CONSTITUTION CAFÉ is a needed corrective to the unfortunate popular image of Americans as an apathetic, narrowly partisan people. Phillips offers a hopeful portrait of a people who, working together, move beyond party lines to understand the challenges modern America faces. The Constitution Café project proves that the political creativity that defined Jefferson’s infant democracy is still alive and well in America.