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Libyan Writer Ghoma
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Saturday, 21 February, 2009

CONSTITUTION: Where Comes From, Where Is Going?

What Is Missing a National Conversation and Convention!

By: Ghoma

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."   George Santayana

"The Constitution, if it were a living person and standing next to them, would hear the most contradictory statements in the world, because [some] went to the point of finding it a well of iniquity and [others] described it as Minerva herself rising out of Jove’s head. I speak of metaphors so as not to sink below my style."   Machado de Assis, Esau and Jacob, p. 187

        A country without a Constitution is a society without consciousness. For, such a state must lack the underpinnings to meaningful life. A country without civil institutions -the sinews of civil society are free press, a plethora of parties, and the practice of negotiation and coalition-building- is still beholden to other epoches and traditions. The absence of Civil Institutions is a sign for the absence also of Public Space where political discourse can be had. Thus a national conversation, with a modicum of rules to conduct it, cannot also be had. How, then, a Constitution, which has always been a landmark and milestone in the life of a country, could be attained? Only a society that felt the need to look deep down inside itself could carry the deliberations engraved in human memory by the Athenians in their assembly, or the Founders in Philadelphia.

        However welcome the flickering glints of a still feeble exchange on the NEED for a Constitution, the IDEA of the Constitution has not yet sunk in the collective consciousness of most Libyans. The talk about the Constitution serves, if nothing else, the breaking of a taboo in vigor since the military has imposed the dictatorship forty years ago. However, what has been missing so far was the gist of a Constitution, or Why Libya needs it. Such a talk would have been a simple, straight, and direct, heart-to-heart conversation in search for meanings, in a world which is becoming less and less meaningful; about, for instance, what it takes to write a Covenant in 21st century, or how to Re-found a badly established State anew.

        Instead, the hubbub about the Constitution has assumed a halo of its own, sui generis! An aura of sacredness that goes beyond the simple and usual questions of what, why, and how. To some it’s a matter of enumeration and codification of a body of laws. While to others, talking about the Constitution takes a whole different swing: It partakes of the aura given to Sacred Texts, though without the due reverence -that usually requires some instruments that would give the hallowedness its power of persuasion- fear or rewards! Both talkers seem to have fallen under the magic spell of a religiofied culture, which, in its own image, mirrors its persuasive techniques onto the political discourse. The pseudo-method, if it can be called as such, passes any idea through the sieves of its value system -a system high on judgments and short on analysis . In this view, political and social legitimizations pass through the same methods and procedures which historically had bestowed an aura of awe to the Holy Scriptures. That’s, anything which musters the filtering mechanisms of some self-appointed coterie of literati, that’s of initiates -the so-called elite(s)- can be deemed legitimate and thus worthy of their support too. Legitimacy, rather than merited, comes bestowed by the guardians of the faith, with their metaparadigmatical frames of reference, for the ‘elites’ to pass on to the hoi-polloi. The hoped for outcome, the awe and respect a Constitution requires, would have been begotten, automatically, in the act of writing it.

        But, Constitution’s writing is a unique event in the history of a society. For the Constitution stands not only to a coming together but more importantly of a meeting mind-to-mind of its members, in the process of getting into adulthood and thus maturation. A process in which all or some members of the fraternity and sorority called society call on the country to mull over what is it about, what are its scared cows, and what it deems worthy of its members to live by. What fundamental Rights and Duties a society embraces and a State is founded on? Like in any ritual of initiation, the right of passage to a nationhood -to the beginning of the society’s adulthood- resides not only in being conducted but most importantly in how being performed. The means are as much, if not more important than the ends hoped for. In other words, the modalities -the way the process is conducted- are as much important as the final outcome. Thus the right of passage must find a way to wade through that much touted about sacred process of committing the group, and their future progeny, to a Compact -by which they will live and for which they will die -and which will have, for them, the solemnity and power usually given to a scared deity.

        In the present ‘debate’ on the much touted writing of the Constitution, what’s lacking is the passion which accompanies important events such as the road map to nation-building. As if the so-called ‘Reformists" lacked passion and their counterpart Conservatives, ‘Revolutionaries’ lacked conviction. A "committee of experts,’ with the help of some Anglo-Saxon gurus, is drafting a Constitution. In the name of the masses, and behind their back, is being concocted the yarn from which the fig-cover of the regime will be spun. Be that as it may, however, in this process, it seems, the phantom of the past is still peeking from the tombs of its makers. The old piece of rag, the colonial-monarchical Constitution, is still considered a precedent after which to model the new one. The country seem to have been stuck spinning in its own slumber. Its nightmares are still haunting it. It has yet to get rid of the memories of both colonialism and monarchy and to settle their legacies. By invoking the old Constitution’s miraculous beginnings, is no more beating on a dead horse, though the so-called Opposition, is trying to pry forth from the past some unquestioning legitimacy. But these folks have forgotten or just disregarded the true nature of the old Constitution’s edifice. It was no different from one of those houses that somebody had started to build many years ago, without a blueprint, (architecture without architects!), then has left unfinished, until the few walls came down tumbling and now some folks have deemed it of monumental value and quality and worthy of resurrection. The monumentality, if it’s any, of a relic of a ruin, without history, resides mainly in its runniness. If it were ever resurrected, it ‘ll have been no more than a fake recreation similar to the process of propping up a set-up, a la Hollywoodian mock-up - complete with its fake patina of past genuineness. History maybe recalled but not invented. For a Constitution history of practice is everything. Without it no legitimacy is possible. So let the dead be buried in their resting places.

        It appears the cacophony of the so-called ‘elite’ is not being matched by any expressed enthusiasm of the many. Perhaps the multitude’s passivity could be no more than a deep anxiety left by 40-years of raw despotism in their psyches, than an intrinsic apathy. Hopelessness engenders only despondency! In times of crisis and chaotic life conditions, the thirst for order overwhelms any desire for perfection. To these folks, a concocted Constitution is less harmful than the arbitrary decrees by fiat. Or, at least that’s how some think, including folks from the self-anointed ‘Official Opposition!’

        No self-aware society would write a Constitution without coming to terms with the main issues and concerns of its times. What to do with modernity and modernization? What to do with Religion? What to do with secularism? What are the forces binding its members together and how to effect a change in them? What ideals can be its target and what possible future(s) to hope for? As they say "visions require half-light" without sufficient Light and Imagination, myopic blurs won’t clear up the path. For Libya, to overcome its historical impasse, it may require a writing of a Convenant that will focus its attentions and gather its energies. Before that will happen, a vigorous and sincere attempt has to be made to reach some eternal universal truths -as the sacredness of individual’s life and freedoms, the absolute equality in front of the law regardless of gender, creed, or color, etc. Has life other purposes, or is an end in itself? For, without settling such basic issues a Constitution won’t be worthy of the efforts as well as the respect it demands. Without such a grandiose design and an overarching purpose there’s no compelling reason(s) to write a Constitution that will only gather dust over the shelves. If a Constitution takes its legitimacy and thus respect from the process of its formulation then Libyans seem to have not yet wisened up enough to appreciate the democracy’s demands and its messy procedures. However, all indications point to a bitter fact: Libyans are not yet ready to turn themselves into each other’s shoes, to look into each other’s face, and to stretch their hands into each other in a gesture of parity, respect, and cooperation. Or more mundanely, seeing in each, the Other, not as an enemy, but as the compliment. As long as Libyans still insist on their stale and stubborn out-date-ness it’d be futile to write a piece of paper that will be no better than the usual Constitutions written by the neighbors, left and right, and never have been respected for a day.

        Basic issues that define society’s existence beyond geography and history have to be discussed and brought to the light, and settled. A committee cannot be a substitute, for a self-willed society, to find and to define what kind of soul it’s endowed with. As it’s said a camel is a horse designed by a committee! The last thing a Constitution needs is to be relegated to some techno-bureaucratic group to draft its principles and to argue its details. A Constitutions is not about details, it’s about principles and the big picture. Without a conceptual frame, details will only reduce it to a medley of articles. To ensure coherence, a relative length of time is needed to mull over how to come to terms with the marching history, that’s, Civilization and its discontents. In other words, until a country has not realized what roles ideas -with their tortuous history, have played and still play in its life as in individuals, it cannot draw up a Constitution. For a Constitution is no more than a brief and concise set(s) of broad principles (for example the USA’s Constitution is very short and it didn’t even prescribe the separation of power among the three branches of government, these came out later in the Federalist Papers!). If by "Constitution" is meant a Compact, the "Social Contract" among the citizenry, and a "Founding Document" to the State, then it must be more than some stipulations on what relations should exist between the state and its sponsors (citizens) or how the state itself is constituted or how it should conduct its work. It must be the Basic Law, the Founding Rock, and the ultimate reference. As such it must establish not the modalities and technicalities of the state but the foundations and character of the set-up called society. For instance, what are the fundamental pillars supporting society and propping up its institutions: individuals, families or the collectivity, or some brew of their combination? What are the relationships existing or must exist between the individual and collectivity? What are the Inalienable Rights? What roles if any Organized Religion(s), Reason, and Law are allowed to play?

        Because of the weighty questions a constitution must settle, the process of its formulation, is as important as its writing. What way and how it’s conducted makes the whole difference in its legitimation process. A document that has been written by a bunch of individuals even if they were of the so-called experts, will remain mere ink-on-paper, if the rest of society has not been involved in the process. The society has to look inside itself, around it, in search of its Zeitgeist What makes it what it’s? Does its existence due mainly to fate, an accidental mistake of history, mere geography, or rather some noble goal(s) that have bounded its members all this time together? A passionate and hot debate must be pursued on what future(s) is imaginable and possible. How can change be affected to make the future not mere fate but a willed-for destination? After all this is hashed out, than a congregation and a congress are held to put the final touches and stamp of approval before the final result is submitted to people’s vote. This Congress must be made up of the duly selected representatives of the people, and should take its time to deliberate over the nature of the society, its pillars and components, the Rights and Duties of man/woman, what cows it holds sacred, and what character the State must have. A true Constitution from the people, by the people, and for the people must be clear, concise, and thoroughly deliberated and genuinely approved.

        But, without first solving the Gordian Knot that still ties the State to Religion, the question of freedoms will remain unanswerable. For, in the history of the universe, no religion-infected society has ever been free from arbitrary restrictions and constrictions that have no rhyme or reason. When Religion is coercive and its dictates are enforced by the state, then freedom becomes an anathema, if not oxymoronic. Theocracy writ large! On the other hand, modernity is built on disengagement and separation of Religion and State. Modernity is built on the ruins of the theocratic state. A secular state, by definition, is a state based on human reason, tout court. Based on the split between the absolute and relative truths, or spirit from matter. Humans will be enabled to think for themselves and to relegate metaphysical questions to the seminarians. That’s, to end the monopoly of the clerical class to the ‘absolute truth’. For the simple fact, as far as can be ascertained, no mortal has ever been more privy to God’s wisdom nor had more access to His mind than the rest of us. If such a fact is taken as the basis of the new Constitution, then a lot of the headaches that still plaguing many societies of the East, will be alleviated if not totally eliminated.

        Libya’s geography is a scrubby desert landscape. Its existence throughout history was on the edge of subsistence. It’s never enough surplus for an intellectual life to develop. Thus no known thoughtful has been attributed to its inhabitants. Leaving aside geographical determinism, geography then becomes no destiny, and therefore, there’s hope that Libyans’ millennial intellectual slumbering may not be encoded in their DNA! During the last half of the 20th century and on to the 21st century, due to oil revenues, perhaps for the first time in its existence Libya, now, is in a unique conditions to effect some changes that would overcome some of its hollowed and empty historical record. To start, it can give a fresh look to the world, to life, and to itself. It’s a unique chance to broach some of the taboos that have and still plagued it and its neighborhood. It can pioneer in the use of brain-power where no reason has ever existed. Libya, because of its size and its relative independence, from economic and otherwise pressures, it can afford some luxuries, others can only dream of. It can put into question some of the holy cows, which are still lurching in the area’s cultural and social set-ups, without impunity from anyone in particular. If it does so, it’ll also trailblaze a new path to the future; a future that would never have been possible had not oil been discovered. In sum, Libya has a chance to show, when some revenues were obtained -it makes a whole difference and it matters a lot how these were accumulated, but, for the sake of argument, disregard whether were gained through rent or worked for -what possibilities are there for a country which could afford them. It can show also when human ingenuity is put to work, for this world and for the good of society, what can be accomplished.

Ghoma
Ghoma47@hotmail.com


More Articles Written By Ghoma

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