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Unformatted text preview: We the People and the Word: The Constitution as Scripture, Language-Experiment, and Collaborative Script By Thomas Gustafson, Talk given at Constitution Day Ceremony in September 2007. So what brings us all to the Ground Zero Coffee House today to celebrate Constitution Day? Congress in 2005, under the urging of Senator Robert C. Byrd, passed a law that requires public schools and governmental offices to provide educational programs to promote a better understanding of the Constitution. We have been called together, as a community, by the law. Here, in our person, with this gathering, the words of the law are being incarnated in the flesh. It is this act of call and response—our calling out by the word, and our response to the word, or our failure to respond to it—that I want to reflect upon today. It is a process that I want to call the collaborative constitution of a people by the word. The United States, since its genesis, has been, what Washington Irving, called in 1807 a logocracy, or a government of words. In the beginning of the United States are the words of “We the People.” As a professor of English, as a lover of language, and as someone who deeply affirms our continuing quest to call forth a more perfect union, I’m very cool with celebrating this country as a logocracy. Indeed, what is remarkable and beautiful to me about the Constitution is how it testifies to the power of the word in a democracy….or to an inextricable link between the state of our union and the state of our language….and to a faith that goes back to the origins of democracy in the Greek city states that our political conflicts must be fought and resolved not on the battlefield, not through violence, not through the sword or the bomb, but in the forum and in the court, through debate, argument, interpretation, talk, deliberation, or, in short, through the verbalizations and verbosity of the parliamentary process, however tiring and tedious such talk might be. In America, thanks to the Constitution, the integrity of the word is, at once, a political and linguistic concern. We are governed by words, the laws are engraven in words, and because of this linguistic state, from the beginning of the republic and enduringly, it has been the quest of classic American writers from Thoreau and Emerson through James Baldwin and Toni Morrison to keep our governing language—both the Constitution and the American language—vital, accurate, honest. Our writers have sought to be, in effect, at once, guardians of the word and yet also revolutionaries of language, combating the corruption of the word with their own language-experiments or striving to free us from the King’s English and expand our vision and definition of humanity through the colloquial, populist voice of a Twain’s Huck Finn, the language experiements of Walt Whitman, or the vernacular style of a Zora Neale Hurston and Sandra Cisneros....
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