A Conference on the Constitutional Convention

Two hundred and twenty four years ago, people of radically different views put aside those differences long enough to save this Nation. America was on the brink of collapse. Its first constitution was an unmitigated disaster. Only a radical, and some say illegal, reform could restore the promise of the nation declared a generation before when it claimed its independence from Britain.

We forget this fact about them today. To us, they all look very much alike — white guys, some in wigs, eloquent and brave no doubt, but certainly not the picture of significant difference in either ideas or values. Yet when the men who founded this nation met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, there were fundamental differences among them. Slavery, for example: The men who founded this nation were critically divided on this fundamental question. Some thought it natural and appropriate. Some thought it the quintessential injustice. Yet they were able to put even this difference aside enough to craft a pact that would give birth to our constitution (and eventually, death to slavery).

On September 24 & 25, I will co-host a conference at Harvard with Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, on whether it is time for a new constitutional convention. Our conference is obviously not that convention. We don’t pretend to parallel that event two and a quarter centuries ago, and certainly not any of its characters.

But as many of us believe that our nation has come to another moment of crisis in its capacity to govern, some of us believe we must begin to talk through whether fundamental reform through a convention will be required.

Meckler and I want to have that conversation the way our Framers did — as a respectful discussion among people who disagree fundamentally. I have enormous respect for Meckler, and the movement that he helped to birth. But I am not an ally of the Tea Party. I share the belief that our nation needs fundamental reform. I don’t share a belief in the substance of the reform that the Tea Party has pushed.

Yet the differences between Meckler and me, or between the Tea Party and the Left more generally, are tiny as compared to the differences among many of our Founders. However much we disagree, our disagreement is puny as compared to the fight over slavery, or the decision about whether to found this nation as a monarchy or a republic. Meckler and I believe that if THEY could put aside their differences long enough to debate with respect the changes their constitution might need, then WE should be able to put aside our much smaller differences to focus on a way to end our own crisis of governance.

The convention that we will discuss is not, however, the same sort of convention that gave birth to the Constitution. It is instead a convention explicitly envisioned by that constitution. Article V of the Constitution gives the states the power to demand that Congress “call a Convention for proposing amendments” to the Constitution. Such amendments are only valid when ratified by 3/4ths of the states. Never in the history of the Nation has an Article V convention been called — though we came close a century ago, when the call for a convention to make the senate elected was within one vote of the necessary two thirds. That was enough to spur Congress to reform itself, by proposing its own amendment and ending the need for a convention.

We will start this conversation with all of us not yet convinced that a convention is either necessary or wise. It is my view that is is. Meckler doesn’t (yet) share that view. And over the course of the two day event, lawyers, historians, political scientists, and activists from both the Left and the Right will discuss whether and how a convention might proceed.

I am open to being convinced that a convention is unwise (though I would then despair about how we will effect the fundamental reform our government needs). But I am convinced already that much of the debate about a convention is, let’s say, under-informed. We should at least be able to have a conversation that remedies this, even if we can’t agree about whether a convention would be wise.

If you’d like to attend, check out http://conconcon.org. If you can help to cover the costs of this project, you can donate here.

But please save the rage that these efforts at across-the-isle exchange inevitably inspire. I can distinguish between talking to someone, and agreeing with them. We all should recognize that the very reason our Republic embraced a representative democracy was because it was clear to our Framers that there would always be people to disagree with. What we’ve lost is not a world in which everyone agrees. What we’ve lost is a practice of respectful deliberation about those disagreements. If it does nothing else, this Conference on the Constitutional Convention will demonstrate that practice.

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12 Responses to A Conference on the Constitutional Convention

  1. Zach says:

    unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be signed by any artists that are represented by the riaa.. of course a bunch of mp3.com type bands are going to sign a petition against the riaa, but it would carry some weight if some “real” artists signed it.

  2. ryan says:

    That’s kinda insulting. 😉

    Unfortunately for “real” artists they don’t really hold any cards unless they are one of the very small percentage of massively commercially successful ones.

    Take Ben Harper’s advice “If you aren’t signed don’t.” (summary).

    Eventually RIAA will and those it represents will die if real musicians follow that advice.

  3. kurt says:

    A step in a better direction. Yes, the petition collects weight and import, when commercially successful artists sign-on; conceptually, the petition is a positive move and deserves acknowledgement.

    The RIAA represents the industry so poorly, their initiatives seem designed to alienate the recording content consumers, users and music lovers, with frivolous legal actions. Meanwhile, real problems of piracy and theft, exist in Asia, unfettered and unchallenged. The RIAA content to sue people here in the US, because it’s simple, while globally the industry is hemoraging. Like a wreckless surgeon missing a triage.

    Where are creative ventures, partnerships and proposals that work, like iTunes? Why does the RIAA seem to only pursue legal alternatives? How about following the concepts of supply and demand and lowering your prices, during a recession, like all other industries. Since, the emergence of the CD, the industry raises prices, and then wonders why during a recession people reduce their consumption. How about some positive PR for a change? How about pouring all those legal retainers into iTunes-like ventures and partnerships? How much money does the music industry spend on legal expenses and how has that impacted the bottom line?

    Sooner or later the RIAA has to “get real”. It’s a falacy to conclude that “it’s piracy”, is responsible for all loss of profit or revenue? Perhaps the IP emergency in Asia, is already testing the RIAA’s vital signs.


  4. Tom Barger says:

    I have spent over two years attending court cases and Congressional inquiries at my own expense. The celebrity artists you cite, Zach, such as the members of the Recording Artists Coalition, have a fundamental conflict; that is, a Plantation Kitchen Syndrome, or a fear of losing their position. In addition, the legal fraternity, the attorneys representing artists, are in the pocket of the industry..

    Nothing we have done has convinced the RIAA Artists to SPEAK OUT on the Iraq Invasion or the Banned Songlist at Clear Channel. For a number of reasons, the media corporations and RIAA record labels are unable to break the paralized dry spell of lipsync dance acts; the best music in America is simply not to be found on major labels.

    So “for the rest of us”, seemingly the obscure and unwashed musicians you denigrate, the only path is to participate in P2P newtworks. We will abstain from joining ASCAP, and certainly will say “not in my name” will you collect the phony Sound Exchange Digital Royalties… our collective bargaining unit is Royalty Logic. We will speak in large numbers, such as the 25,000 members of CD Baby and the 30,000 of Just Plain Folks.

    It may occur to you that this copyleftmedia petition was indeed started in England. We support reclaiming the Public Domain; we prefer the Creative Commons licensing; and agree that the goals of the EFF “Let The Music Play” campaign, (for consumer rights) to be entirely consistent with our own neccesity as songwriters to access the artistic materials that constitute our cultural birthright.

    In this case, the consumers and songwriters have common cause.

  5. Daniel James says:

    As for artists that are ‘represented’ by the RIAA, you’ll notice that one of the first people to sign was Kris from The Orb, who have indeed sold a great deal of CDs around the world. Hardly an ‘mp3.com band’ – not that it should matter. The RIAA claims to be defending the rights of artists in general, not just the bottom line of its members.

    I believe the second A in RIAA is misleading, because the major labels are really multinational. As the MP3/WMA Land criminal case in Australia shows, this isn’t just a US issue.

  6. I resent being considered “unimportant” because I am not a slave of the label. Our band has only recently found a way to reach the world. (The Internet.) Do not denigrate this media because it is free of the shackles imposed by the RIAA and the evil industry oligopoly which effectively stole the originally public domain radio, TV, etc. from us long ago. The Internet is still (barely) of the people, by the people, and for the people. Your own mind has been poisoned by their media dominance if you think that my music and that of many other independent bands and artists is to be considered “unimportant.” WE are in the majority and are the true progenitors of musical culture in society. NOT the corporate lowest common denominator garbage that monopolistically makes every effort to control the gateway between art and audience.

  7. It might be overly cynical to point out that the RIAA’s fundamental purpose at this point may be to further the RIAA, rather than doing what’s best for all stakeholders in the recording industry value chain. It might be overly cynical, so I won’t base my argument on that.

    Instead, from a business perspective, the RIAA’s attacks on consumers is faulty simply because it aims to take away a service that individuals assign real value to. See this report, which gathered primary data indicating that many individuals would use file sharing services even if CDs were free.

    It’s not about stealing music, it’s about P2P being the most convenient delivery mechanism for the widest range of music. iTunes Music Store isn’t bad, but it isn’t P2P — and thus, it will always offer a smaller selection of music than worldwide P2P systems. At present, it’s not just missing regional and ethnic artists, it’s still missing superstars like the Rolling Stones. So how can it compete?

    The best solution for the music industry is to find a way to implement P2P and make money from it. The difficulty is that such a model is consumer-friendly and artist-friendly — while threatening the recording labels and, of course, the RIAA.

  8. nathan says:

    On the issue of importance of artists, I don’t think anyone’s trying to say that someone expressing themselves in this petition is trite or non-relevant. I think that what everyone here can agree on is that it’s not going to be the opinions of geeks, or artists who are “out of the national spotlight”, which will make up the minds of lawmakers. It would probably be more effective for one Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake (or even an alt act like Radiohead or Wilco) to make a statement in support than five hundred “second-tier” artists. I think if the artists involved in this petition are truly interested in forwarding the cause, they will abandon their pride for its sake.

  9. nathan, it IS those artists who are not “in the national spotlight” who ARE making the difference. Yes, I agree a celebrity artist’s voice might carry more weight in that they would be quicker to grab media attention, but there are a huge number of us independents fighting hard right now, more united than ever before in an under-the-radar grass-roots style effort. We are starting to make a dent with the help of fans, geeks, and others who see that the RIAA and the media oligopoly needs to be defeated.

  10. GDT says:

    I think of the last 5-6 CD’s I’ve bought 4 are internet-only releases (Richard Thompson, Robyn Hitchcock, Lori Carson, Jill Sobule). I think it’s more than just grass-roots even it doesn’t have the iTunes or P2P community approach. In other words you have to really search these things out and know what you’re looking for. But clearly there’s something afoot, something good. (Sobule is thinking of putting out her next CD as a completely fan-financed venture, see jillsobule.com)

  11. tom says:

    “But clearly there�s something afoot, something good.”

    Yes a musical revolution is slowly but surely taking place. I believe digital distribution services like apple iTunes offer a bright future for independent music, if the major label choke hold can be broken on online distribution. Mp3.com started out as a bastion of independent music but but was eventually swallowed up by Vivendi Universal. Time will reveal how apple react to pressure from the major labels.

  12. Jerry Mediva says:

    Major artists will always oppose mp3’s.

    Just my $0.02.


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