July 30, 2004
What’s in a Name
By David A. Zimmerman
I think I signed something I shouldn’t have signed. Or maybe I should have signed it. I’m all “engh” about it.
I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when a coworker “invited” me to sign a petition to amend the Illinois constitution. And I signed it, mostly because I was still waking up and not in the mood for a fight.
But as soon as he left I remembered that I don’t support such an amendment. It’s not that I was unsympathetic to the thought behind the petition; it’s that I don’t think such an amendment is a responsible use of a constitution. Constitutions govern how a government is to be run and ought to deal with issues such as term limits for members of Congress or definitions of voting rights. Constitutions do not typically dictate how people are to conduct themselves on a day to day basis. If we amend the constitution to prohibit, for example, the sale and distribution of alcohol, then we really ought to amend it to forbid murder, theft and any number of violations of natural law.
But I digress. The real issue is that I don’t support the amendment, yet I signed the petition. I signed the petition because I hate conflict, but the petition will likely generate more conflict, which—as I mentioned—I hate.
It’s not as though I expect this particular petition to sway the will of the Illinois state government or the state’s dozens of living voters. I don’t think this issue will hold the attention of the American people for very long, and the amendment process takes a long time.
But now my name is on a petition that I don’t agree with, and that means that my words do not correspond with my actions. It’s one thing to say “I believe this”; it’s quite another to take steps to do something about that belief. And when I take steps to do something that I have said I don’t support, I am not—as former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, might put it—living in the truth.
All this just to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about what I believe about, of all things, the telos of the Illinois constitution. As if anyone in the known universe cares about the Illinois constitution. But it points to larger issues: what am I willing to sacrifice to maintain peace, and what am I willing to sacrifice in order to be myself.
So I’m ashamed to say that I let a moment of discomfort color my identity. I’ll never be Václav Havel, apparently. And unless I get some gumption, I may never be myself either.
Read about my forthcoming book, if you have any remaining respect for me.
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