The Dumbo Effect

We were watching Pulitzer Prize winning What the Constitution Means to Me on Amazon Prime the other night. This is a movie adapted from the Broadway play of the same name, based on the teenage life of American Heidi Schreck who at 15 gave numerous speeches on the American constitution, winning enough prize money to pay for her university education. One of the segments of the play that caught my attention was the one in which Heidi played by herself invites an ace local high school debater, 14 year old Rosdely Ciprian, to join her onstage. The two of them participate in a formal debate on whether or not the constitution should be abolished. At one point, the young Ciprian declares that the constitution is flawed to the point of being hopeless. Heidi concedes that the constitution has its weaknesses but asserts that without it there would be no guarantee of liberties.

For the benefit of readers who may not be up to date on the American constitution,

The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States. Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people by the framers and the consent of the legislatures of the States, it is the source of all government powers and provides important limitations on the government that protect the fundamental rights of United States citizens.

The Constitution

Since its enactment in 1789, the constitution has been amended 27 times and is a topic of perpetual debate in American politics. Ciprian’s proposal for the abolition of the constitution for some reason brought to mind Walt Disney’s cartoon film, Dumbo.

This Disney classic from 1941 tells the story of Dumbo, a baby elephant who is the subject of ridicule for his big ears. He is taken under the protection of Timothy Q. Mouse and one morning after the two of them accidentally got drunk, they find themselves stuck high in a tree. Timothy realises that they got there because Dumbo flew, using his ears as wings. Later they befriend some crows who plot with Timothy to convince Dumbo that he can fly if he has a magic feather, a simple tail feather plucked from one of the crows. Soon Dumbo and Timothy and the crows are seen flying through the air as Dumbo masters his magic skill. Dumbo and Timothy return to the circus where they are forced up to the top of a tall burning building where Dumbo must dive into a rescue net held by the other clowns. Timothy has planned for a dramatic turn to this dive, one that sees Dumbo show off his flying skills to the audience and the circus folk. However as Dumbo dives out of the window, his magic feather blows out of the grasp of his trunk and the two plummet towards the tiny net. But at the last second, Timothy blurts out that the feather isn’t magic at all and that Dumbo can fly without it. Dumbo gives his best try and sure enough, he flies on his own.

Now what had me see Dumbo as being similar to What the Constitution Means to Me? It’s the magic feather. I assert that the constitution is held as some sort of political magic feather. The feather works like this: if we get the constitution right, then American rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be honoured. We didn’t quite get it right and those errors and omissions are what lets legislators pass laws that compromise our rights. But is this really the case? Isn’t this concern – that our rights will be compromised – our magic feather? The legislators can’t get it right because the magic feather is missing.

There is a painful part of the Constitution movie in which we hear actual recordings of a supreme court member discussing what the meaning of “shall” is. He’s doing this because of a case before the supreme court in which a lawsuit has been brought against the police for failing to protect a woman from her violent husband. The woman assumed that the police would protect her because that is their job. However, the judge points out that the legislation in question says something along the lines of “The police shall protect the people”, not “The police must protect the people” and somehow there is confusion over “shall” and “must”.

There is something rotten in the state of Denmark if the supreme court of the U.S.A. must go to the constitution to work out whether police forces “must” protect people or “shall”. They are using the “magic feather” to evade their duty. And here I agree totally with the premise that the constitution be abolished.

What if we replace it with a simple code of honour? The constitution with its bill of rights was intended to be such a document. Wasn’t the intention for the American society to be one of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that governments are created to protect those rights? If so, then this can be said in one sentence, one paragraph at most. It is not created to be the supreme law of the land but the source of inspiration and integrity from which justice is delivered.

We become a people like little Dumbo. He can’t fly without his magic feather. We can’t live in peace and harmony without our constitution. Dumbo was wrong. We are wrong. Consider that those thousands and thousands of laws, rules and regulations that we bury ourselves in are like magic feathers. We need them to guarantee us justice. Consider we must shed those thousands of orders and replace them with a simple code of honour.

I will end this by quoting from The Seekers and their song Georgy Girl, “… shed those dowdy feathers and fly …”. Shed those thousands of rules around your neck and come alive! A little bit?

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