Know Your Rights: An Introduction to Agape’s New Constitutional Amendment Column

Fox Frazier-Foley and Julianna DeMicco discuss the law as literature and the Constitutional Amendments in preparation for Agape’s upcoming series “Know Your Rights.”

Fox Frazier-Foley: Hi!

Julianna DeMicco: Howdy. How are you doing?

FFF: I’m fine, thanks. How are you?

JD: I’m all right.

FFF: I’m so glad that we’re finally sitting down to have this conversation for the blog. As Agape’s Blog Mistress, you often interview our authors and other literary folks, but readers who follow Blogging the Numinous don’t necessarily know that much about you! Since you’re going to be writing our new series, Know Your Rights—which is going to be a little bit like mini-briefs for readers on each of the Amendments to the US Constitution—I think this will be a fun opportunity to introduce you to Agape readers a little bit more. So, how did you come to be interested in Constitutional law? What’s your relationship to legislation as literature?

JD: I’ve had a passion and a healthy respect for the law for many years. I grew up in a household with a mother who is a practicing lawyer, and a father who is a teacher. In school, I was drawn to American history and the intricacies of how policies are drafted and enacted. In my senior year of high school, I took a class in American Law and Government, where I fell in love with the Constitution and the Amendments. The Constitutional Amendments, specifically the first ten Amendments, are some of the most complex pieces of American legislation. They are a negotiation of different ideas and values, and the way they are written speaks to that reconciliation. I think that this series is a mixture of my upbringing and my passions for the English language and the Constitutional Amendments. The language of the Amendments continues to be interpreted in new and different ways. They represent the flexibility of interpretation and a historical record of American values and goals as they have evolved through the years.

FFF: I love that your family helped shape your interest in the law; that interest is something you pursued throughout your course of undergraduate study, right?

JD: Yes, I pursued two majors during my undergraduate career: one in English and one in Philosophy, Politics, and Law (PPL). The classes I took in pursuit of my PPL major tended to focus on law and American Constitutional law in particular. I’ve found that the English major has been instrumental in the way I think about and approach considerations of policy and the Amendments.

FFF: It’s interesting to me to hear you say that your study of literature has influenced your approach to learning about the law. I took (and was the official tutor for) a number of pre-law courses as an undergraduate, and I, too, have a special fondness for reading legislative documents that I know a lot of people would probably think of as dry or boring. To me, legislation is like its own genre of literature; it’s both creative and derivative. I see different pieces of American law as creating this long corridor or continuum of conversation and reaction. The language used in drafting legal documents and policies—and the apertures in language that necessitate interpretation—I think they tell stories about who we are, who we have been. The good of progress and the ugliness of oppression are, for me, a live narrative that comes through such documents—something I’ve never really parsed for myself until this conversation prompted it. So, I’m curious, how would you say that your study of the English language, and/or American literature, has influenced your considerations of policy, or of something like Constitutional Amendments?

JD: The ways in which I think that laws and literature are similar focus more on the text: how it is created, how it is used, and what it reflects. The law, like any sort of written literature, is a rearrangement of established words to create a statement, which in the case of the law becomes an enactable policy. The negotiation and differences attached to the establishment of policy I’ve found similar to an editing process in writing. There’s a question of how the law can be made in such a way that it covers all the situations that it needs to without having to delineate every situation that could possibly ever occur. It’s part of why I find the Amendments so fascinating. Certain Amendments have been extended to cover issues that their authors would never have dreamed of considering. Often it shows a marked change in the way the majority of American society considers issues.

FFF: I know that not everyone agrees with me about this, but I’ll add here that I also think of laws as a type of magic—somewhat in the same way that literature is a bit magical or alchemical to me. To me, there’s a similarity between them because we actually have rituals—though we classify them as secular, of course—for how to create legislation. I mean, it’s a fairly rigid process with very specific steps. But, what becomes legislation often begins with energy, and then builds into an idea. The idea is eventually put into language. That language then goes through several more processes, of course, before it ever becomes law. But, to my mind, as people begin to build on those primal, unspoken energies that are based in the body, there’s a raising of energy that occurs. I mean, through the drafting and creation of legislation. And then, once a law is passed, there’s an intangible but very definite power that’s been conjured up behind whatever ideas the legislation is supporting or enacting. So, for me, I read it as a type of ritual where a basic energy, desire, or inclination is developed, and then heightened—raised up—to a state where we collectively transform it into something that moulds our reality. Because what’s legal and what isn’t does really shape how we behave, how we treat each other, how we treat ourselves. I think the Handmaid’s Tale (the recent adaptation of which I’ve been watching on Hulu) is a great example of this—in the beginning, when the travel laws and financial laws regarding women’s rights are changing, there is a real and terrifying alchemy that’s happening, and you can see it on the characters’ faces. The ideas and energies behind those laws ended up being transformed into something much more powerful, something with the ability to dictate reality. Again, I know not everyone agrees with my reading of legislation in this way, but it’s part of what makes law such a compelling topic for me, so I wanted to mention it and see what you thought.

JD: Actually, I took several classes on jurisprudence, which influences a lot of what you’re talking about with the magic of the legal system. It’s based heavily on the idea of social contract(s), and the ways in which we determine the sanctity of law, and under what circumstances we might consider civil disobedience to be acceptable in protest of any given regulation that some members of society may deem to be unacceptable.

FFF: And now that you’ve said that, everything I’ve ever read or taught about Hobbes, Kant, Rawls, Locke, and Rousseau comes rushing back to me. I’m sure the concept of the social contract probably has a much broader appeal than my metaphorical (sort of) notions about magic! (Laughs.) And so, for people who haven’t studied jurisprudence and who also don’t believe in the concept of legislation as sorcery—maybe if we focus for a minute on that idea of the social contract, and how that shapes our need to familiarize ourselves with current legislation, and also to know the basic building blocks of the rights we’re legally guaranteed.

JD: I often think we’ve implicitly signed on to a government “plan,” often without reading the terms of service. However, there is often no page on which to read those terms. Instead we are raised in a system where the legislative limitations already exist and we are charged with having to somehow maintain knowledge, independently, of what is and is not acceptable. Limitations on what we can and cannot do are everywhere from the vast federal policies, to the state penal code, to the signs on the road that tell us how fast we are supposed to drive. The legal transgressions of something like speeding tend to be more of a regulatory “for your safety” policy. However, what makes the Constitutional Amendments so interesting to me are the way in which some of them serve as a check on these sorts of regulatory laws. They are meant to protect the rights of citizens against the might of the social contract and gives them tools with which to express their discontentment. That is not to say that the Amendments protect against the repercussions of speeding, but they would make sure that a person got a fair trial, and that the punishment for this transgression is comparable to the transgression itself. I believe that an understanding of these “rights” enumerated in the Bill of Rights and subsequent changes to the Constitution allows for a greater feeling of political efficacy and a deeper understanding of how we as a society exist within the agreement of the contract.

FFF: I really like how you phrased that! So with this series that you’re going to be writing for us about the Amendments, you’re actually going to be taking readers through each Amendment, one by one, and kind of giving us a “Terms of Service” summary, in a way. This feels like a timely project to me—I know when Saumya and I came to you with this idea for a blog series, the three of us all agreed that this might be a way for Agape to promote civic engagement and awareness—a way to help make some important information a little bit freer, maybe more accessible. Especially when our courts system has been in the news so much lately, being called upon to define the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of so many orders, policies, and pieces of legislation. And, additionally, this feels like a time when America’s already somewhat inequitable educational system is really taking a hit. So many people don’t have the access to information that we all deserve. As a tiny nonprofit, Agape can’t really do everything for the American education system that I know we’d all like to do—but we can do some small things, like Poetic Equity, and like this.

JD: Exactly! The Know Your Rights series is especially important with the coverage of politics that media outlets have been focusing on, as well as the exchange of information that comes from these ideas reaching the forefront of conversations that citizens need to be having. We have the collective ability to openly express, debate, and discuss opinions and beliefs regarding the policy and laws that govern the nation we live in. Helping in this small way to supplement or provide tools that will open up or contribute to the conversation is not only a pleasure for me, but also a civic duty. Agape has the ability and the platform with which to spread this knowledge and give a briefing of this “fine print,” so I think it’s imperative that we do.

FFF: Well, I really look forward to seeing what information and ideas you’ll have for us to sift through! For a mini-spoiler, I’ll close by asking: do you have a favorite Amendment or two? If so, what’s particularly interesting to you about them? Anything you’re particularly looking forward to writing about?

JD: I’m particularly fond of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. The First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech, the press, religion, and assembly. The Fourteenth Amendment is meant to prevent discrimination and grants equal protection under the law. They tend to be the Amendments that are debated most frequently and they have been interpreted in many ways. The First Amendment is deceptively simple in its construction, but extremely complex in its meaning and what it’s been extended to cover. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is also interesting to me because of how it’s shaped the justice system and the way it handles cases pertaining to discrimination. Honestly, I’m looking forward to all of them, but especially those two.

Julianna DeMicco is a recent graduate of Binghamton University. She has a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Law, and in English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She was a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

Fox Frazier-Foley created Agape Editions. She is the author of three poetry collections, the most recent of which is titled Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017).

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