Freedom’s just another word for Homer’s right to snooze

Everyone understands presidential succession: If something should happen to the President of the United States, the Vice President takes over, (unless he is taking a hunter safety course). And if something should happen to the vice president, then we revert to a monarchy and Queen Latifah takes charge. Or Bono.
OK, most of us don’t know a whole lot about presidential succession once we get past Dr. Phil.
But most of us, apparently, know even less about the First Amendment. Last week Chicago’s McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum released a study indicating that Americans know the five members of Matt Groening’s Simpsons cartoon family a whole lot better than we know the five freedoms specified in the First Amendment.
I should note in the interest of journalistic full disclosure — and so I don’t sound like a complete dweeb — that I could only name three of the five rights myself: Freedom of speech, press, and religion. I missed the right to assembly and the right to petition the government. I should also note that I could name more Simpsons than rights: Four. I got Homer, Marge, Bart, and super smart Lisa. I missed baby Maggie. (I always miss baby Maggie.)
Altogether a thousand people were surveyed, and 20 percent could name all five Simpsons, while only one respondent (not one percent — one respondent) could name all five rights. A little more than a quarter of the sample could name at least two of the freedoms, while a little more than half could name at least two of the Simpsons.
Moreover, a fifth of the survey thought the right to own pets was a part of the First Amendment, while nearly two-fifths presumed that “taking the fifth” was a part of the First. Another 17 percent of the sample thought our colonial forefathers put the right to drive in the First Amendment.
Now, I know some people are alarmed that Americans know so little about the First Amendment. Others aren’t troubled at all, and see this as merely further corroboration that we are a nation of sluggish bores who would rather watch Fox comedies than be active members of our democracy.
I fall in-between. What I find most unnerving is that I think the “Simpsons” is a legitimately clever television show watched by (sound of throat clearing) smart people. I’m glad it is so embedded into our culture that a sizable number of people can reference it. But I would like to believe that if those souls are smart enough to watch the Simpsons, they would be smart enough to do better on a First Amendment civics pop quiz. I wish all of us, including yours truly, knew the Constitution better.
My overriding sense is that the future of the republic is not immediately imperiled because we failed the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey. I believe most of us understand on an intuitive level that among the great gifts of living in this country are the rights to assemble and speak our minds and write cranky letters to the Government. Certainly here in Vermont we did a lot of that just this past week during Town Meeting. But I also wish we all had scored higher on the survey (yes, me too).
Why? Because I would hate to see us get too complacent. Too confident that no elected government would ever try to control the media. Or make any group feel uncomfortable for practicing their religion. Or abridge our right to gather. What is true about drama may also be true for democracy: To succeed it needs conflict and human transformation. And that, in turn, demands civil discourse. Discussion. Debate. It demands knowledge.
And so I wish we were all a little more thoughtful and concerned. A little wiser. A little more like. . .Lisa Simpson.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 12, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.