Petitions to government are older than democracy itself. The 13th-century British Magna Carta declared: "If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us -- or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice -- to declare it and claim immediate redress."
Redress. The righting of a wrong, the tortuous equalization of one man's transgression against another. Furthered by the 17th century British Bill of Rights, which steadfastly declared: "That is the right of subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal."
Petition. The sending up of a complaint, from a locality, a municipality, a community, to a government more catholic than that, in an effort to obtain relief.
That was, after all, the basis for the founding of our nation. A few scraggly-bearded forefathers, a few upstarts, exceeded their jurisdiction and sent to the King of England a petition for redress. Were they attending to local matters, were they considering pressing needs of their constituents?
Of course not. They were working on a vision of the future.
Last week, the Bloomington City Council considered a resolution opposing any United States involvement in a pre-emptive, unilateral, attack against the nation of Iran. Predictably, the usual subjects from right-wing ideologues to the local monopoly newspaper made hay of the subject.
Hay because they asserted that such a resolution was "outside the scope" of the council's duties. That this community, and the people it elected to represent it, were out of their depth with regard to foreign policy matters and should instead, shut up, sit down and confine their deliberations to whether or not the intersection of Third and Walnut streets should be converted to LED-style traffic signals.
It's not really a surprise that the newspaper scolded the council. In the 30 or so years that I've been a student of the newspaper's tutelage, it has never deviated from its core mission of selling advertising space, meaning it has never once defended, much less promoted, a single progressive initiative from the presumption that polluters should pay the costs of their cleanup (i.e. Westinghouse and PCBs) to the presumption that the most advanced society on the planet should, at a minimum, award all of its citizens at least a basic, non-poverty, wage.
Nor was it a surprise that the usual cackle of right-wing detractors seized on the occasion to scold the council for wasting taxpayer dollars deliberating a subject far outside both their expertise and their duty.
That scold conveniently forgot petitions made by the right itself, such as the 2002 resolution by the Monroe County Council, then controlled by Republicans, asserting their full support of the President and his expeditionary forays into Afghanistan and Iraq.
As one wag put it, a long time ago, "I don't have to practice what I preach, because I'm not the kind of person to whom I'm preaching."
The quill and the damage done
But the truth of the matter is that resolutions and petitions from citizens to higher government are as American as apple pie. And that includes petitions and resolutions taken up not by individuals themselves, but by the elected representatives of individuals. Town boards, city councils and state legislatures all have a legitimate claim to act as the spokespersons for their constituencies.
"In this form, the first grand right is that of the people having a share in their own government by their representatives chosen by themselves ... If money is wanted by rulers, who have in any manner oppressed the people, they may retain it, until their grievances are redressed; and thus peaceably procure relief, without trusting to despised petitions, or disturbing the public tranquility," the Continental Congress declared on Oct. 26, 1774.
And higher government has a duty and responsibility to listen to the resolutions and petitions of the citizens, and their local representatives -- lest those citizens assert their right to, for being not heard nor respected, withhold their financial support of that higher government.
A resolution opposing the United States unilateral invasion of Iran, made by a unit of local government in Bloomington, Ind. Not much that could be considered more respectful of the institution of democracy, nor more deserving of the respect of the citizens represented.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.