Friday, February 17, 2012

Constitutional Slavery

I often find news articles or snippets of them or quotes and email them to myself as reminders of things to write about when I have a few free minutes, as I do today. As I was searching through my “Ideas” folder in my email, I came across this:

As usual, Thomas Jefferson put it best. In a letter to a friend in 1816, he mocked “men [who] look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched”; “who ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.” “Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs,” he concluded. “Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before.”

As usual, Jefferson is correct. And in our present age where constitutional fundamentalism is perhaps more highly in vogue than at any point in our nation's history, Jefferson's words are poignant reminder of the Founders' true intent. Perhaps the only irony of this statement is that Jefferson, in his wisdom, was proving himself to have, if not “a wisdom more than human” at least a wisdom greater than many of those who came after.

The Founders of the United States were attempting to establish a society as free of tyranny as had yet been envisioned on this earth. Free from the tyranny of a state-sponsored religion, and equally free of the tyranny of a church-sponsored state. And while the doctrinal Anglican Church and the unsubstantiated “divine” right of kings were the evils most pressing on their minds in the years when the foundations of our nation were being laid, the tyranny of tradition was not far removed from their thoughts.

But some people enjoy tyranny. Many of our current Supreme Court Justices, and presidential candidates, are of this persuasion. Tradition, dogma, tyranny. It is an easy slide from one to the other. They are seductive. They free a mind from that unbearable burden of thinking for itself. (It is no coincidence that those to whom constitutional fundamentalism appeals are often those to whom religious fundamentalism appeals as well.) Why do the hard work of making the best human effort you can to resolve the problems you are faced with in your lifetime, when you can just rigidly adhere to the solutions of a time long gone, and shrug your shoulders at their consequences in this one?

Jefferson argued that the Constitution should be rewritten every 20 years- once a generation. As brilliant a political and philosophical mind as his, was humble enough to recognize that his wisdom, his yearnings for what his nation should be, could not extend beyond the horizon of his own lifetime. We should have the good sense to take one of the fathers of the American Constitution at his own word, and trust his assessment of their own limitations.

One of the other great minds of the age, Thomas Paine said,

"The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead?"

This statement is so obvious, it warrants almost no comment. There are, however, a few small addenda worth making. First, while slavish adherence to tradition is supreme folly, total disregard of tradition is only slightly less so. Traditions are generally established for some legitimate reason, conscious or unconscious at the time, and casting them out without serious deliberation as to their present utility is done at our own peril.

Second, I would add, “... it is the living, and to a lesser degree, those not yet living, that have any right to it.” We owe something to those who will come after us. This can be asserted from a purely philosophical stance, or made poignant, and very real, when one has children. At the same time, however, human beings are designed to discount the future, and this is rational in the abstract sense, (though our animal faculties often do a poor job with the actual calculations.) $100 now is worth more than $100 a year from now. All other things being equal, the present is more valuable than the future, as we do not know what the later holds. ($100 now may be worth less than $200 a year from now but how much we discount the future depends on myriad complicating factors.)

But Paine's main point remains unscathed. The dead have wisdom to share with the living, but wisdom is not immutable. The wisdom of a previous age may be the folly of this one. And it is up to those in the living, breathing present to decide which is which.

So let us set aside the paradox inherent in what I am about to say, and recognize that both these men passed onto us the one piece of wisdom that may very well be unchanging- That what is right, what is fair, what is just and what is wise, is up to those who stand to gain the most, or lose the most, from their proper, current, evaluation.


  1. Dude, I don't know what kind of school teacher you are, but I think we need more people like you doing it. We get stuck with the likes like;

    teaching is a noble profession, and I wished we kept it that way. I think he is your nemesis, your opposite in every way.

    But I don't know who is dumber, him, or me for even attempting to argue with him.

    anyways, Bravo, very well done.

  2. Wait, is that guy a teacher? I didn't see anything on there that says he was, just another blowhard, superstitious fool obsessed with Bronze Age myths who happens to have a radio show.

    I could only stand being on that link for like 3 minutes, but I happened to click on a post entitled, "If there is no God... so what?" Were all those comments on there from you and your brother? Hilarious. That made me laugh out loud, assuming it was true, but no, I don't think you'll ever make any progress in getting through to someone like that. The second he starts to hear anything you say, faith's auto-defense- "Doubt is sin, you must BELIEVE," kicks in and he's right back to square one.

    As for my own teaching, unfortunately (for my own interest level) I am not in a position where we are tossing around big ideas on a daily basis. I spend most of my time trying to teach kids how to capitalize the first word of a sentence and distinguish between a noun and a verb. Someday, perhaps...

  3. Yeah he is a highschool teacher, my daughter is in one of his classes, though I don't know what it is.

    If you remember about a year ago, I had written you about using your articles. Peter Heck was writing in our local paper, I had no idea who he was, I thought he was just some right wing loon. Well, during my writing to the paper, and using your articles and snippets from them to argue against him, I found out from my daughter he was a teacher. So I decided to just leave it alone, and not stir anything up.

    FF to now. My daughter has been coming home, asking me questions, and saying things he has said. Which lit the fire, and I started on a crusade. It don't matter though, just like you said. He has a convoluted idea of the world and his own place in it. Infact, he has a seminar type thing called "Sex Wars" where he teaches kids how to argue against homosexual's fight for equality. It's sickening.

    Not to long ago, my dad was sitting in the dentist's office minding his own business. This dude in there is going on about Obama, and homosexuals, and my dad is just ignoring him. Anyway, after about the 3rd attempt of this dude trying to get a response from my dad, my dad finally says, "I voted for Obama and I'm going to again. " Dude's response; "What are you, one of those gay activists"???? Really??? My dad isn't any type of activist, he's just a mellow old man looking to get his teeth cleaned. But that's the types of people running around here. At times, I feel like I'm going crazy.

  4. Wow, Adam. That's frustrating. Just keep fighting the good fight.

    Did your email change? It may just be that I have a weird connection at the moment, but I tried to email you and it didn't show me your address. You still have mine, right? If you do will you just say hey so I can reply to that? Thanks. I have a kind of totally off topic question for you. Kinda ridiculous actually. But awesome. :)