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26 June 2011

On Not Knowing What You're Talking About


Mr. Richard Stengel wrote a 5,000 word piece for Time magazine on the Constitution. I might be going out on a limb here, but this could well be the finest demonstration of what happens when a person writes so much about a topic that he knows absolutely nothing about.


Just for fun I will annotate the first four paragraphs of this specious exegesis. The original text is as is with my notes in bold:


Here are a few things the framers did not know about: World War II. DNA. Sexting. Airplanes. The atom. Television. Medicare. Collateralized debt obligations. The germ theory of disease. Miniskirts. The internal combustion engine. Computers. Antibiotics. Lady Gaga. This is the hook. Effective so far as it goes, but rife with foreboding about the juvenile line of reasoning that the author will employ. While doing research on a paper about obscenity in high school I remember reading a great line that went "asking what the founders would think about Deep Throat is like asking what they would think about helicopters." It would be an interesting conversation, to be sure, but utterly meaningless. None of the examples the author leads with give rise to any sort of constitutional question. But the founders were aware of the concepts of both technological innovation and, I'm sure, bad music.


People on the right and left constantly ask what the framers would say about some event that is happening today. What would the framers say about whether the drones over Libya constitute a violation of Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power to declare war? (I may be splitting hairs here, but using military means for policy ends is something the founders might have been able to wrap their heads around. The question becomes does the president have the authority to use the military without congressional approval. The answer is that the congress has the power of the purse strings and if the president were to misappropriate funds to carry out a military exercise that the congress has forbidden, the president has then committed an impeachable offense. Whether congress carries out the act of impeaching and removing the president is entirely up to the discretion of the congress.) Well, since George Washington didn't even dream that man could fly (The myth of Icarus predates Washington by about 17 centuries. Washington admired Seneca, but even Stoics can dream, no?), much less use a global-positioning satellite to aim a missile, it's hard to say what he would think (Nor does it matter, but a tiptoe through the Pacificus-Helvidius debates could give anyone with the time and desire to know what one is talking about an idea). What would the framers say about whether a tax on people who did not buy health insurance is an abuse of Congress's authority under the commerce clause? (The Commerce Clause was intended to allow the free flow of commerce between the states. Our modern understanding of our federated republic is ignorant of the parochialism that plagued the young nation. But why let the plain meaning of the words used (and a lack of anything added to the constitution to the contrary) get in the way. It is, very simply put, beyond the constitutional authority of congress to require a citizen to buy anything, even if it is for his own good.) Well, since James Madison did not know what health insurance was and doctors back then still used leeches (Still do, dumbass. This falls under the fallacious reasoning of the Whig Theory of History (& here) something done a long time ago must be foolish, and we are necessarily smarter today than we were in the past. It is also a false analogy, just because there have been advancements in our understanding of medicine doesn't mean that we haven't lost an appreciation for what our constitution says and does.), it's difficult to know what he would say. And what would Thomas Jefferson, a man who owned slaves and is believed to have fathered children with at least one of them (prurient and irrelevant), think about a half-white, half-black American President born in Hawaii (a state that did not exist)? Again, hard to say (Er, no it isn't. If we were to reanimate old TJ, give him a quick primer on the events from his death through the Civil War and to today and then show him the election returns from the 2008 election, he would probably say "congratulations." But again, it doesn't matter because history happened and Mr. Obama won the election. There is no constitutional controversy here.).


The framers were not gods and were not infallible (Textbook sophistry, no one has ever argued thus. Ever. To belabor this further would lend credence that this level of asininity does not deserve). Yes, they gave us, and the world, a blueprint for the protection of democratic freedoms — freedom of speech, assembly, religion (no, they didn't)— but they also gave us the idea that a black person was three-fifths of a human being (no, they didn't. The 3/5s compromise did not mean a black person was "3/5s" of a human being and this argument is as lazy as it is wrong. Here the actual words that were written will be helpful, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." So saying that this clause makes slaves (n.b., not "blacks") 3/5s of a person is akin to saying that the constitution made the Indians unpersons. This was a hedge against Southern hegemony specifically on the notion of slavery and was done to hasten the day that slavery would be abolished, not to forestall it), that women were not allowed to vote (neither the founders (in convention) nor the constitution said any such thing) and that South Dakota should have the same number of Senators as California, which is kind of crazy (Why? Does the author not understand bicameral republicanism? Or simply not like the fact that those rubes in South Dakota are entitled to the same representation as those enlightened superhumans who live in California? And I should point out that neither South Dakota nor California existed at the time; both joined the union knowing full well what the rules of the game were, and the Connecticut Compromise is one of the finest examples of political compromise on the history of mankind. Crazy indeed.). And I'm not even going to mention the Electoral College (Why not? I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that it might be because the author doesn't understand how it works or why the founders thought it important (though hardly essential).). They did not give us income taxes (Thankfully). Or Prohibition (See, they were smart after all). Those came later (Perhaps, in the case of the former, they realized that the fruits of one's labor were rightly that person's property and in the latter that attempts to regulate individual behavior were a fool's errand. Regardless, at least it was realized at some point that increases in the authority of the government did require amending the constitution according to the established protocols.).


Americans have debated the Constitution since the day it was signed, but seldom have so many disagreed so fiercely about so much (First clause is indubitably correct, the latter is ahistorical stupidity). Would it be unconstitutional to default on our debt? (No.) Should we have a balanced-budget amendment? (Academic and moot, if enough people want to do it, the mechanism is there to do it. The founders did not find it necessary, for whatever reason, to include such a requirement. Though it is doubtful that they would be comfortable with deficits quite like we have today.) Is it constitutional to ask illegal immigrants to carry documents? (Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly is constitutional to control migration, so far as it is practicable, into sovereign borders.) The past decade, beginning with the disputed election of 2000, has been a long national civics class about what the Constitution means — and how much it still matters. For eight years under George W. Bush, the nation wrestled with the balance between privacy and security (an issue the framers contended with) while the left portrayed the country as moving toward tyranny (an argument conspicuously dropped even though the Obama administration has carried on virtually all of Bush's policies and even gone far beyond anything Bush or his henchmen ever considered.). For the past three years under President Obama, we have weighed issues of individual freedom vs. government control while the right has portrayed the country as moving toward a socialist welfare state (Here the author provides a link to tea-party protesters carrying signs; no reasoned examination of the incontrovertible argument that the government has increased the public provision of non-public goods (what socialism is), just an assertion supported by a link to eight pictures taken during a protest march. Smell that? That's modern American journalism).


I could go on, but really, what's the point? I encourage you to read the whole thing. The only thing any honest reading of the article will present you with is the knowledge that the author doesn't know what he's talking about.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Herein lies the flaw in the Constitution. Government and bureaucracy have a natural tendency to grow without end, regardless of their constitutional limits. The framers wanted limited government, but clearly the American people today do not. And since the government usually reflects the attitudes of the people, we have the huge government we have. The two Parties are only interested in expanding their own influence and power, so therefore I don't think the answer lies in getting the right politicians or judges. The answer lies in winning the intellectual debate and demonstrating effectively the miserable failures of big government.