Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In an editorial in the New York Times last week Bob Dole asked rhetorically if what he called the Democratic abuse of the filibuster was “what the framers intended,” as if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were handed down to us like the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But these are not mystical (or mythical) documents, and the founders were not a cabal of high priests laying down a set of dogmas and dietary codes to follow to get into the kingdom of heaven. The Constitution is not a set of religious dogmas; it’s a set of guidelines to guard against them.

Politicians and judges of a certain stripe, usually on the right, seem to think of the Constitution as a sacred fetish to be worshipped in fear and awe. But it has always been, and was always meant to be a supremely practical, living document. It has been amended 27 times, after all. The reason it’s been replicated all over the world is that it carries one mind-blowing and ever more liberally applied assumption: that we, the people—not some monarch, not a Pope—control our collective destiny.

“What the founders intended” has the ring of incantation, not surprising as it is mostly heard from representatives of the party of monarchists and theocrats. It makes sense coming from self-professed “originalist” Antonin Scalia, who may be the next American pope, or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whichever slot opens up first. Originalists and Strict Constructionists are cut from the same cloth as Biblical fundamentalists, whose interpretation of their text is equally specious, and brimming with hubris. Neither seek the truth, but by pretending special insight into the minds of the makers, hope to gain or maintain power, pure and simple.

The founders’ world was one without electricity, TVs or automobiles, not to mention internet porn, gene therapy, or feeding tubes. In 1776 the population of the colonies was about 2.5 million. The colonists could not have anticipated much of what we take for granted today. The beauty of the Constitution is that they didn’t need to. The assumptions undergirding the law, the truths we hold to be self-evident, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, are there to point us in the direction of liberty. But it’s up to each generation to define liberty for itself. Should what the founders intended when they spoke of “all men” be strictly adhered to today? How would they have looked upon the suffragettes? Or the civil rights movement? They may very well have been appalled. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter. We are not living in their world, but they wrote a document that can live in ours.

We don’t owe fealty to the past, we owe allegiance to the future. Our forefathers clearly recognized this. But you wouldn’t expect the current batch of end-timers running the show in Washington to get that that’s really what the founders intended.

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