Friday, January 7, 2011

Redacting the Constitution

The Republicans read the Constitution on the House floor, as promised, but they didn't read it as written. They skipped the passages that have been altered by amendments, such as the passages that count slaves as three-fifths of a person. This was an intellectually dishonest action, but perfectly constructed politically. All the legions of uninformed people watching Fox will believe that the Constitution was divinely written, since there doesn't seem to be any sections that have needed to be changed.

As I said below, the main purpose was to position the Republican Party as the defender of the Constitution, and they just showed how hollow their stance is.

The New York Times editorial today had this to say about the Republican charade:

Members of the House might have thought they were bringing the Constitution alive by reading it aloud on Thursday. But they made a crucial error by excising its history. When they chose to deliberately drop the sections that became obsolete or offensive, and which were later amended, they missed a chance to demonstrate that this document is not nailed to the door of the past. It remains vital precisely because it can be reimagined...The reading was conceived so that Republicans could demonstrate their fidelity to the document and make it seem as though Democrats had abandoned it...The effect of Thursday’s reading, in case anyone was actually paying attention, was to wrongly suggest that the document was seamless and perfect, as if carved in marble rather than stained with sweat and American blood.
Yale Law Professor Jack M. Balkin wrote in his blog that reading the Constitution as a whole would remind us that it is a work in progress:

The Constitution is not perfect. Nor are our political institutions. Nor are the American people. But we can take pride in our Constitution precisely because we Americans have continually sought to improve the Constitution, our institutions, and ourselves over time. We have not always been successful in these efforts. We have made many mistakes along the way, and we have committed many injustices. We continue to do so to this very day. The point rather, is that by creating this great experiment in self-government-- the United States Constitution-- we have committed ourselves to achieving a more just, free and equal society under law and we have adopted our Constitution and amendments to it as a way of realizing those commitments in history. It is a task that began with the founding and continues to this very day. It is a task that is never finished.

Reading the entire Constitution is a way of reminding ourselves that the Constitution is always a work in progress; that it has been flawed in the past and probably is still flawed in the present; that what we have now before us is not necessarily the final version of the Constitution, but that the Constitution can always be improved and that it must be improved; that no matter how much our political institutions may have failed us in the past, and no matter how much we have failed ourselves in the past, political redemption is always still possible; and that We the People of the United States can still always strive for a more just, more free, and more equal country-- what the Preamble of the Constitution calls a "More Perfect Union."

Reading the entire Constitution-- including its oblique references to slavery--is a way of engaging in proper humility about the products of flawed human beings, but it is also a way of expressing faith in eventual improvement. If the Constitution once allowed great evils, and now it does not, perhaps someday we will be able to recognize the current evils it still allows, and ameliorate them as well.

Reading the entire Constitution should not be an act of shame that politicians avoid. It should be an act of hope.
I'd like to see progressive politicians standing up and claiming the Constitution for liberals as Mr. Balkin does so eloquently. See my post below, "Progressives Need to Claim the Constitution."

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