24 March 2012

Constitution This and Founder That

The weather was gorgeous today, so this evening I decided to take a walk. There's nothing like a serene trip around the neighborhood in solitude to get the mind a-turning and tonight I began to contemplate purists. Now, I have on occasion been one myself. I balked at the casting of Judi Dench to play "M." in GoldenEye, I hate the designated hitter and ProTools auto-correct. I prefer to read tangible books to a digital format, and I don't believe in wearing a hat (much less a cap) at a table. I can blog all night long on how cell phones have damaged civilization as we know it.

What concerns me about purists is that they become so enamored with their ideal interpretation of something that never truly existed the way they want it to have been that the present stops being something to celebrate or enjoy and becomes something they personally must save by correcting everyone else.

Much has been made over the years about the debate over interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Is it a living document or should we read it at face value, to the letter? It should come as no surprise that I favor the former approach. Many would have you believe that the greatest thing about our government is that there are checks and balances. The National Rifle Association would have you believe it's the Second Amendment. They're both wrong.

The greatest thing our Founding Fathers ever did was free us from being beholden to them at all, or their successors, by establishing that power in our system is transient.

After George Washington left office, he reverted to being a private citizen who let his successors do their thing without interrupting or overshadowing them. That is, until 1798 when he was summoned by President John Adams to spearhead military preparations as war with France loomed on the horizon. Washington was reluctant to even get involved, but his sense of duty compelled him to answer the call. It's also worth noting that even in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, he delegated most of the work asked of him, deferred to Adams for the big picture stuff and couldn't get back to Mount Vernon fast enough.

In short, the Founders made it explicitly clear we were not to worship at their altar, but rather "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

I'm reminded of the old joke about the guy who ignores the forecaster's warning about severe flooding. He insists that God will take care of him. His neighbors flee and invite him to accompany them. He demurs, again citing his confidence that God will see him through the ordeal. Before long, he's had to move to the roof of his home, and some people go by in a boat and invite him to get in with them. He sends them away, adamant that God will get him through safely. Soon enough, though, he's overcome by water and drowns. He's rather upset as he's welcomed to Heaven and expresses his confusion that God did not take care of him. God replies, "I sent you a warning through the forecaster, I sent your neighbors and even those people in the boat. What more did you want?"

The point, of course, is that we make a terrible mistake by dedicating ourselves to a specific narrative. What matters is not how Madison or Monroe would have wanted us to do things. They served their era, and now they're long gone. It's okay to leave them be and take care of ourselves in the here and now. They told us to do so, and it baffles me why we think we're wiser for ignoring that most important philosophical heirloom.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree that the Constitution is a living document, despise the NRA but like the DH. I've been a Yankee and AL fan since the mid 50's. I heard essentially the same joke but in the version I know God sent him 2 boats and a helicopter.