All right, I’ve ignored these articles for a week or so now, but enough’s enough. We’ve seen a series of columns claiming that the Right or the Tea Party, or Just Plain Scary People “worship” or fetishize“* the Constitution. The latest is this one from The New Yorker‘s Jill Lepore:
If you haven’t read the Constitution lately, do. Chances are you’ll find that it doesn’t exactly explain itself. Consider Article III, Section 3: “The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.” This is simply put—hats off to the committee of style—but what does it mean? A legal education helps.
Ezra Klein was right — nobody can understand the Constitution because it was written over one hundred years ago in old-timey language! But more seriously, to those of us who worship this particular idol, Lepore has these words of warning:
The Constitution is ink on parchment. It is forty-four hundred words. And it is, too, the accreted set of meanings that have been made of those words, the amendments, the failed amendments, the struggles, the debates—the course of events—over more than two centuries. It is not easy, but it is everyone’s. It is the rule of law, the opinions of the Court, the stripes on William Grimes’s back, a shrine in the National Archives, a sign carried on the Washington Mall, and the noise all of us make when we disagree. If the Constitution is a fiddle, it is also all the music that has ever been played on it. Some of that music is beautiful; much of it is humdrum; some of it sounds like hell.
No one I know thinks the Constitution is perfect. On the Left, like Lepore has just done in her lengthy article, they debate what the Constitution means. They want to know how this clause or that might be stretched to cover the progressive power-grab of the moment. But on the right, we’re pretty certain what the text means. Instead, we love debating how we’d amend the Constitution — how we’d try to perfect an imperfect law. Which, if we really worshipped the thing, would be a bit like listening to the Sermon on the Mount and frequently interrupting Jesus with, “Yes, but…!”
What we recognize is that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. That is, what it says must be followed, until the text is amended or a new basic law enacted. Because a Constitution that is not knowable, a Constitution that is twisty-stretchy and dictated by the needs of the moment, is no Constitution at all. When the law becomes whatever the current ruling clique decrees, then we have taken the first step (and middle, and last) on the road to serfdom.
Yes, there will be misunderstandings and fights about the Constitution’s meaning and proper application along the way, but that’s why we establish courts and hold elections. This much to me is clear: We do not worship the Constitution; we dread tyranny.
For Lepore and her intellectual kin, however, it would seem they dread the Constitution and…
…well, you can figure out the rest.
*I can’t be the only one who, when accused of fetishizing the Constitution, pictures a very old piece of parchment decked out in a black leather merry widow and stiletto-heeled boots.