Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, December 31st, 2010.


One More Time …

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holiday, Obama Administration

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The New and Exceptional Chosen People

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The Constitution, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Poor Ezra said something sensible on television, and naturally he is being pilloried for it. You’ve probably heard that the incoming Republican majority plans to require that every new bill introduced from now on must cite which article in the Constitution authorizes whatever it is the bill proposes to do.

A couple of days ago Ezra pointed out that the individual mandate section of the health care reform bill actually cites case law supporting its constitutionality, and that this hasn’t made a dent in the wingnuts’ opinion that it is unconstitutional. He added,

To presume that people writing what they think the Constitution means — or, in some cases, want to think it means — at the bottom of every bill will change how they legislate doesn’t demonstrate a reverence for the document. It demonstrates a disengagement with it as anything more than a symbol of what you and your ideological allies believe.

In reality, the tea party — like most everyone else — is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution. When the constitutional disclaimers at the bottom of bills suit them, they’ll respect them. When they don’t — as we’ve seen in the case of the individual mandate — they won’t.

This is exactly right. However, this is being done to appease the teabaggers, and the teabaggers are not going to be appeased by citations of case law. They will want to see exactly where the Founding Fathers said it was all right to, for example, regulate food safety or protect endangered species.

The way many of them appear to interpret the Constitution, if the text doesn’t enumerate that very specific thing by name — say, hiring air traffic controllers — it’s unconstitutional. The fact that this would make most of the legislation passed in the past 233 years unconstitutional apparently hasn’t sunk in.

And what’s really likely to happen is that legislation will be so hopelessly snarled up in fantastical constitutional arguments that little will ever get to a floor vote. The only other possibility is that the citation will become a meaningless formality that no one takes seriously. I don’t see a middle ground there.

I already wrote a few days ago why it is blatantly insane to limit the Constitution that way. I’d add to that the teabaggers treat the Constitution as if it were dictated by God, and not written by a bunch of 18th-century men who intended it to be a basic outline of government processes and structures that future generations could use to govern themselves.

The other frightening thing about the teabaggers is their inability to understand that the document is pretty vague about a lot of things, and over the years many intelligent and patriotic people of good character have disagreed with each other over precisely what every clause means. To teabaggers, their interpretation is the only correct one — even though most of them have no better understanding of the Constitution than they do of quantum physics — and any deviation from their interpretation is not a mere disagreement, but sedition.

Then Ezra gave a television interview in which he said that the constitutional citations in the legislation would not be binding — for example, a law could still be challenged in court and declared unconstitutional, no matter what the citation says. Were that no so, it would be a rather large breach of the constitution’s separation of powers. See above about quantum physics.

Naturally, the wingnuts are now claiming that Ezra said the Constitution itself is not binding, which is not at all what he said. Which begs the question — if they can’t understand clear 21st-century English, how is it they claim to have perfect understanding of sometimes archaic 18th-century English?

Which takes me to the next point, which is that language is very dynamic and the meanings of words and phrases do change over time. That’s why it’s important to have some understanding of, for example, English common law as it existed in the late 18th century in order to appreciate what the authors of the Constitution meant. Often the particular phrase they chose was understood to mean a specific thing in the legal language of their time, and the way most 21st century readers would interpret the same phrase is entirely different.

Naturally, the usual mouth-breathers are hooting at Ezra for saying the Constitution is impossible to understand because it is old.

Which brings me to my larger point, which is that somehow in the minds of many, America and American history are somehow an extension of the Bible. The Constitution is the Fifth Gospel, and Americans are the new Chosen People. Religious faith and patriotism are seamlessly and inextricably woven together. No good can come of this.

Elsewhere — no pardon for Billy the Kid.

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