A Sterile Constitution


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “War Between Brothers” is what my ancestors called it without irony.Report

  2. Avatar RTod says:

    Can I actually despise the empty theatrics of today’s reading and still disagree about the reading of all the parts we have taken out?

    If I were a Tea Partier, I wouldn’t want the Constitution to be read as a history lesson, I’d want it as a symbolic reminder of what the government about to take power can and can’t do; reading only the parts of the Constitution that are applicable today seems to jive with that.

    That being said, what a useless photo-op wank session.Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to RTod says:

      I thought it was a good idea the congress critters to remember that the gov’t only has enumerated powers and can’t do everything they want it to do b/c it might feel good, protect children or mandate health care.Report

      • Avatar RTod in reply to Scott says:

        I’d buy that more if I believed that a). the Republicans doing the reading had any actual desire to limit power period, rather than just limit power at those times they are not in charge, and b). I thought that any of the problems facing us stem from the fact that no one in Congress had ever really heard of this Constitution-thingy up until now.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Scott says:

        Or have teachers lead prayer, post the ten commandments, teach religion as science, pass laws without a secular purpose.Report

    • Avatar Heidegger in reply to RTod says:

      RTod–you must, must, must stop whatever you’re doing and go to this website. Is this the ultimate, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Just make sure you don’t food or a drink in your mouth–it’s priceless!

      Not wanting to be characterized as an elite, Ivy League institution, they had to make a few alterations to this architectural gem. And now, you know what an incognito satellite campus of MIT/CalTech really looks like. It’s breathtaking.


      • Avatar RTod in reply to Heidegger says:

        Oh my god, that was AMAZING! Here I was saying it must be in some guy’s house, because all there is are abandoned mills and warehouses. But I was obviously thinking too small – it’s a fucking abandoned warehouse!

        Thank you, thank you, thank you , H. Although you might owe me for new scotchgaurding of my couch, because I was really laughing hard.Report

        • Avatar Heidegger in reply to RTod says:

          HAAAAAAAAAAAA! I just knew you would immediately get that, especially after you had said the “Institute” must have been IN his house or just his house! It would have been nearly as funny without your observations, so many, many thanks and all beers are on me.

          Next up—I’m going to formally apply to the Institute–I must see what the application forms look like. If it is in same league as this picture, the possibility of demise of laughter could be too real–will keep you posted. You’ll have to show this to Pat–think he’ll get a kick out of it, too. Maybe those characters in the picture are the entire faculty-and probably tenured, too!Report

          • Avatar RTod in reply to Heidegger says:

            H, I don’t think you need to apply. I bet if you made your own diploma on Word you would never get caught, and in fact it might even look more believable than what they would give you; plus you’d save the $79.95 tuition fee.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to RTod says:

          How could they not call it the Howard Foundation?Report

  3. Avatar Francis says:

    The 14th Amendment states in part: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. … The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. ”

    Question: What limits exist on the power of the federal government under this Amendment. For example, could the federal government determine that the provision of health care is a privilege, that the patchwork state law system was depriving citizens of that privilege and that the PPACA was the appropriate response? And, if you believe that the power of the federal government does not go so far, why should your viewpoint hold sway as opposed to that of the elected representatives who passed the law?

    Also, in the 1930s, FDR advocated for an expansive view of the Commerce Clause. He was reelected with huge majorities. Why don’t those elections validate that view of the Constitution?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Francis says:

      Did Plessy v. Ferguson demonstrate that segregation was, in fact, Constitutional?Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:


        Until Brown vs Board of education demonstrated that it wasn’t.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

          And that’s the rub, isn’t it?

          X can be Constitutional today and, tomorrow, X can be Unconstitutional.

          The Constitutionality of X is not a function of the Constitution, but a function of *TIME*.Report

          • Avatar RTod in reply to Jaybird says:

            well saidReport

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:

            Time and the opinions of 9 old people who dress funny.Report

          • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jaybird says:

            But how does that inform our decisions? I can still think HCR is a good thing and constitutional and you can disagree. Fine. But so what. We still each make our choices and have out beliefs and interpretations. We will never all agree on what The Big C so where do we go from there. Well other then self-righteous displays and beliefs that its just our team that has the true vision.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gregiank says:

              But how does that inform our decisions?

              Well, how much of a nihilist do you want to be?

              Let’s only turn it up to 2.
              The Constitution, as a document, is intended to be interpreted. The 8th Amendment, for example, protects us from, among other things, “Cruel and Unusual” punishments.

              *RIGHT THERE*, they mention two words that are INTRINSICALLY situational and cultural. At the time of the Constitution being written, the gallows were an appropriate tool for public executions. Today that is considered “cruel and unusual”. The 8th Amendment did not change. Culture did. It was not Unconstitutional to hang a criminal in 1776 because it was not cruel or unusual. Today it is cruel and unusual and it is thus Unconstitutional.

              The 8th Amendment *STILL* *STANDS*.

              Turn it up to 10.

              The Constitution is a Living Document. It’s not intended to be read the way that Slave-owners read it. It’s intended to be read the way that we read it. The 2nd Amendment might make sense if the only things available were muzzle-loading rifles or even revolvers. The 8th Amendment might make sense if there were no such thing as International Terrorism. The 10th Amendment might make sense if there were no such thing as Institutionalized Racism.

              As it stands, we now know that the Constitution is a portmanteau of the best intentions of the people who actually have to make decisions in real time. They didn’t believe in income taxes in 1800. They believed in slavery. They didn’t believe in universal health care in 1850. Women couldn’t vote.

              We know better now. The Constitution is a tool to be used when it is useful and abandoned the second it gets in the way.

              And to point out that the First Amendment protects speech against government intrusion rather than to understand that the Government *WROTE* the Constitution in the first place is to completely misunderstand that that was then and this is now.

              We live, of course, in the middle.Report

              • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well yeah i agree we all interpret the constitution and our time influences the meanings. But still at some point there will always be disagreements about its meaning with no final answer. What the Constitution gives us is a process for figuring out what the gov will do.Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to Francis says:


      Last time I checked, FDR did not have a law degree or the authority under the Constitution to have the final word on what the Constitution meant no matter how popular he was.

      I think it might be a little hard for Congress make the states enforce a “privilege” that no state actually recognizes as such. But the point is moot as the Obamacare mandate is not predicated on health care being a privilege. However, I am not an expert on the 14th amend or cases.

      Unlike some of the congress critters who voted for the health care law, I have a law degree which I think gives me more credibility than some congress critters.Report

  4. To skip straight over the absurdity of this all, is it fair to say that the Republican Party is at least twenty years behind the curve when it comes to understanding social norms? First Michael Steele and now this – the Republican Party seems to be actively driving away anyone under age forty-five with its heavy-handed attempts to court everyone under age forty-five.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    I like that they read the Constitution out loud and then, immediately after, the first (or at least one of the first) law they propose is blatantly unconstitutional. Not “it’s a matter of interpretation” unconstitutional, but directly contradicting the language of the constitution. And the reason for doing it as a law rather than trying to amend the Constitution? Because, you know, amending it is too hard.

    You can’t write comedy like the American House of Representatives (or tragedy like the American Senate).Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Chris says:

      Which law are you referring too? I suspect I would agree with you but I am too ignorant to know.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

        Steve King’s bill on birthright citizenship.

        I guess they didn’t read Section 1 of the 14th Amendment:

        “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

          Devil’s Advocate Only. (I am a full-throated supporter of open borders.)

          It could be argued in good faith that Undocumented Visitors are not “subject to the jurisdiction thereof”.

          Since Z is not true, “(X or Y) and Z” is not true even if X is true.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Jaybird says:

            Realizing you’re just being devil’s advocate, this kind of argument wouldn’t pass the laugh test without redefining the term “jurisdiction.” An illegal alien is inherently subject to the jurisdiction of the United States as long as he is within the United States – otherwise, there’d be no basis to arrest him and either deport him or try him in the courts of the United States, nor would there be any legal basis for him to be sued in American courts for torts. I just can’t think of any possible definition of the term “jurisdiction” that would deem illegal aliens subject to suit or prosecution in American courts but now within the jurisdiction of the United States for purposes of the Constitution. So you don’t even get into a debate over interpretations before having to conclude it’s unconstitutional.

            Obviously if one wanted to get into a debate over interpretations, I think the anti-birthright interpretation would have relatively little basis. After all, the pretty obvious moral imperative behind the clause is that one who is subject to being punished by a government (or subject to the government’s protection of those with authority to punish) merely because of where they were born should have a voice in how that government exercises its power. It’s a firmer statement of the principle behind cries of “no taxation without representation.”Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              Realizing you’re just being devil’s advocate, this kind of argument wouldn’t pass the laugh test without redefining the term “jurisdiction.”

              Unthinkable? I could see a Congresscritter arguing that if they were “really” subject to our jurisdiction, they’d have been born to parents who went so far as to ask for a visa first. As it is, their presence is an “accident”.

              Now, I’m not saying that this is *MY* position… but I could see them skyhooking in on this.Report

          • Avatar Barry in reply to Jaybird says:

            No, Jaybird, it could not be – if an illegal immigrant punches a police officer, there will be absolutely zero of these bill supporters who would deny that he can be tried, convicted, and punished under the law, just as you or I could be.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I think the subtext in reading the Constitution aloud, at least for the Constitutionolators (?), is that we’ve strayed from the text and are worse than we used to be as a result. The subtext with attempts to bowlderize Huck Finn is that we’re better than we used to be and can afford to stray from the text. But, of course, either position is easy to take when you have no historical sense.Report

  7. Avatar BSK says:

    Regarding sterilizing Huck Finn (which I realize was not the main point here), I do see certain reasons or benefits to doing so. Maybe it’s just the teacher in me, but I could imagine causing a certain amount of emotional pain having that word bandied about in a freshmen English class for students. If students are required or expected (or feel that they are required or expected) to say that word, that could be a pretty uncomfortable experience. And hearing that word say by teachers or fellow students could be incredibly uncomfortable for black students in particular (and, yes, I realize that an easy response to this is to point out the ubiquitous use of a variant of the n-word in rap music and some black people’s vernacular, but I think that is a very different issue).

    Is sanitizing it from the book better than experiencing these potential pitfalls? I don’t know. But I don’t think we should ignore it. I think it comes down to why we may censor it… are we doing it to appease white people’s guilt, so that they can avoid the ugly truth of our nation? I can’t get behind that. But if we’re doing it to ensure a safe emotional environment in our classrooms, I see more logic to the idea.

    I still can’t say for sure what is right or wrong. I do agree that ignoring this aspect of our past does far more harm than good. But we should be wary when we are considering what we are exposing students to.

    (Please don’t read this as a “BUT THE CHILDREN!!!” plea. I do think, at times, it’s worthwhile to consider the impact on children and young adults.)Report

  8. Avatar Thurman Hart says:

    The true crime of sterilizing Twain is that he purposely used the word “nigger” to show that the people who used it were actually morally inferior for doing so, especially considered against the noble and self-sacrificing Jim.

    Removing the 3/5 Compromise doesn’t neuter the Constitution, so long as any and all of the no-longer-functional parts are omitted. The purpose of the reading, as I see it, is not to show that it is a perfect document, but to show that there are functional limits on what government is supposed to do.

    That said, it’s pure theater, and cheap and transparent theater at that. Let them make a big deal of it. It gives everyone more fuel to use when they betray the same document they just read.

    And they will.Report