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Monday, January 10, 2011

Republicans Worship a Constitution They Don't Understand

Actors performing 'The Tempest'Imagine a group of self-proclaimed "Shakespeare experts" who claim to know everything that's not in the play The Tempest. They go on at length, explaining how this isn't in it and that isn't in it, giving everyone the impression that their knowledge of things not in the play in all-encompassing and complete. Logic would dictate that, since they know everything that is not in The Tempest, they would know everything that is. Even if only by the process of elimination, they should be able to recognize the text.

Now imagine these scholars set up a big exposition where they would read Shakespeare's work so that everyone would be clear on what is and isn't in there -- apparently, there's been some confusion about this recently and it's important to clear it up. Further, imagine they read the whole thing, but accidentally skip Act II, scene II. And imagine that none of this panel of experts notices the omission. They roll right on, completely unaware that the audience is wondering who the hell this Caliban guy is and where he came from.

Might you conclude that maybe, just maybe, these "experts" weren't quite so expert as advertised? Welcome to the 112th Congress in the House of Representatives.

It's a joke I've used before, but the Republican version of the Constitution reads, "We the people get to have guns. Praise Jesus. Amen." So it's no big surprise that, during the ritual reading of the Constitution ordered by the new Republican majority, this happened:

John Nichols:

The constitutional "scholars" missed an entire section of what they described as a "sacred document," and skipped part of another section. And they failed to notice the omission until being notified of it after the "historic moment" was over.

The official explanation was that pages of the notebook compiled by the manager of the show -- Congressman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. -- stuck together when passed from one sweaty hand to the next. ("The Constitution was placed in a three-ring binder, and the pages simply stuck together," explained Goodlatte's embarrassed communications director.)

Well, that could happen to anyone, really. That is, anyone other than someone who claims to be an expert at what is or isn't constitutional. In reading the document they claim to have such expertise in knowing and interpreting, no one who led the proceedings noticed that Article 4, section 4 and the beginning of Article 5, section 1 were skipped. This was more than an embarrassing mistake, this was Republican claims to constitutional expertise exposed as fraud.

But it was much worse than that. In their reading of the Constitution, they omitted parts that were later amended or redacted -- they went with the "abridged" version. Republicans try to sell the fantasy that America -- and her Constitution -- were perfect on Day One and that the "intent of the founders" is the most supreme, inviolate principle in interpreting their document. But the fact is -- as Barack Obama once said and GOPer's fell into a faint over -- the Constitution, as it was originally written, was a flawed document.

It included slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, non-property owners, and even freed blacks, to name just a few mistakes that were later rectified. A document that many on the right claim was "divinely inspired" was amended ten times, right off the bat. And, over the years, it's been amended twenty-seven times. The framers wrote in a process by which their Sacred and Inviolable Document could be amended -- read "rewritten." If the founders thought they were divinely inspired, then they didn't have a lot of trust in the Almighty.

All of this points to the Constitution as a living document -- a statement that affects Republicans in much the same way that crosses affect vampires. The Constitution, they argue, was chiseled in stone and handed to Moses on a mountaintop or something, it's not some "open source" thing like Open Office.

What's especially galling here is that it's obvious Republicans know this isn't true, since it's most common by far that a Republican proposes a constitutional amendment. And the reason for this is simple: the things Republicans want to do are unconstitutional. Take the old GOP standby, flag burning. They know a flag burning law would never stand up in court, since it violates the First Amendment. So they want to rewrite the Constitution to make an exception to that amendment -- i.e., they want to treat the Constitution as a living document, adaptable to their ideas and the times they live in. Likewise an anti-marriage equality amendment and an anti-abortion amendment. Amending the Constitution is admitting that you believe it's flawed, yet Republicans insist on having their cake and eating it too.

And, if there were a part of the Constitution the GOP would deliberately skip over, it'd be the Ninth Amendment. Conservatives are always arguing that "nowhere in the Constitution does it say insert-issue-here is a right!" But the Ninth states it doesn't have to:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

In other words, "Rights aren't granted by government, rights are recognized, and just because we didn't think to mention a right in the Constitution is no reason to believe it doesn't exist." So, is healthcare a right? Is same sex marriage? Is abortion? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on which way everyone wants it, I guess. The Ninth Amendment, written into the Bill of Rights by the founders, pretty much says, "Don't look to the Constitution on these questions. Work it out for yourselves." Unless the Constitution explicitly states a law can't do something, it's pretty safe to assume that it can. For people who use the Constitution as a permission slip, defining constitutionality by what isn't in the document, the Ninth presents a problem. So, of course, they pretend it doesn't exist.

So what did we learn from the big Ritual Reading of the Constitution last week? That the panel of "experts" waving the Constitution around are frauds who have almost no idea what's in it.


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