Saturday, January 15, 2011

The New Yorker Works a Corruption of Blood on the U.S Constitution

Jill Lepore has written a piece on the U.S. Constitution for this week's New Yorker. It was filed in the magazine in "The Critics" section under the heading "A Critic at Large" and is full of criticisms like this:

"the Constitution has more in common with the Dead Sea Scrolls than with what we now think of as writing."
OK, that jab is actually qualified with the phrase "as an object" so maybe we can't necessarily assume it represents what Jill thinks of the document "as writing." Or maybe we can:

Ye olde parchment serves as shorthand for everything old, real, durable, American, and true — a talisman held up against the uncertainties and abstractions of a meaningless, changeable, paperless age.
Jill Lepore is a Harvard history professor and her piece is variously titled and subtitled:

"The Commandments"
"The Constitution and its worshippers"
"The cult of the Constitution"
Jill goes through a long history where the Constitution was invoked for issues like slavery that are now rightly discredited, which leads her to the Tea Party, which she means you to conclude is the current cult. And what makes Americans susceptible to this cult of the Constitution? You guessed it, the Bible:

"Originalism, which has no purchase anywhere but here, has a natural affinity with some varieties of Protestantism."

"The United States differs from all other Western democracies in the far greater proportion of its citizens who believe in the literal truth of the Bible."

"Many people are now reading it (the Constitution), with earnestness and dedication, often in reading groups modelled on Bible study groups."
So go get yourself of copy of the Constitution as Jill suggests at the "souvenir shop at any history-for-profit heritage site" or take a "heritage tourism" trip to visit the original at its "shrine in the National Archives." Then you can be a Constitution thumper too.

But realize that may put you on the long list of people that over two centuries Jill believes have fiddled with the Constitution. Jill reads a lot into the words of New England farmer and Revolutionary veteran William Manning:

"It was made like a Fiddle, with but few Strings, but so that the ruling Majority could play any tune upon it they please."
Some may call that Democracy but Jill has the idea that this long history of majority rule has ultimately tainted the Constitution:

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.
Which brings us to the phrase "no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood" which is in the treason clause of Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution and which Jill thinks you'll have trouble understanding. The idea is that Congress in setting the punishment for treason cannot revoke the inheritance rights of children or other descendant's in the traitor's bloodline.

We do not live under the original document but under a Constitution that has now been amended twenty-seven times. Each amendment creates a new version of Constitution that is a child of the previous one. Yes, they all share the same DNA. But should we really blame our current Constitution for the hell that was done before the anti-slavery amendments, or would that be working a Corruption of Blood?

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