The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”

bin Laden

Clearly no American is going to shed any tears for Osama bin Laden, me included. And based on the president’s statement last night, it sounds like the operation that got him was of the right kind–targeted, based on sound intelligence, avoiding both American and civilian casualties. If we’re going to fight terrorism, this is vastly preferable to “shock and awe.”

That said, it’s hard to be too giddy about this when you consider the road we’ve traveled over the last decade. Nearly ten years after the inauguration of the “war on terror” we find ourselves with two protracted wars we’ve been unable to bring to a decisive or satisfying conclusion; trillions of dollars spent, further contributing to a ballooning national debt; untold thousands of dead–both American troops and foreign civilians; and an engorged national security apparatus that has pushed, and sometimes broken through, the boundaries of values we profess to hold dear. The Obama Administration has taken some important steps back from the brink (ending torture, winding down operations in Iraq, e.g.) but hasn’t gone nearly far enough. If this is what winning looks like, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Friday Links

I spent the day hanging out with my family, so these are coming a little late…

–Why Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is neither brave nor serious.

–Free-range meat isn’t necessarily “natural.”

–A case for universalism from the Scottish evangelical preacher and biblical scholar William Barclay.

–A review of a recent book called What’s the Least I can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

–The WaPo reviews a local prog-metal band called Iris Divine (here’s their MySpace page).

–Do Americans love war?

–Speaking of war, April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the onset of the Civil War. I’m thinking of marking the anniversary by finally tackling James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom this spring.

–As I write this, it looks like the two parties are getting close to a budget agreement that will avert a government shutdown. But I still wanted to note that a shutdown would have a major impact on the District itself, shutting down a number of basic city services. This is something that hasn’t gotten much attention.

–The AV Club continues its feature “Loud”–a monthly review of the latest in punk, hardcore, metal, and noise.

Depressing column of the week (month? year?)

Bob Herbert is leaving the NYT and goes out with a tour de force:

So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

It’s more or less downhill from there. I hope the Times has the sense to replace Herbert with someone as passionate about these class and pocketbook issues–issues largely ignored by his colleagues. (With the partial exception of Paul Krguman.)

Things to be thankful for

My friend Chris Hayes guest-hosted Rachel Maddow’s show last night and did a cool segment on things to be thankful for in American public life. You can watch it here.

Independence runs in the family

This is neat: five of America’s greatest 19th-century writers–Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne–had grandfathers who were involved in the revolution.

American exceptionalism rightly understood?

Damon Linker, who I think it’s fair to say, represents a liberalism informed by E.J. Dionne’s three conservative insights, defends a qualified version of American “exceptionalism.” It’s foolish, Linker says, to pretend that the U.S. is a uniquely virtuous nation; our history of barbarism toward indigenous Americans and black slaves and our mischief-making abroad should be enough to disabuse us of that notion. Still, Linker thinks there is a sense in which our country can be seen as exceptional:

In what sense, then, is America exceptional? In the sense that we believe, in part for religious reasons, but also out of humanistic principle, that the benefits of political liberalism, which our nation achieved first in human history, can and should be enjoyed by every country, and by every person in every country, in the world. This conviction—an almost missionary compulsion to champion liberal-democratic self-government—is what most makes America exceptional. It is the core of our civil religion—and the goal that ought to guide our actions in the world.

By “political liberalism” Linker doesn’t mean a narrowly liberal agendy, but liberalism broadly understood as the ideological underpinning of our whole form of government:

Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship.

This is the liberalism that unites most of the Left and much of the Right in this country. The outliers tend to be conservatives who reject a secular government and leftists who reject the market economy (however qualified) and “bourgeois” democracy. These folks represent a distinctly minority view in American politics.

There are two criticisms one could make of Linker’s argument. The first would be to argue that liberalism as he defines it is actually a bad thing, not a good one. This is what the aforementioned Rightists and Leftists would say. It’s a critique also sometimes voiced by some of our most respected and influential contemporary schools of theology. Postliberalism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other schools of theological thought are highly critical of liberalism and view it more as the source of our contemporary woes than something to be celbrated and exported.

The second criticism would be that, even if liberalism is good for us, it’s not necessarily a universal good that the U.S. should undertake to spread abroad, whether by “hard” or “soft” means. This view would be shared by non-interventionists on the Right and the Left, as well as certain “realists” who deplore idealism in foreign policy or deny that it can effectively guide a nation’s behavior.

Personally, I find the second criticism more persuasive than the first. Reactionary, radical, and theological critics of liberalism can score some points about its excesses, but I’ve yet to see any of them provide a persuasive, appealing, and feasible alternative to it.

The second criticism has more bite, primarily, I think, because Linker, for all his Niebuhrian/Lincolnian realism, seems to underestimate the extent to which laudable ideals can be used to mask and justify unjust policies. A lot of “liberal hawks” jumped on the Iraq war bandwagon in part because the Bush administration used high-flown idealistic rhetoric to justify the war. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that he fully appreciates the contingency of the conditions that might be required for liberalism to flourish. Even confining ourselves to “soft” power, it’s not obvious how one can transplant liberal institutions, habits, and values to soil where they weren’t previously flourishing. And, as Dionne’s conservative would remind us, the delicate web of social habit and custom can be easily torn by even well-meaning attempts to improve it.

Linker says that we need “intelligence and sobriety about how best to affect liberal change in divergent places at different historical moments” and that a “proper response to [America’s] failures is redoubled resolution to do better, to be smarter, to choose more efficacious means, in the future.” Which is surely true, but the call to “do better” doesn’t tell us how to do it. Doesn’t the fact that idealistic crusades have gone wrong so many times before may indicate that there’s a more systematic problem at work here? In fact, to suggest that all we need is intelligence, sobriety, and resolve may simply perpetuate the politics of the will that characterized the worst misdeeds of our past.

I’m not sure my disagreement with Linker is really that severe. I don’t doubt that a foreign policy that is sincerely committed to spreading liberal values and also constrained by a realistic assessment of means is preferable to the likely alternatives. But the ever-present danger is that idealistic language will be used to mask brutality, self-interest, and injustice.

Fallows on American declinism

I just yesterday got around to reading the big Atlantic cover story. Well worth your time–Fallows seems to be buddies with just about every interesting public intellectual in the country and canvasses a wide range of views on what ails us. His overall narrative (American culture–in better shape than you thought; American politics–not so much) is pretty persuasive.

Happy birthday, America

Just a short re-cap:

  • All men (heck, let’s say “people”) – created equal
  • Those people – they’ve got rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  • And the government? Its job is to protect those rights
  • The government ultimately answers to the people
  • Judging by the way our leaders act, and what we go along with, it seems that it’s hard to keep all this in our heads, so I thought reducing it to a few bullet points would be helpful.

    Everybody got that? Cool.