Thursday, August 25, 2005Some call it originalism. Others call it literalism. I call it simple-mindedness.
A "strict adherence to the text" is one of the few principles held in common by libertarians and cultural traditionalists. Of course they differ as to which text - the bible or the constitution. But both claim that we should read foundational documents in straightforward ways, and in a manner which is consistent with the the "framer's intent" (or, if you will, the Will of God).
On the surface this appears to be a perfectly respectable approach to exegetical analysis. Unfortunately it's also a silly approach. Deconstructionist literary criticism has taught us that there really is no simple reading of texts, so powerful is the human mind able to project its beliefs onto the written word. So the idea that you can read the text literally is a snare and a delusion. You can see this in the obsession that the Christian right has with homosexuality, which is of marginal importance in the New Testament, and their neglect of poverty, which is pretty much at the center of it. They see what they want to see.
That's annoying enough, but it gets worse. Because we aren't reading Chaucer or E.E. Cummings. This ain't literature, which ultimately is only of aesthetic value. These are documents that conservatives are attempting to use as sources of authority. They believe that if it says so there, it must be true. So their literal interpretation is in fact a social theory being applied to the present. And frankly I think the present should have a vote too.
So let's look at the real social consequences of "restoring" the Constitution (and American life) to its 1789 form:
1) Restore slavery
2) Repeal women's right to vote
3) Bar poor people from voting
4) Eliminate the standing army
5) Give states carte blanche to ignore civil liberties
6) No social safety net
7) Child labor
8) Women banned from inheriting property
9) No minimum wage
10) No workplace safety
Not exactly David Letterman's top 10, is it?
I could go on to economic and cultural "reforms" that would have to take place, like getting rid of factories and electronics and returning to subsistence farming, but you get the point. The next time a Theocon suggests that we adhere to the original intent of the framers, ask him why he doesn't want women to vote or blacks to have citizenship.