1000 Words: A Brilliant Ignorance

One of the hallmarks of adulthood is the ability to accept seeming contradictions.

Like the Ghandi epigram: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Well, what is it? Am I gonna kick it within a day or will I still be here in the year 2525?

That’s the wrong question. A simplistic question. A question, perhaps, a child might ask.

But an experienced adult, one who’s flourished both emotionally and psychologically, would find no inconsistency in the line.

Ideally we, as individuals, will grow into that kind of mature thinker. Nations and societies, too. Although, based on my observations, it’s dauntingly hard for people, one by one, to reach that level of wisdom. Expecting — even hoping — for an entire population to get there seems to me a futile dream. This goes back to my dearly held opinion that the larger the number of people in a room, the dumber it gets.

I like to think I’ve accepted the idea that contradictory ideas can coexist, and so I pat myself on the back and try to believe I’m experienced and mature and oh so smart. Then again, I accept another contradiction: The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know much.

I’m trying, I guess.

Anyway, if this holy land, the United States of America, the 332.4 million of us inclusive, were, miraculously, to have grown into such astute thinkers, we’d accept the enormous contradiction that the Constitution upon which we base our laws and government was both the most advanced, progressive, ingenious, innovative document ever to be drawn up by a gang of people as well as a hateful, exclusionary, blind, knuckle-headed justification for awful behavior yet put into writing.

Sadly, several of the current members of the US Supreme Court buy into the flawed premise of Originalism. That is, the idea that all our laws and actions to this day must be hewn to the imagined thoughts of the framers of the Constitution. You know, a bunch of guys who owned muskets, horses, and people.

And, BTW, four of the nine current Justices were named by presidents who’d lost the popular vote but still were elected president. A quirk written into that very Constitution.

A Constitution that supposedly followed the parameters set by the Declaration of Independence that featured prominently the line, “all men are created equal.”

Except for slaves. And the indigenous peoples of the continent. And, of course, women. Although said Constitution was transparent enough not to even mention women, since, at the time of its writing, citizens of that gender were considered chattel. And I needn’t imagine what the Constitution’s framers thought of women, as Originalists purport to do; they were quite explicit, in speech and on paper, in their opinion of that gender.

Yet, rarely in the annals of human history had a ruling group codified the idea that neither priests nor royalty were superior, legally, to the rest of the citizenry. That, certainly, qualifies as an advanced, progressive, ingenious, innovative way to run a nation.

One could be forgiven for inadvertently typing the word Contradiction in place of Constitution.

Yep, that Constitution was brilliant. And spectacularly ignorant.

This point is driven home by the Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, who stands these days as one of the bright, shining lights for the non-MAGA-tainted among us. I happen to be reading her 2020 book, How the South Won the Civil War. Her thesis is all the things the seceding South wanted prior to the 1861 hostilities — except slavery — were granted to them after the war ended, either immediately or as recently as these days via Supreme Court rulings.

Richardson and her book.

Granted, slavery was the thing the South valued most dearly. It was the underpinning of the region’s entire economy and culture. White superiority lie at the heart of it and that’s a visceral driver that remains to today. I won’t go into Richardson’s laundry list of reasons for her assertion (go buy the book) but I will cite a trenchant observation she makes about the Constitution.

Here goes:

America began with a great paradox: the same men who came up with the radical idea of constructing a nation on the principle of equality also owned slaves, thought Indians were savages, and considered women inferior. This apparent contradiction was not a flaw, though; it was a key feature of the new democratic republic. For the Founders, the concept that “all men are created equal” depended on the idea that the ringing phrase “all men” did not actually include everyone. In 1776, it seemed self-evident to leaders that not every person living in the British colonies was capable — or worthy — of self-determination. In their minds, women, slaves, Indians, and paupers depended on the guidance of men such as themselves. Those unable to make good decisions about their own lives must be walled off from government to keep them from using political power to indulge their irresponsible appetites. So long as these lesser people played no role in the body politic, everyone within it could be equal. In the Founders’ minds, then, the principle of equality depended on inequality. That central paradox — that freedom depended on racial, gender, and class inequality — shaped American history as the cultural, religious, and social patterns of the new nation grew around it.

Are we mature enough and experienced enough, have we flourished both emotionally and psychologically enough as a nation, to accept this dramatic, apparently irreconcilable polarity?

Simple answer: no. A friend of mine calls the US Constitution “a piece of shit.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for one, believes it is the “Bible” of the nation. He wants the United States to be molded along the lines set forth by guys who wrote and ratified the document and owned muskets, horses, and people.


One thought on “1000 Words: A Brilliant Ignorance

  1. Carolyn VandeWiiele says:

    except, of course, that if the originalists are to be believed, Clarence Thomas is one of the folks who wouldn’t be voting much less on the Supreme Court. And note that the one decision he isn’t keen on overturning is “Loving vs Viriginia”…

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