Conservatives don’t know much about history. We’ve seen hilarity ensue when Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann attempt to tell stories about the history of America. But what’s more subtle is that they don’t know about the process of knowledge in the context of history. That’s hardly surprising to a political movement that’s dedicated to obfuscation and bite-sized rhetoric. Unfortunately, there’s more to knowledge than that.
Our knowledge of the Constitution and the historical milieu, the context, which fostered it’s creation are, at best, a vague shadowy echo of the reality of the day. We hear conservatives opine about jurisprudence and how we must follow the Constitution “as it was written.” They smear and deride “activist judges” who seek to “interpret” the Constitution. But the failure of their thinking lies in the very originalism they seek to uphold.
I’m currently reading Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment by Emma Rothschild. It’s a book that attempts to address the challenge of reading Adam Smith in the 21st century, long after his revolutionary message was co-opted by Edmund Burke and converted into the conservative/libertarian philosophy we encounter today.
She describes the difficulty inherent in the interpretation of historical documents as they relate to the politics of the turbulent 1780s. She writes
Our sense of the familiarity of eighteenth-century thought is an illusion, above all, because of our own unequal knowledge. This asymmetry of information is one of the most troublesome difficulties of the political and intellectual historian: that he or she knows how the story ends, or the outcome of the events in which her subjects are engaged, and to which they look forward in fear of hope or indifference. The difficulty is particularly intense in relation to a period, such as the half century before and after 1800, which was, aand which seemd at the time to be, one of intense and violent change. Is the historian to read Louix XVI’s words of 1776 and to say to herself that she knows nothing of his subsequent destiny?
Smith and Hume, Turgot and Condorcet did not know, disconcertingly, what would happen to their principles. They were used enough to editorial obstruction in their lifetime, and to the oddness of the public.
As someone trained in anthropology, archaeology and history, I know the challenge of understanding “the other,” even when that cultural “other” is standing right in front of me. If I can’t figure out what it really means to be an Iraqi, how can I possibly figure out what it means to be an eighteenth-century British-American? How can I orient myself to that way of thinking? Even immersion in the historical texts of the day only gets me so far (closer than 99.9% of all the Tea Party, to be sure). All we have is what they wrote and that is subject to modern cultural bias.
So believing we can simply “read the consitiution” without consideration for the time and place in which it was created, the real revolutionary nature of the document, we cannot possibly comprehend the constitution in the way the “originalists” tell us we should. If we could, I expect they wouldn’t care for the results.
Revolution is scary.