Remember two years ago, when the U.S. House kicked off 2011 by reading the entirety of the Constitution? As reader T.D. reminds me, the effort, spearheaded by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), is back. In fact, earlier today, the reading was completed over the course of about 70 minutes.
As Roll Call noted, members aren’t reading the entire text, choosing to leave out “the parts of the Constitution that had been amended after the document was ratified Sept. 17, 1787.” As a result, “This saved a few unlucky souls from having to read such dark and unsavory passages such as Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, aka the clause that says only three-fifths of slaves would be counted when determining the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of representatives in the House.”
That’s understandable, I suppose, but it’s a point worth considering in more depth.
I’m reminded of something Adam Serwer wrote in 2011:
The reason to include the superceded text is to remind us that the Constitution, while a remarkable document, was not carved out of stone tablets by a finger of light at the summit of Mount Sinai. It was written by men, and despite its promise, it possessed flaws at the moment of its creation that still reverberate today. Republicans could use the history lesson – last year they attacked Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan during her nomination process because one of her mentors, Justice Thurgood Marshall, had the audacity to suggest that the Constitution was flawed since it didn’t consider black people to be full human beings.
As Jamelle Bouie wrote about the Huck Finn controversy, “If there’s anything great about this country, it’s in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes.” We shouldn’t pretend we didn’t make them.
The New York Times editorial board added, “Members of the House might have thought they were bringing the Constitution alive by reading it aloud … but they made a crucial error by excising its history. When they chose to deliberately drop the sections that became obsolete or offensive, and which were later amended, they missed a chance to demonstrate that this document is not nailed to the door of the past. It remains vital precisely because it can be reimagined.”
Indeed, I’ve long believed that as symbolic gestures go, there’s nothing wrong with politicians reading the Constitution out loud, but I’d prefer a larger conversation among lawmakers about why constitutional text is open to interpretation, capable of evolving and adapting to changing norms and social dynamics, and why the far-right shouldn’t be the final arbiters of its meaning.