Dead people’s baggage

Louis Michael Seidman, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown, wrote earlier this year a book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. His idea- that the Constitution is a lead weight for present society- was summed up when NPR asked him to give an  elevator pitch outlining his thesis:

“There’s no good reason why we should be bound by decisions made hundreds of years ago by people who are long dead, knew nothing about modern America, and had moral and political views that no sensible person would hold today.”

The appeal to tradition logical fallacy emphasizes that tradition and history proves certain arguments and practices correct. Arguments against same-sex marriage, or for school prayer stress the long cultural opposition to the former, and cultural favor of the latter. But this appeal doesn’t use reason or modern relevance, leading to broken and unfair societies. The above link urges  “until people question the logic and reasoning behind such traditions, people who are negatively affected by such traditions will continue to suffer.  Just because it was acceptable in past cultures and times, does not mean it is acceptable today.”

Doug Stanhope, a foul-mouthed political comedian, once opened a bit by declaring ideas like patriotism and heritage “dead people’s baggage.” Due to social inertia, present society is unlikely to radically change its institutions. The question then arises- what can be learnt from the past, and what is merely that lead weight, the baggage of long-dead people.

Therefore, the past is divided into what is presently useful, and what is archaic and without use as a guiding principle. Here are some possible dividing lines

  • Wisdom consists of teachings that have universal insight, and do not age as society moves forward. The wise writings of Lao Tzu, the Stoic philosophers’ appeal to moderation and virtue, and history books that warn of excess, tyranny, or catastrophe. Wisdom can be very short- perhaps a short poem- and perhaps many books are a mix of wisdom and 
  • The Archaic are teachings that have been broken or only rarely have present use. They can be combined into good, modern ideas- but only with an appreciation of the context and the language used.
  • Baggage are things dragged along which lack relevance and clarity. They may inhibit justice without bias, or contribute to discrimination and bigotry.

The Constitution is a mix of all three. The wisdom of the First Amendment, or the lack of a religious test for office, or the parts making sure that states cooperate and recognize each other’s laws all bleed into the present. The unusual and archaic language in the Second Amendment has led to a present culture deeply confused about the role of guns. And the baggage of a contingent of white men, many slaveholders, is there. And why do we give them more deference than a modern day believer in racial inferiority? At some point, “of their era” is no longer an appropriate excuse.

Thomas Jefferson is one of the founders of American political philosophy, and his words are frequently true. But why follow his ideas on economics and taxes? He could barely keep his massive slave estate  from default and didn’t understand why he had such massive debt.

One should be careful with relying on the thinking of people born before the Rights Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution. It can only be so relevant, and to bring it into the present is just being a bellhop for dead people with antiquated ideas.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

4 thoughts on “Dead people’s baggage”

  1. I disagree with the irreverent tact of the author. It is the condescending tone of a young person much like the teenager who throws out the wisdom of his elders because he knows better. Revolutionary American’s fought for something. They opposed the history of the Priest King who enforced the kings law with military might and who appointed a priest class that ruled with religious tyranny. Freedom, liberty, justice were great ideals to construct a representative republic around. I would challenge the constitutional attorney, a phrase that is synonymous with people who seek to destroy the constitution, with what form of governance would he convince Americans to support. There was a time when doors to homes were not locked and there was no need for security monitoring services. A moral citizenry policed themselves and had no need for the department of Homeland NAZI security to come kick in your doors for no reason. Tyranny is the form of government that an amoral population gets and deserves when they abandon any form of civil decency. So I would love to know what archaic belief systems the author sees as baggage. I would suggest that the current population could not have ever secured a representative republic because they don’t have the moral fortitude to carry out such an operation.


    1. Ignoring that “irreverent tact” is an oxymoron and has no meaning, you fall into the very trap I described, and create a past society that was wholesome, virtuous,and entirely fictitious.

      Yes, the Founders fought for something, namely an eradication of the debt owed to British creditors, an ability to ignore the Proclamation of 1763 and steal land from indigenous people, and creating a political system that justifies the rule of white men with property. The people who speak of personal liberty in writing were behind the most draconian economic measure every passed (the embargo acts under Jefferson), which involved plenty of kicking down doors and seizure of property. Doors were kicked down in the name of security to seize abolitionist material in the South, or to charge people of libel of a high official, or supporting the independence of indigenous nations.

      It would be silly to “throw out the wisdom of his elders” just like it is equally silly to keep it because it’s old and people traditionally thought it to be wise and relevant.


      1. I have no idea where you are going so do you believe in anarchy or some utopianism that has never existed? All I hear is some type of simplistic old is bad new is good without any framework of how you think new ideas are better. I get the feeling that you are flying around on the starship Enterprise practicing some form of galactic social engineering. It only works in the movies.


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