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.