Monday, July 9, 2012

It's All About Context

"Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government." - James Madison

Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott learning the
science and context of geology.
In the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon", Caltech Geologist Leon Silver is training Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin how to observe and interpret geological information that they would encounter on the lunar surface.  He uses the example of "the story of the dead cat".  He tells the astronauts that there is a dead cat on the road.  All we know for sure is that it's a cat and it's dead.  So what happened to it?  The astronauts hypothesize and, based on evidence that is slowly revealed, put together the history of the cat and its demise.  When Dr. Silver asks what it the story ultimately all about, future Apollo 17 astronaut (and fellow geologist) Jack Schmitt says simply, "Context." 

Like the dead cat, we can look at the Constitution and say for sure that it's a piece of paper, it was written in the late 18th century and was signed by a bunch of old, dead (to us) white guys.  It's easy to read and know what's in the Constitution (I know everyone who is reading this has done so, right?).  It's even easier to to think you know.  How often have you heard someone say, "Well, it's my Constitutional right to..."?  And did you think, "Where is that in the Constitution?"  Often, of course, it isn't.

But let's assume you and your discussion partner have both actually read the Constitution.  And you both know what it says, to the letter.  Does that make agreement of its meaning inevitable?  Think of the Bible.  Anyone can read the Bible (in its various forms and editions, of course, but let's say for the sake of argument there is but one Bible).  Yet, does everyone who reads the Bible agree on what it means, even if they agree on what it says?  Well, tens of thousands of Christian denominations say the answer is clearly "no".  So why should the Constitution be any different?  And what is it that helps us understand the meaning after we learn the words?  Context.

What do I mean by context, and how does one get some?  Context means understanding the people and society and norms of the time and place in which the particular thing was written.  Our modern-day sensibilities and experiences are much different than a first-century Jew or 18th-century American colonist.  Biblical scholars spend a lot of time understanding what was was going on and how people lived when a particular piece of Scripture was written, or else a lot of what is in the Bible makes little sense to us.  For most of us, that kind of context is difficult to obtain on our own, not being real good in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and/or Aramaic.  Fortunately, it's easier to obtain as regards the Constitution.  For starters, reading "The Federalist Papers", by Madison, Hamilton and Jay, give us great insight into what exactly the Framers were thinking and how they were explaining it to the people.

In terms of gaining context for myself, I'm nearly done reading The Federalists  and just finished "The Fathers of the Constitution" by Max Farrand (available for a low, low price on Kindle). And next on my list is Richard Brookhiser's new biography of James Madison.  Book review to follow...  I also encourage anyone traveling anywhere near Philadelphia to take a pilgrimage to the National Constitution Center, one of my very favorite places in the world.  That helps provide the critical context for understanding our precious Constitution.

So, when you talk about what the Constitution means, versus simply what it says, be sure to include context in your argument.  It makes all the difference.

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