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WE HAVE A VERY WELL WRITTEN CONSTITUTION
In which the fellow who actually wrote the document
(no, it wasn't Jefferson or Madison) is finally given his due
It helps to recognize that we were founded on a class document. When our Constitution was being made ready, the framers called upon a guy named Jacob Shallus to put it on paper-or parchment, actually. Shallus was an ordinary but skilled citizen, the son of a German immigrant, a soldier, a patriot, a father of eight, and, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, assistant clerk to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The convention handed him the document for copying on September 15, 1787. The process was called "engrossing," which suggests a nice double meaning, and it meant copying the text out at an elegant angle in large, legible script.
Much of nature contributed to the enterprise. The four sheets of parchment were vellum, the skin of a lamb or calf, stretched, scraped, and dried. The ink was a blend of oak galls and dyes. The light by which he worked was probably an oil lamp. His instrument was a feather quill. Human nature was represented in the person of Shallus. He had forty hours to transfer 4,440 words to four sheets. For this assignment, the pay was thirty dollars, which wasn't bad money for moonlighting.
More than two centuries later, Shallus has become the answer to a trivia question, but the words he engrossed are given parades. What started out at one man's writing desk was eventually carried across the country from city to city as the nation's capital moved, was hidden during the War of 1812, was transferred from federal department to department until it wound up in the National Archives in Washington, sanctified in helium and watched over by an electronic camera conceived by NASA. The quill age became the space age, and at every stage, a nation full of grateful believers made a constant noisy fuss over a piece of writing barely the length of a short story with much theme, no plot, and characters implied.
Call the Constitution literature? Sarah Orne Jewett once wrote to Willa Cather, "The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper...it belongs to literature." So the Constitution qualifies. Human minds were teased for centuries with the possibility of making a government that would allow that mind to realize itself. The document shows other literary attributes as well: a grounding in the ideas of its time, economy of language, orderliness, symmetrical design, a strong, arresting lead sentence. Then, there's all that shapely ambiguity. Even those who have never read the document are convinced that it foresaw all they endured-wars, debts, threats to health, privacy, and equality. A fantastic piece of work, it imagined a country full of people imagining themselves.
But I still love to picture Shallus, before any of these hopes were raised or satisfied, the four skins laid out before him, the ink, the quill, and the lamp. And the words, like mysterious ciphers, handed over to him by the best minds of the age, who had just sweated out a Philadelphia summer to claim the intellectual territory that was to translate to a civilization. Did Shallus read what he had copied when he finished? Would he have understood it if he had? How could he have dreamt that all those words, thought through so meticulously, were conceived only for him?
WE ARE FREE TO BE YOU, ME,
STUPID, AND DEAD
In which the author defends your right to say anything,
no matter how awful, as long as it is not about him
Everyone loves free expression as long as it isn't exercised. Several years ago, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a basketball player for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand up for the playing of the national anthem because of personal religious convictions. The National Basketball Association greeted his decision by suspending him from the league until someone suggested that the Founding Fathers had actually meant it when they allowed someone to do something that would outrage the rest of us.
Similarly, major league baseball suspended John Rocker, the famous nutcase relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, when Rocker said that he did not want to ride New York City's Number 7 subway with all those single moms, queers, and illegal aliens. The court did not interfere, perhaps because the Constitution only states that government has no right to prevent free expression; it grants no affirmative licenses. I don't really get the difference between the two cases, but I know that Rocker had a perfect, or rather imperfect, right to sound like a jackass.
The rights of jackasses are more than a national staple. The strange beauty of American freedom is that it is ungovernable, that it always runs slightly ahead of human temperament. You think you know what you will tolerate. A man on a soapbox speaks out for China. Fine. An editorial calls for sympathy with the Taliban. (Gulp) okay. But then a bunch of Nazis want to march around Skokie, Illinois, or Harlem, and, hold on a minute! And what the hell is this? An art exhibit called "African-American Flag" in New Jersey. Or this? An exhibit in the Phoenix Art Museum called "What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?"
Now that one was a doozie. The exhibit required observers to walk across an American flag on the floor to get to what was displayed on a wall. "That's my flag, and I'm going to defend it," said a visitor to the museum as he tried to take the flag from the floor. "No son of a bitch is going to do that."
The thing that I like best about sons of bitches doing that and worse, as long as they do not cry "fire" in a crowded flag, is: (a) it enhances my appreciation of the wild courage of the Founders, and (b) it expands my mind, which could use some expanding. Freedom is like a legal drug. How far will we go? is not a rhetorical question here. Another exhibit in Chicago showed a flag with the word "think" where the stars should have been. Think. I hate it when that happens.
You think you know how far freedom will go in America, and then you meet another jackass. In the 1990s, I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about the Philip Morris company called "How Do They Live with Themselves?" The answer to that question, which came from the company executives I interviewed, turned out to be "Quite comfortably, thanks." The reason that their consciences did not seem to bother them about manufacturing an addictive lethal product was that their customers were engaging in the blessed American activity of freedom of choice. They were right-at least until new laws or lawsuits would prove them wrong. People technically had the choice of becoming addicted to cigarettes or not. I doubt that any of the Philip Morris people would ever step on the flag.
Since free is the way people's minds were made to be, it has been instructive for me to spend time in places where freedom was limited. In the Soviet Union, it was fascinating to see how many ways the workers of the world managed to squeeze free thought through the cracks of their utopian cells: The secret publication of books, the pirated music, the tricky subversive lines of poetry read at vast gatherings of tens of thousands. And the below-the-surface comedy. I was checking out of a hotel in Tbilisi. Checking out of Russian hotels was always a feat-they didn't have dollars, they didn't have rubles, no one had ever checked out before. The clerk at the desk spoke little English, and she wanted to tell me that another, more fluent, clerk would be along shortly. "Mr. Rosenblatt," she said. "Would you mind coming back in fifteen years?" We both exploded in laughter because we knew it was remotely possible.
The mind expands, the mind settles, then is shaken up, resists, and expands again. One of the great ongoing stupidities of the country are school boards and library committees that ban certain books they deem dangerous. On the positive side, though, the folks who do the banning offer some delightful defenses for their decisions. The three literary works most frequently banned in our country are Macbeth, King Lear, and The Great Gatsby. The reason school boards offer for banning Macbeth is that the play promotes witchcraft. Perhaps it does. One doesn't think of Macbeth as promoting things, but if it did, witchcraft would be it. They don't say why they want to ban King Lear. Promotes ingratitude, I suppose. I assume that The Great Gatsby promotes Long Island.
Sometimes the reasons offered for censoring certain works are obscure, thus intriguing. In Georgia, the Harry Potter books were recently burned because they were said to encourage kids to want to be sorcerers. In Spokane, Washington, they wanted to remove the children's picture book Where's Waldo? from the elementary school library. People objected to Where's Waldo?, they said, because it contains "explicit subject matter." A plea for surrealism, I imagine. In Springfield, Virginia, they banned a book called Hitler's Hang-Ups because it offered "explicit sexual details about Hitler's life." Given the other tendencies of Hitler's life, I should think the sexual details would be relatively acceptable. And, in the town of Astoria, Oregon, a book called Wait Till Helen Comes was challenged in an elementary school for giving "a morbid portrayal of death." Now they've gone too far.
Copyright © 2002 by Roger Rosenblatt
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