Let the past lie (1/28/00)

You've all heard the arguments on various and sundry topics - the hypothesizing on what dead men think, and how we should run the country accordingly. "Our founding fathers never intended for the separation of church and state to be as rigorous as it is." "Our founding fathers would not have advocated the sale and use of assault weapons to the general public." I've got my own contribution to the list: "Our founding fathers are dead as cans of Spam, and the time when their thoughts were immediately relevant is past. Let it go."

I speak in all seriousness. I understand the importance of a consistent and regularly enforced set of saws, and I believe that history contains important truths. I don't think that we need to junk ideas merely because they're old. But I am tired of and alarmed by the common practice of referring to the first politicians of the United States and their brainchild, the Constitution, as if they were the final, infallible authority on any and all matters.

Our founding fathers never intended for a lot of things to happen in this country that we have since declared to be right and just. They never intended for women to be given the right to vote, for example, or for non-whites of either gender to assume full citizenship. They never intended to limit businesses by enacting such things as laws prohibiting child labor and discriminatory hiring practices. Fortunately, our country has had the good sense to ensure these things.

For those who still feel that we need to follow closely the counsel of our spiritual ancestors, consider the fact that they planned the Constitution to have amendments, a nod to their own fallibility. Thomas Jefferson, probably the most cited and best educated of those whose opinions are constantly dredged up for these purposes, thought that the country should have a good revolution every decade or so, just to keep things in shape. They who insist on revering the past must surely hear it dictating that we need to move forwards.

We need to stop looking at whether a law is old enough to earn our respect, and starting thinking about whether it is rational enough, instead. Tradition should be respected, yes, but not unconditionally revered. I think the funniest arguments that refer to this issue are those that declare that religion belongs in our public schools, because the United States is a Christian country founded by Christian men - when in fact, the easily observable state religion, in practice, is obviously ancestor worship. Let's learn to respect the past by realizing its faults, and accepting our own responsibility in correcting the effects these faults have in our own lives.

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