Friday, June 27, 2008

Living Historic Documents?

You'll all be happy to know that citizens of D.C. were given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday to walk around with handguns (District of Columbia v. Heller). It turns out that the law previously preventing this was in violation of the U.S. Constitution's second amendment that allows Americans to arm themselves.

I know Americans love their constitution, but when it comes down to it the US Constitution is just a historic document, written by people with different hopes and dreams and needs than anyone alive today.

This 2nd Amendment was written generations ago by men who likely associated the right to carry weapons with the privileged life of the nobility back in Europe. Eighteenth-century European riff-raff couldn't carry guns, and these men wanted to show they were gentlemen. Carrying a gun suggested equal status with nobles. And of course it made it easier to ward off the danger of British invasion - which could still happen at any moment.

The whole situation reminds me of a book I'm currently reading: "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs. The author tries to live for an entire year without breaking any of the rules of the Bible. His book repeatedly makes it clear that living literally by a historical text results in some ridiculous outakes. My favourite so far was the story of the old man who Jacobs was forced to throw pebbles at in Central Park to uphold the biblical rule to "stone adulterers." A close second is the ritual of stealing a pigeon's egg - quite clearly outlined as a rule in the Bible.

Excuse my lack of zeal for the U.S. Constitution - not being an American and hating guns - but it seems to me that this quest to live by a historic document (the U.S. Constitution) that has been taken out of context by the passage of more than a hundred years, is not far removed from Jacobs' liberated pigeon egg. Which, I would hazard to suggest breaks the "Thou shalt not steal" rule. But, maybe that doesn't apply to pigeons.


Suzanne said...

Well, what I think Jacobs' book shows is that 'strict constructionism' (as they say in constitutional law) is not a good way to apply a historic document to contemporary life. The Constitution becomes ridiculous when you use it to say that everyone should carry muskets, but there are lots of ideas there that still have contemporary relevance.

As public history, reductions to absurdity can certainly show how context-dependent lots of historical documents are. Jacobs doesn't conclude that people shouldn't use the Bible as a resource, but that it shouldn't be taken literally; ditto with the constitution.

Jonathanhull said...

Brave (or crazy) is the person who attempts to abide by a literal interpretation of any religious text for a year.

Hard to say exactly which text would produce the greatest absurdities . . . and risk to life and limb.