Friday, January 11, 2008

Wharf Rat and the Constitution

Bogus asks,

And, like, what are the metaphysical implications of Wharf Rat.
One of my favorite Dead songs and one of my favorite essays in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, a piece by Stephen Stern, is dedicated to exploring it. The interests there are more ethical than metaphysical, but the narrator of the song tells of meeting a man named August West who is homeless, blind, and an alcoholic who spent many years in jail for a crime he did not commit. Now reduced to pan handling, the man asks for dime for a cup of coffee. The narrator, down on his luck himself, does not have the dime, but has "enough time to hear his story."

In listening and offering hope and encouragement that his beloved has been true to him, we see that the narrator has not given August West what he asked for, but rather he did give him what he needed and that was to be treated with compassion as a fellow human. In the paper I presented at the Unbroken Chain conference in Amherst a couple months ago, I argued that this is a theme that runs throughout the Dead's originals and many of their selected cover songs (if anyone wants a copy of the paper -- a work in progress -- just drop me an e-mail). They sing about those among us who are marginalized -- criminals in prison or on the lam, laborers in unsafe jobs working long hours for little pay, the homeless and addicted -- but do so in a way that they give voice to their stories.

Often the root of moral activity is empathy. Too often we are very quick to marginalize the least among us in order to erect a wall around us, an ethical buffer to keep us from the responsibilities we have as moral beings. The moral lesson we can find in Wharf Rat and many other Dead tunes is that we need to understand that we need to understand people's stories and when we do, they look much different to us and that difference is connected to our moral understanding of the world.

Claude asks,
What is so great about the United States' constitution? I understand that the government should obey the constitution and that rule of law must be followed. But hearing people like Ron Paul and his supporters, you would think that the constitution is some perfect document that should be followed by the letter and never changed. Doesn't it have many flaws, the 2nd amendment to name one?
There seems to be two questions here, one about the virtues of the Constitution as written and one about originalism, that the Constitution is to be interpreted in terms of writers' intent.

Is the Constitution perfect? No. I personally think its greatest flaw is the winner take all, non-parliamentary system it sets up. Parliamentary systems are explicitly party-based and the idea was that if you vote for the person and not the party, it would mean a wider variety of viewpoints represented in the legislature which, according to the Enlightenment era "marketplace of ideas" ideal that our founders were coming out of, would provide us with a more effective means of finding the best policies. Unfortunately, it has had the exact opposite effect. A winner takes all system forces there to be two and only two parties and eliminates the range of voices in our politics. Good intentions, poor execution.

Is it a good document? Absolutely. It was thoughtfully constructed in a way that consciously avoids many of the problems of European governments at the time that were insightfully considered. Separation of church and state, balance of power -- including war powers, independent judiciary, there are many, many very smart ideas in our Constitution, including especially a process to amend it.

As for originalism, that's a major issue that would take a long post in and of itself, but let me give a sketch of what I would argue and that is that the Constitution must be seen as a living document because its job is to provide a governmental structure capable of creating the conditions of human flourishing in the world we live in. Of course, we have a radically different -- and in some ways much more enlightened -- understanding of the world than these 18th century thinkers and for that reason, of course we will understand the meanings of words differently. Consider notions like "human," "citizen," "church," "arms," whose meanings are very much different now than they were then because of technological advance and intellectual progress in uncovering presuppositions that were false. Contemporary contexts provide us with questions and challenges that could not have been foreseen even by the wisest minds of the late 1700s. If the Constitution is to be applicable to the world we live in then the terms must refer to the world we live in. How it so refers is tricky business, but that is precisely why we have courts and why judges are important players in our culture conversations.

My take is that originalists understand this and what they are really seeking to preserve are exactly the original biases and bigotries of those times. Racial and gender equality, for exmaple, were not meaningful concepts in the 1700s and by seeking to enforce laws written with these inequalities implicit within them, it
reinforces them in support of an agenda opposed to equal rights. In the case of Ron Paul, explicitly racist themes appeared in his news letters and I think there is little doubt that the unfairness of contemporary society is striving to be maintained in the libertarian movement. I argued a similar line in my discussion of Ayn Rand a while back and think something similar is going on here.

As usual, thanks for the great questions again folks!