Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jefferson and Orwell

Regarding my previous post, a friend commented to me that the dead do not get angry or disappointed, so there is no point in worrying about what the founding fathers thought.

I partially agree. But as a history student, I am interested in how we got to here from there. History is the study of change over time, and thus a subject that change-averse conservatives do not look too hard at. They would rather fetishize the past than actually try to understand it. Their "respect" for it is really an ignorant and shallow infatuation. To them, the past is at best a vague and convenient vehicle for their idealizing tribal imagination and at worst a tool or weapon to seize authority with. Serious study would spoil the adolescent enthusiasm and ruin its utility for them.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot about allowing society to evolve and adopt new ideas. I have quoted him on this topic before. But this quote on shrugging off the dead hand of the past is especially relevant:
Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.
Speaking of the Citizens United ruling, as I was previously, I think we can accurately extrapolate from that quote Mr. Jefferson's likely opinion on corporations being made immortal persons. And that is not without worth today. As George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel 1984, "He who controls the past, controls the future." It is a question of plotting our trajectory by bending the arc.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson gives us one potent example at the start of  his next paragraph:

I was glad to find in your book a formal contradition, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed.
Hopefully, Tony Perkins will someday familiarize himself with both quotes.

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