Dear Conservative Friends Whose Friendship I Value Because You Keep Me on My Toes:
On Twitter and Facebook, whenever we disagree, you always ask me if I've read the Constitution and The Bill of Rights. I can't answer that question on Twitter responsibly, and on Facebook, Second Amendment rants are getting kind of tiresome.
So I'll answer the question here, once and for all.
Short answer: Yes. I have read both documents many times.
I'll continue with a question of my own: Have you ever read Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," particularly the last two lines? They go like this: I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.
What do they mean? How do we interpret them? Let me suggest that the way we interpret these lines will tell us a lot about the truth of the Second Amendment. But first, Frost's poem.
Here are three readings of those two lines, each one of increasingly credible relevance to the text in question:
- Least credible: "The automobile, at the time Robert Frost wrote this poem (1916), was about to take over American transportation, and Frost is already being nostalgic about walking."
- More credible: "Walking in the woods offers surprises and lessons to us if we keep our eyes open."
- Most credible: "Making decisions can at times be difficult, but often the decision least popular with your friends and family will be the best decision for you."
You get my point, right? The three interpretations generally increase in relevance and suitability to the original two lines. Most readers would amend interpretations 2 & 3, and perhaps reject the first one, but we could probably come to a general agreement on the usefulness of each of the three interpretations in understanding these lines.
We might even come to a consensus, and a consensus, a useful commodity in an argument, moves us closer to winning that argument. Especially in a democracy. After all, majorities matter, particularly on The Supreme Court.
So what do we learn here? We learn that language is often ambiguous and vague. It supports many interpretations. That's what's happening with this poem and with the Second Amendment as well.
So when you plead with me to read the Second Amendment, you're not pleading with me to read the Amendment, but to agree with your interpretation of the Amendment.
If only I would read it this way, you think to yourselves, I would understand it your way.
It's not complicated: the trick is to give your interpretation of the poem or the Amendment the look and feel—the power—of truth.
Textual interpretation in this country, at least, belongs most prominently to the Supreme Court because the Court is in the business of interpreting the Constitution's Amendments, as well as the Constitution itself. It's a pretty daunting job description.
This is annoying sometimes when the wind doesn't blow your way, but being annoyed doesn't make this observation any less true. We have to interpret the text, and interpretation, or turning the weathervane, is a practice that involves scholarship, intuition, and the arts of persuasion.
So it is empty rhetoric for me or you to announce loudly that we support the Second Amendment. We should, if we are aiming for honesty and clarity, also announce which reading of the Second Amendment we support.
For example, when you ask me if I have read the Second Amendment, you're operating under one of three assumptions. And none of them acknowledge the weathervane. Here are the three assumptions:
- You feel that I haven't read the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but that I am blathering on as if I have, and you will not be intimidated by my blathering because you have read these documents, and their meaning is clear and unambiguous, and you believe that if I would read the Constitution and its Amendments, I would agree with you.
- Or you might admit that I have read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but I am not capable of interpreting these documents in a way that would bend me from my current reading, a reading that you find ill-informed, or ignorant, or brain-washed, or socialist, or homo-erotic. (I've been accused of all five, and not all of my accusers in these cases are my friends.)
- But still, in either case, you believe that you possess the correct reading and that I possess the wrong reading.
But I would remind you that when we scrutinize a text at this level, we confront a problem. Our comprehension of it, at any given moment in history, is not a function of our ability to find a hidden Grotto of Meaning where, astonishingly, The Truth, suddenly and for all time, is revealed: of gun ownership, of abortion, of voting rights, of Frost's poem. Many readers, far more distinguished than I, have searched for that Grotto, and they have not found it.
What we have in the place of revealed truth is, in fact, an interpretation of a text's meaning.
We are all simply trying to turn the text's meaning, the weathervane, the way we would like to see it turned.
How one interpretation gains authority over another is a fascinating subject and beyond the scope of this post. Justice Brennan had the right idea, though, when he asked his new clerks what the most important rule of constitutional law was. "Five," he replied when they drew a blank. "You need five votes to make a majority on the nine-member Court."
And so with five votes, Constitutional truth, like it or not, is born.
But at any given moment, when texts like the Second Amendment become radioactive in our culture, interpretive communities—to use Stanley Fish's influential notion—vie to gain control over the interpretive process and to establish their interpretation—for a host of reasons, some honorable, some not—as The Truth. When the Supreme Court finally weighs in, they will establish one interpretive community as having made a legal and victorious interpretation (and often the Court will create new and confusing ambiguities as they proclaim a victor).
But it is important to remember that, unlike an outdated technology like the mule-drawn plow, the other defeated interpretive communities do not go away.
They often live to fight another day. Another truth for another day when another interpretive community gains the upper hand.
So when you ask me if I have read the Constitution, it is a wasted, and slightly condescending question. Of course I have read it, and of course you have read it as well.
You are dodging the first question you need to ask, and I don't blame you because the first question is much harder to answer. But answering it will clarify matters enormously and chart the course of our future conversations, if they are to have a future at all.
Let me end by asking it: Do you really think that the truth of a text is ever more than the latest successful argument for one of the text's truths?
I await your answer.