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February 4, 1999

The other day I was chatting with a man I have known for half my adult life, and what began as a conversation about philosophical principles wandered into the topic of professional wrestling. I offered a few mild criticisms of the sport, and described how I would handle an opponent in the ring if I were a wrestler.

“If you were a wrestler,” my companion said, “you’d be one of those guys in a hood and mask.”

Maybe I should have shrugged this off as a casually insensitive remark. But I couldn’t. It was just too hurtful. I wondered whether he’d been feigning friendship all these years, just waiting for the chance to slip in a few wounding words.

“Just for the record,” I retorted, “I don’t even own a hood or mask at the moment.” (Of course it depends what you regard as a “hood” or “mask,” but I think I was legally accurate.) But he didn’t retract a syllable.

Speaking of hoods and hurtful remarks, it has been reported in several newspapers that I once spoke to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is currently being pilloried as a radical racist organization.

[Breaker quote: LetWell, it’s true I addressed them some years ago. But I should state here, for the record, that I would never have accepted their invitation if I had known then of their associations with Republican leaders. Still, they seemed like nice folks, and neither I nor anyone in the audience wore a hood or a mask. I don’t recall any burning crosses, and I don’t even think anyone used the hurtful word niggardly.

But I did talk about the need to restore constitutional government, and if anyone finds that hurtful I want to humbly apologize. It just sort of slipped out in a careless moment. I now recognize that the last thing this country needs is “constitutional government,” which are code words for heartless bigotry.

After all, the Framers never intended for the Constitution to be taken literally. That would mean repealing most of our laws. It would make it impossible to save Social Security and Medicare and to bomb other countries when we are in the mood to do so. Countless patriotic Americans would cease getting regular checks in the mail and would be forced to seek income only from those who paid them voluntarily.

No, the Constitution was meant to be a “living document.” It means whatever the people in power want it to mean, when they want it to mean it. This is, after all, a democracy, in which the winners get to rewrite the rules of the game.

That’s what separates democracy from such static forms of competition as, say, professional wrestling. Who wants to live in a country where words always mean the same things, year after year? The life of a Supreme Court justice would be intolerably dull. The rule of law would lack the vital element of surprise. We would be overrun with fetuses.

The Framers weren’t perfect. Far from it. Their chief mistake was to write the Constitution down, which created the false but stubborn belief that it wasn’t supposed to change too fast. This mistake was compounded by including the cumbersome amendment process, which created the equally false belief that the Constitution couldn’t just evolve spontaneously, like other living things. Evolve, of course, meansto change in a progressive direction. And progressive, when applied to government, means more.

The written Constitution has also led right-wing extremists to make the simple-minded assumption that criminals should be removed from office, which would clearly thwart the will of the people. Instead of writing that officers could be removed for treason, bribery, “or other high Crimes and Misdeameanors,” the Framers should have written “or other equally high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Or better yet, “or even higher crimes, and not just some lousy misdemeanors, such as perjury about private consensual sexual relationships.”

But these are minor flaws. The true genius of the Constitution is that it is a self-abolishing document. Its subtext, for those who can appreciate its subtle nuances, is: “Change me.” It enables us to gradually obliterate its own literal meaning, if we can think of a more progressive one.

Joseph Sobran

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