Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Misheard Lyrics and The Constitution

Take a trip with me down the road of sensible thinking.

When radio personalities "Don and Mike" were on the air, they had the occasional bit involving "Misheard Lyrics."  For example, Creedence Clearwater Revival never recorded "there's a bathroom on the right," although their song "Bad Moon on the Rise" was a hit.   Similarly, Paper Lace never recorded a version of "Billy, Don't Be a Negro" but both they and Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods performed "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," a one hit wonder piece about the Vietnam Conflict.

The misheard lyric might be an amusing bit and an interesting phenomenon.  And these are undoubtedly cases of mishearing.  CCR just never did "There's a Bathroom on the Right."  Check their discography.  Folks who thought they heard that song are quite surprised to discover that the lyric actually is "There's a bad moon on the rise."

So what?

Well, suppose that we sang the Constitution.  

Suppose that in the singing of the Constitution, someone thought the lyric said, "Congress shall make more laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  Would the fact that someone, anyone, thought that the lyric was "make more laws" justify Congress ignoring what the Constitution actually says?  Be careful how you answer, because while you may be fine with more laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion, would you be happy with "more laws" "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press?"

For that matter, both the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment contain Clauses guaranteeing "Due Process of Law." Forget whether you currently understand what "Due Process of Law" means.  Just suppose that in our Constitutional Opera, someone thought that the libretto read, "Two crosses and claw."  How easy it would be, if the State or the Federal Government wanted to take your property, your liberty, or your life, to obtain two crosses and a claw?  Would you voluntarily surrender your property, your liberty, your life, if a Sheriff showed up at your door, with two crosses and a claw?  Or would you insist that the Sheriff had gotten it wrong, had misunderstood?

I think you would.

And here's why I asked you to come along with me on this walk.

At the moment where you insist that the Constitution guarantees Due Process of Law, not Two Crosses and a Claw, you put in play the important question of the meaning of the Constitution. 

Which of these views do you hold:
  • The Constitution a document of fixed and discoverable meaning?  
  • The Constitution is a document of changeable meaning?  
  • Is the Constitution a document that offers each of us the permission contained in Humpty's dumpy reasoning:  "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'"

You might think this is just a rant on my part, leading to the inevitable, "The Constitution is a leather bound document.  Its words are fixed and determinable.  If you want to change it, amend it, don't twist it."  And, well, yes, it is that too.

But this rant is also a cautionary tale.

On the day when the hard route is to convince two thirds of Congress and three fourths of the States to amend the Constitution to your ends -- clarifying, for example, the exalted constitutional status of abortion rights -- you have gone to the Courts, and with deliberate misdirection, the judges have twisted the Constitution to a new meaning.

On the day when the hard route is to convince two thirds of Congress and three fourths of the States to amend the Constitution to your ends -- prohibiting teacher composed and led prayers in school -- you have gone to the Courts, and with deliberate misdirection, the judges have twisted the Constitution to a new meaning.

Perhaps you feel secure.

But the five judges who rule in favor of your preferred constellation of liberties and rights today, will be moldering in the dirt tomorrow, and how will you fare with the new regime.  Social commentary reflects a reality that one generation is often repulsed by and rebels against the mores and excesses of the previous.  In the end, we wobble back and forth between the spectrum's ends on a variety of choices and behaviors. 


Do you really prefer that the Constitution be the product of misheard lyrics?  Do you always get the benefit of the mishearing?  Will you always get the benefit of the mishearing?

Of course, put in context of our times, I offer these thoughts so that you will bring them to bear on the Second Amendment to the Constitution. After all, media reports indicate that the White House intends to put a hot spotlight of focus on gun issues in the final year of Obama's presidency.

The Supreme Court decision in the Heller case confirms what readers of history and the amendment have known.  At stake in the Second Amendment is the right of an individual to bear arms, and that the particular purpose of those arms was resistance of government tyranny.  

Now, you might want to mishear that lyric. But your having misheard it doesn't change its meaning, and won't change our tune.  This is the essential right of the People.  Even superior to the right of freedom of speech, the right of armed defense against tyranny is the basis of every right.

So next time you're in the car, singing along to "There's a Bathroom on the Right," enjoy it, but leave the lyrics of my Constitution alone.