Many years ago my best friend gave me a subscription to the New York Review of Books for my birthday. He said that he thought I would like the articles because they were well written, well argued and thorough. In the intervening more than a decade, I have carted piles of unread issues from apartment to apartment and from room to room in unsuccessful attempts to ‘organize,’ but I have never let my subscription lapse.
It can be difficult to set aside the time (measured in hours) to read and digest the minority of articles in each issue that I find intriguing, but I abhor recycling a single issue without at least flipping through it to make sure there’s nothing I need to read.
The current stack has 6 or 7 issues in it going back several months. In a fit of “this room must be cleaned now” last week I grabbed the stack and headed for the recycling bin. Sitting in the kitchen by the recycling bin, stack on my lap, I thumbed through the oldest issue (July 11, 2013). The cover bears an image of a motorcycle (and rider) shooting out of a fiery explosion, with all the subtlety of an 80s action movie. I thought “well this one should go quickly” and started flipping through the pages. There was an article on ‘American foreign policy in retreat’ that I read the beginning of and decided wasn’t for me. An article on Susan Sontag, flip, one on Sylvia Plath, flip, hmm, maybe I should read this article on “How Austerity Has Failed.” Twenty minutes later, I redouble my efforts to put the first issue into the bin.
Although ostensibly a ‘review’ containing book reviews of newly (and not so newly) published works, the NYRB is much more than a compendium of book reports. The authors (many of whom are well-known figures themselves) do an excellent job curating a number of different works on a similar topic and use their own expertise to tease more from the book(s) than I sometimes get from reading the original work. Each issue also leans towards items of current importance, be that scientific discoveries, legal decisions, social phenomena, etc.
I decided to skip a number of interesting looking articles on fine art and artists and was closing in on the rear cover when I opened the page to David Cole’s article Should We Discard the Constitution (probably behind a paywall). Now I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time reading an article on the importance and relevance of the constitution to the modern world from a hard wooden chair in the middle of the sterile white kitchen. So I retired stack in hand back to the comforts of the living room easy chair and put my feet up.
The article is a review of an academic work (On Constitutional Disobedience by Louis Michael Seidman), which argues that the constitution (or at least some parts of it) is anachronistic and out of phase with the modern world. My favorite Seidman quote in the article is this thought experiment:
Imagine that after careful study a government official—say, the president or one of the party leaders in Congress—reaches a considered judgment that a particular course of action is best for the country. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room with new information: a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves might have disagreed with this course of action. Is it even remotely rational that the official should change his or her mind because of this divination?
The quote reminded me of something that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito of all people said. In oral arguments about violent video games Justice Alito quipped to the lawyer ‘what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games and if he enjoyed them.’ I assure you that I’m not going to often quote one of the current Supreme Courts most despicable members, but I think it’s important to see that even the most conservative legal minds must recognize that our country is fundamentally different than it was at conception and that those differences translate into a need for new ideas and new solutions. We can see this easily in the 27 amendments that we’ve made to the Constitution since it was originally drafted.
The article did an excellent job teasing out the principles that we should use in defining a government. Cole discussed the protections afforded by the constitution to those who might be oppressed if we made our decision solely on the basis of majority rule. Forty-five minutes later when I finished the article, I was engaged and glad that I hadn’t just chucked the issue without reading it.
And that’s exactly why I have have the stack!