Beware Originalism

Beware Originalism

In the context of United States law, originalism is a concept regarding the interpretation of the Constitution that asserts that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding “at the time it was adopted”. Wikipedia

Trump may be nearly gone but Trumpism isn’t. Half the voters in the United States voted for it. Defining Trumpism temperately – a major achievement in itself – reveals ‘originalism’. For you and I, hopefully people who like to say what something actually is, originalism is to interpret what was originally written or said – literally. Hence the width of the ruts on almost any trackway are exactly the width of those of a roman chariot. Useful and practical, they dictated the span of vehicle axles for two thousand years until the end of WWII.

Even today, cars’ axles are the same width, though now from a more logical choice than the originalism of the warrior’s chariot. So originalism is an extreme conservatism, an obedience to authority from its foundation, irrespective of the context in which it was firstly declared.  Often applied to ancient biblical and prophetic statements – even without the hideous word that describes it – the idea that we should interpret old laws, beliefs and shibboleths literally is not new. It relates to superstitions which the human race is quick to adopt as a substitute for thinking. We are a lazy lot when it comes to using our minds, partly because we fear what may appear as wholly logical calls to action that we would really rather not do.

Like all ‘rule of thumb’ behaviour, we normally manage to adapt laws and rules to suit the purpose and occasion of our decision making. We are often a practical and pragmatic sort of race. But there is real danger today in the process of digitisation that we shall invent multitudes more rules. For digitisation is merely the business of turning a thought into a rule in order to establish a process that can run without any impetus other than energy.

Useful as a process is, it can dissuade those applying it from adapting or changing it. To do so would need thought and possibly, even, denial of the original thinking that first brought the process about. ‘Sticking to your guns’ may have seemed a good order in WWI but it often presaged a disaster even then, and has certainly done so many times since.

It is interesting that all religions have a person or committee that deals with the ‘dogma’ of the faith. This is usually for the purpose of keeping the basis of the belief intact and unwavering. It may explain why no religion responded to the pandemic other than a few socially motivated kind souls who were generous to the poor. There is not much biblical or prophetic precedence for a worldwide lockdown. In fact, the lack of religious bodies’ help for their congregations during this tumultuous time is a disgrace they should be ashamed of.

You might have thought, in a world of such knowledge and so many concerted brains, that we would have dismissed originalism as some sort of fad of the Medici in the 15th Century. But no, it seems that it is alive and kicking today. Originalism has found its way into the United States Repulican Party extreme right from whence, like Covid, it may spread prodigiously. Trump will surely be seen as the Master Magician who kidded at least half the voters in the 21st Century United States. How this could be so when they have the experience of the Ku Klux Klan is beyond me. The KKK is still, I am assured, extant, when it ought to have been long since extinct. Originalism, like Covid-19, has a habit of popping up just when you think it is dead and done.

So beware the guiles of originalism and of anything that stops us, one of the most intriguing organisms of the universe, from using our logical brains to think through what really matters. I call it reaching ‘the heart of the matter’, somewhat as Graham Greene saw it in his 1948 novel.

Our heirs and successors will judge us on the basis of our use of common sense.

So we’d better jolly well use it.