Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Justice" isn't in the Constitution... except where it is

Early in the book Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution, (3rd ed., 2003), Professor Edward Larson discusses a researcher's study on high school biology textbooks published between 1907 and 1920. This was an investigation into how the subject of evolution was handled in American schools before the Scopes Trial. The textbook study apparently made much of the fact that a prominent 1912 text entitled Elementary Biology never used the term "evolution." Larson sees this as being of minimal significance because, he asserts, "neither did Origin of Species" (p. 21).

Here's the final sentence in Darwin's seminal work:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

I'm an avid fan of Professor Larson's books; his Pulitzer Prize for Summer for the Gods was well-deserved. But may I suggest it's painting an inaccurate picture to say that Origin of Species does not use the word "evolution" when in fact the final word in the text is "evolved"? If I write: "The shortstop tossed the ball to the second baseman for the force; he then fired it to first to complete the double play and the inning was over, no runs, one hit, no errors, nobody left" you could accurately state that not once in the sentence did I use the word "baseball." But that would be a silly observation; obviously the sentence is about nothing but baseball and Origin of Species is about evolution. Perhaps more analogous to Larson's statement, the sentence "I saw three geese; two of them were ganders" does not contain the word "goose" but it does have two words that are forms or derivatives of the word "goose" just as "evolved" and "evolution" have common etymologies

What this has to do with the Constitution is that earlier this afternoon in my car I listened to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio. I had just tuned in and missed his commentary, but apparently he had discussed the allegations that Carmelo Anthony, star basketball player for the Denver Nuggets, had received preferential treatment from the Denver police following his DUI arrest. Here's the background, although you need not read this to follow where I'm going:


While I didn't hear Mr. Cowherd's pontifications on the incident, I did hear him read several e-mails from listeners. As you might expect, the commenters took one of two positions: either "this is dreadfully horrible and heads must roll" or "so what, rich and famous people get preferential treatment all the time, deal with the reality, folks." One e-mail Cowherd read really jarred me. The writer made the point that it's silly to consider the Anthony incident a travesty of justice because, and I quote, "the word 'justice' doesn't even appear in the Constitution."

Wow. If the e-mail writer had read only seventeen words into the Constitution he'd have encountered "justice." For as the Preamble declares: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice..." (It's not highlighted in the original, of course, but is here for added outrageous effect.) You will also find "Justice" in Article IV, Section 2: "A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee Justice..."

But of course, even if the Constitution didn't contain the word justice, it would be self-evident that the document was in high degree an effort to insure justice among the American people, just as it's obvious my sentence about baseball without the word "baseball" is nevertheless about George Will's favorite pastime. And, although it's an essay for another day, just because the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, that phrase is a fair interpretation of the interplay in the First Amendment between permitting no establishment of religion and guaranteeing free exercise of religion.

Anyway, consider this a cautionary tale. When you hear someone say that written text A does not contain word B, sometimes it's a case like Larson's where it may be factually accurate that the word doesn't appear, but to say this is very misleading.

And sometimes, as with the e-mail addressed to Colin Cowherd, it's just plain wrong.

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