from "Fates Worse Than Death"
by Kurt Vonnegut
And speaking of revered old documents which cry out for a rewrite nowadays, how about the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." What we have there is what should have been at least three separate amendments, and maybe as many as five, hooked together willy-nilly in one big Dr. Seuss animal of a nonstop sentence. It is as though a starving person, rescued at last, blurted out all the things he or she had dreamed of eating while staying barely alive on bread and water.
When James Madison put together the first ten Amendments, the "Bill of Rights," in 1778, there was so much blurting by male property owners ravenous for liberty that he had 210 proposed limitations on the powers of the Government to choose from. (In my opinion, the thing most well-fed people want above all else from their Government is, figuratively speaking, the right to shoot craps with loaded dice. They wouldn't get that until President Ronald Reagan.)
I said to a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union that Madison's First Amendment wasn't as well written as it might have been.
"Maybe he didn't expect us to take him seriously," he said.
I think there is a chance of that, although the lawyer was being wryly jocular. So far as I know, Madison did not laugh or otherwise demur when Thomas Jefferson (who owned slaves) called the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia an assembly of demi-Gods. People two-thirds of the way to the top of Mount Olympus might not take as seriously as some of us do the possibility of actually honoring among squabbling mortals the airy, semi-divine promises of the Bill of Rights.
The ACLU lawyer said that I, as a writer, should admire Madison for making his Amendments as unambiguous as a light switch, which can be only "on" or "off," by the strong use of absolute negatives: "Congress shall make no law . . . shall not be infringed . . . No soldier shall . . . shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue . . . No person shall be held answer . . . no fact tried by a jury . . . shall not be required . . . shall not be construed . . . ." There are no words anywhere in his Amendments meaning "under ideal conditions" or "whenever possible" or "at the convenience of the Government." From moment to moment in our now long history (the oldest continuous government save for Switzerland's), the several specific provisions of the Bill of Rights can be, thanks to James Madison, only "off" or "on."
To me the First Amendment sounds more like a dream than a statute. The right to say or publish absolutely anything makes me feel as insubstantial as a character in somebody else's dream when I defend it, as I often do. It is such a tragic freedom since there is no limit to the vileness some people are proud to express in public if allowed to do so with impunity. So again and again in debates with representatives of the Moral Majority and the like, and some of the angrier Women Against Pornography, I find myself charged with being an encourager of violence against women and kiddie porn.
When I was new at such discussions I insouciantly asked a fundamentalist Christian opponent ("Oh, come on now, Reverend") if he knew of anyone who had been ruined by a book. (Mark Twain claimed to have been ruined by salacious parts of the Bible.)
The Reverend was glad I asked. He said that a man out in Oregon had read a pornographic book and then raped a teenage maiden on the way home from the grocery store, and then mutilated her with a broken Coke bottle. (I am sure it really happened.) We were there to discuss the efforts of some parents to get certain books eliminated from school libraries and curricula on the grounds that they were offensive or morally harmful—quite mild and honorable books in any case. But my dumb question gave the Reverend the opportunity to link the books in question to the most hideous sexual crimes.
The books he and his supporters wanted out of the schools, one of mine among them, were not pornographic, although he would have liked our audience to think so. (There is the word "motherfucker" one time in my Slaughterhouse-Five, as in, "Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker." Ever since that word was published, way back in 1969, children have been attempting to have intercourse with their mothers. When it will stop no one knows.) The fault of Slaughterhouse-Five, James Dickey's Deliverance, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, several books by Judy Blume, and so on, as far as the Reverend was concerned, was that neither the authors nor their characters exemplified his notion of the ideal Christian behavior and attitudes.
The Reverend (as was his right) was making an undisguised attack not only on Americans' demi-God—given right to consider every sort of idea (including his), but also on the Constitution's insistence that the Government (including the public schools) not declare one religion superior to any other and behave accordingly with the force of the law.
So the Reverend was not a hypocrite. He was perfectly willing to say in so many words that there is nothing sacred about the First Amendment, and that many images and ideas other than pornography should be taken out of circulation by the police, and that the official religion of the whole country should be his sort of Christianity. He was sincere in believing that my Slaughterhouse-Five might somehow cause a person to wind up in a furnace for all eternity (see the mass promulgated by Pope St. Pius V), which would be worse (if you consider its duration) than being raped, murdered, and then mutilated by a man maddened by dirty pictures.
He in fact won my sympathy (easy to do). He was not a television evangelist (so easily and justly caricatured), although he probably preached on radio from time to time. (They all do.) He was a profoundly sincere Christian and family man, doing a pretty good job no doubt imitating the life of Christ as he understood it, sexually clean, and not pathologically fond of the goods of this Earth and so on. He was trying to hold together an extended family, a support system far more dependable than anything the Government could put together, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, whose bond was commonly held beliefs and attitudes. (I had studied anthropology, after all, and so knew in my bones that human beings can't like life very much if they don't belong to a clan associated with a specific piece of real estate.)
The Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, a traveling show about dirty books and pictures put on the road during the administration of Ronald Reagan, was something else again. At least a couple of the panel members would later be revealed as having been in the muck of financial or sexual atrocities. There was a clan feeling, to be sure, but the family property in this case was the White House, and an amiable, sleepy, absentminded old movie actor was its totem pole. And the crazy quilt of ideas all its members had to profess put the Council of Trent to shame for mean-spirited, objectively batty fantasias: that it was good that civilians could buy assault rifles; that the contras in Nicaragua were a lot like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; that Palestinians were to be called "terrorists" at every opportunity; that the contents of wombs were Government property; that the American Civil Liberties Union was a subversive organization; that anything that sounded like the Sermon on the Mount was socialist or communist, and therefore anti-American; that people with AIDS, except for those who got it from mousetrapped blood transfusions, had asked for it; that a billion-dollar airplane was well worth the price; and on and on.
The Attorney General's Commission on Pornography was blatantly show business, a way for the White house to draw attention to its piety by means of headlines about sex, and to imply yet again that those in favor of freedom of speech were enthusiasts for sexual exploitation of children and rape and so on. (While other Reagan supporters were making private the funds for public housing and cleaning out the savings banks.)
So I asked to appear before the Commission when it came to New York, but my offer was declined. I wanted to say, "I have read much of the heartrending testimony about the damage of words and pictures can do which has been heard by your committee. The scales have fallen from my eyes. I now understand that our Government must have the power to suppress words and images which are causes of sexually motivated insanity and crimes. As John the Apostle says, ‘In the beginning was the word.'
"I make my living with words, and I am ashamed. In view of the damage freely circulated ideas can do to a society, and particularly to children, I beg my government to delete from my works all thoughts which might be dangerous. Save me from myself. I beg for the help of our elected leaders in bringing my thoughts into harmony with their own and those of the people who elected them. That is democracy.
"Attempting to make amends at this late date, I call the attention of this committee, and God bless the righteous Edwin Meese, to the fundamental piece of obscenity from which all others spring, the taproot of the tree whose fruit is so poisonous. I will read it aloud, so audience members under the age of twenty-one should leave the room. Those over twenty-one who have heart trouble or are prone to commit rape at the drop of a hat might like to go with them. Don't say I haven't warned you.
"You Commission members have no choice but to stay, no matter what sort of filth is turned loose by witnesses. That can't be easy. You must be very brave. I like to think of you as sort of sewer astronauts.
"All right? Stick your fingers in your ears and close your eyes, because here we go:
"'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.'"
End of joke.