Dumbing Down the Federalist Papers
I remain fairly ambivalent about Glenn Beck (an ambivalence that got me involved in a heated debate on this very site, but that’s another matter). His style, especially on television, just doesn’t appeal to me. He also seems to believe that having the dial turned to 11 is the only way to get his point across. That said, I am appreciative of his efforts to teach American history to his audience. He’s had some excellent academic guests like Ronald Pestritto on his show, and he has an appreciation of some of the nuances of American political thought that go over a lot of other heads.
Then I saw this, and I’m ready to grab the pitchforks. From the product description:
Adapting a selection of these essential essays—pseudonymously authored by the now well-documented triumvirate of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—for a contemporary audience, Glenn Beck has had them reworked into “modern” English so as to be thoroughly accessible to anyone seeking a better understanding of the Founding Fathers’ intent and meaning when laying the groundwork of our government. Beck provides his own illuminating commentary and annotations and, for a number of the essays, has brought together the viewpoints of both liberal and conservative historians and scholars, making this a fair and insightful perspective on the historical works that remain the primary source for interpreting Constitutional law and the rights of American citizens.
So it’s the New American Bible for the Federalist Papers. I wonder if Bishop Trautman consulted on this project.
Just as the average person can probably handle such mysterious words as “ineffable,” I’m sure that most Americans can pretty much figure out what’s going on with the Federalist Papers without Glenn Beck re-translating it for us. Yes, there are no doubt some tricky words in the 500+ pages and 85 essays, but that’s what footnotes are for. Annotated versions of the Federalist Papers already exist, and those should suffice for Beck’s purposes. Besides, part of the joy of the Federalist Papers is reading Madison and Hamilton’s beautiful prose.
Jeff Goldstein elaborates further on why this is problematic.
On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe that anyone can read and understand the Constitution — meaning, we don’t need a special priesthood to interpret the thing (and of course, this is true, assuming a base level of reading comprehension and intelligence, and assuming one can get past the fact that the document itself is like, over a hundred years old!); and yet at the same time, the Federalist Papers, we’re to understand today, are so arcane and abstruse and unintelligible that they aren’t even being taught anymore — a problem happily solved by Beck’s latest offering, a book that rewrites the Federalist Papers using modern language, which can be yours for only however many dollars (through the website, blah blah blah).
I agree with Jeff that this sends a very poorly thought out mixed message. In fact Beck is playing into the hands of those who criticize the concept of originalism. He’s conceding that the language of this era is difficult for people to comprehend, so the only way to make these writings more widely accessible is to completely re-write them. It is a contradiction that I doubt Beck has thoughtfully considered.