Friday, August 20, 2010

Words: Preserving Meaning

Words, in a political setting, can quickly become cliches -- dogmatic invocations of something we already knew. That's why, in a way, one part of preserving our values is preserving the meanings of the words that express them; not to let them go.

In that spirit:
  • 99Seats-at-Parabasis highlights this Yahoo article. The core of it is thus: people have lost the words of the First Amendment, and thus it only means "I can say what I want to say!" As opposed to what the First Amendment actually means, which is basically encapsulated in these five words: "CONGRESS SHALL PASS NO LAW." But because the First Amendment has become a political cliche, we've forgotten about that.

    That's important to remember when it comes to, for instance, the Supreme Court, where they really do get down to that level of specificity. For instance, the Second Amendment Wikipedia page has a section for the phrase "Keep and bear arms" as well as "well-regulated militia." In United States v. Miller, the court used the latter phrase to constrain the former phrase -- because the "well-regulated milita" intent is articulated, it drastically changes the scope of the phrase "keep and bear arms." The court's view (one which, since D.C. v. Heller has been eroded) is that the right exists only to the degree that it supports the intent as articulated.

  • This flattening of words by cliche reminds me of another thread. James Fallows at The Atlantic has a crusade on against the phrase "God Bless America" at the end of a political speech. Not that he's offended by the invocation of God in a secular nation (as my mother, the great athiest, is), but he's offended by how it has become "a verbal tic," "the political equivalent of 'Have a nice day!'"

    As a comparison, here's how Kennedy ended his inauguration speech:
    Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
    I sent this to my mother and her response was "Now that prayer I can respect."

    It's true; rather than just signing off with an obligatory cliche nod towards the Lord, Kennedy uses it; it becomes part of the rhetorical tactic. That's why I bolded the last line: he's using the invocation of God as part of the case he's building, which is basically the "America as the World's Savior" justification for foreign policy that has dominated post-WWII thinking.

    It means something. It hasn't been flattened. The words are important.