Words and Things

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What the common people do,
The things that simple men believe,
I too believe and do.

Thus one of the old gentlemen in Euripides’ Bacchae. As often as honesty allows, I like to say that myself.

I think that even libertarianism is basically common sense, with an edge on it. Another commonsensical idea, which has always been a special concern of Word Watch, is the correspondence theory of truth — the idea that our words and concepts are true when they correspond with things that actually exist.

I know that much of modern philosophy is against this idea (as are such purported philosophies as deconstruction, postmodernism, and so forth). And I know that many interesting questions can be asked about the nature of the alleged correspondence. How is it that certain products of my neural fibers correspond to or represent a dog or a cat, or conceptualize the existence of dogs and cats? The fibers and their electrical charges aren’t the least bit like the animals. Neither are the words for dogs and cats. But if I say, “The cat is on the mat,” and you turn to the mat and see no cat upon it, I have not said the truth. You know it and I know it, and that settles the question, so far as I’m concerned.

If you aren’t interested in cats, perhaps you may be interested in the Japanese snow macaque recently found wandering in an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, dressed in a winter coat. The monkey’s name is Darwin (well, what else would you name a Japanese snow macaque?). Explaining why she left Darwin in her car (whence he escaped), the owner said that on an earlier visit, Ikea had thrown him out, claiming that he was a pet animal. “I said he was not a pet,” the owner reported; “he was my child.”

That argument didn’t work, and it hasn’t helped the owner get her monkey back from the wild animal refuge, Story Book Farm(!), to which an outraged government has now consigned him. A spokes-woman — or, perhaps, spokes-elf — for Story Book Farm has stated, “He’s just going to be who he is now and that’s a monkey.”

I’m uneasy about the state getting involved with Darwinism, one way or another, but I have to admit she’s right. The first thing I look for in words is a correspondence with reality, or at least somebody’s well-supported notion of reality. Darwin’s “mother” is known to have other children — two sons, 12 and 16. I wonder how they construe their mom’s remarks. Is she trying to make a monkey out of them?

The correspondence that I am seeking between words and things doesn’t have to be as obvious as Darwin’s monkeyhood. I have no ideological objection to obscurity in prose or verse. I can enjoy pursuing its meanings. After all, I wrote a book on William Blake. But I am disgusted with poets when their words persistently refuse to let me picture what they have in mind. The words don’t correspond with anything. Neither does saying that a monkey is your child.

By the same token, I am intensely pleased when I find an exact correspondence between word and thing, especially in places where I didn’t expect to find it. The political journalism of 1845 is not my favorite reading, but I clap my hands when I find in it the phrase “manifest destiny,” applied to America’s expansion to the Pacific. It seems to me an exact correspondence of phenomenon and phrase. I am troubled when people denounce or satirize this phrase, making light of the supposedly quaint or repellent idea that “it was somehow America’s ‘manifest destiny’ to expand its frontiers.”

Now, stand with me on a peak of the Sierra and behold California as she was in 1845. Its total population was about 100,000. The non-Indian population was about 10,000. About half of all adult, non-Indian males — the warrior class — had migrated to California from the United States. Mexico claimed the place but did nothing much about it. Several times the Spanish-speaking population, greatly given to civil disputes, had revolted against governors sent by Mexico City. The military resources and skills of the native Californians were rudimentary; nevertheless, they whiled away their idle hours by warring fecklessly with one another, attempting to avenge themselves on rebel Indians, and griping about the hegemony of Mexico.

Even libertarianism is basically common sense, with an edge on it.

Now turn for a moment and look back toward the Atlantic. There you will see a nation of 20 million people, expanding its population by over 30% a decade, and richer per capita than any other country, with an industrial network already reaching more than halfway across the continent, and a commercial empire reaching around the world. Ships leave New England and stop at Hawaii to pick up a crew for whale hunting, or proceed directly to San Diego to take on hides, the only considerable product of California. Meanwhile, during the past 30 years, the area of European settlement of the United States has advanced from a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic to a few hundred miles west of the Mississippi.

Are you going to tell me that it wasn’t the destiny of the United States to take California, and everything in the territory between — which was, with the exception of a tiny part of New Mexico, even less populated and less developed than California? Are you going to tell me that this destiny was not manifest?

Maybe you think the destiny was morally wrong. Maybe you think the United States had no right to take California, New Mexico, and so forth. If you do, good: you have something real to argue about. But if you’re going to argue that the destiny wasn’t manifest, then your words don’t correspond with reality, and why should anyone debate with you?

This word manifest is interesting. It means patent, evident, obvious. It has many uses. Its best use appears in number 78 of the Federalist papers, where Alexander Hamilton defends the principle of judicial review. Limited government, he says,

can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.

“Manifest tenor” — isn’t that a good way of putting it? Hamilton doesn’t just indicate that the Court has the power to “interpret” the Constitution: interpretation is a useful concept, but the word is likely to be misleading. It might suggest that the Constitution is a weird oracle whose meaning can be divined only by priests who visit it in the dark of night, there to discover what no one else could possibly have guessed. In other words, it might suggest what the Constitution has become, under the past eight decades of priestly divination.

“Manifest tenor” provides a firmer connection between judicial opinions and the document they are supposed to be about. Do you really think that when Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” it means that Congress can force you to buy health insurance, or tax you to preserve snail darters, or keep you from draining mud puddles (“vernal pools”) out of your back yard? Do you really think that is the manifest tenor of the commerce clause?

If you do, may Madison and Hamilton have mercy on you. You are either (A) too stupid to meddle with words, (B) too ignorant to know what words mean, (C) too cowed by authority to object to the teachings of the legal scribes and Pharisees, (D) too ambitious for your own political ideals to observe the ethics of words and things.

Some libertarians (not to mention armies of modern liberals and conservatives) persuade themselves that the words of the Constitution correspond to anything that we ourselves want them to correspond to, whether manifest to anyone else or not.

I am sorry to say this, but some libertarians (not to mention armies of modern liberals and conservatives) fall into one or more of those four categories. They persuade themselves that the words of the Constitution correspond to anything that we ourselves want them to correspond to, whether manifest to anyone else or not. For instance, they find a universal right to privacy in the first amendment, though it contains no words to correspond with such a right, and much of the rest of the Constitution conflicts with it. They believe that the general principles on which the Bill of Rights was based include all kinds of ideas about self-ownership, as we libertarians construe it, and consequently about privacy, as we also construe that mysterious object of discussion.

This is the same logic that every political faction currently pursues in its approach to the Constitution, but that doesn’t make it legitimate. One might as well argue that when Moses outlawed adultery, he was really upholding the value of love, so the meaning of the seventh commandment, when properly interpreted, is that you can have sex with anyone you really like. Probably no one would say that about Moses, because (thank God) the American state is not governed by the Ten Commandments; but if it were, people would indeed say that, and having said it, view themselves not as political propagandists but as wise interpreters of the law.

Before you write in to complain, let me assure you that I have very warm feelings toward privacy and none at all toward sexual repression. But I am a lowly literary scholar, and I would be kicked out of my guild if I took one-tenth the liberties of interpretation with Treasure Island that constitutional scholars take with the Constitution — which is, after all, a work of literature, in which words were originally thought to correspond with things, and specific things, too, or there would have been no purpose in writing a Constitution.

Well. Now that I’ve tempted many of my friends into becoming my embittered enemies, I will proceed to another bone of political contention: the word mandate, as in “the president has a mandate.”

What is a mandate? It is a grant of power. In modern democratic usage it means a power granted, by a large majority of the electorate, to the winner of an election, giving him or her legitimacy to do whatever he or she promised to do during the election campaign. It goes beyond happening to win; it means winning big, winning so big that one’s policies have been unquestionably approved.

Since President Obama’s victory, we have heard much talk of mandates. Let’s see whether that word might possibly correspond with any thing now manifest in the political world.

Certainly the Republicans didn’t get a mandate; that we know. Did the president?

In the election of 2012, he achieved a majority of 51% — a figure that notably lacks the compelling force one associates with mandates. Fifty-one percent suggests words like barely, hum-drum, and by the skin of his teeth. An interesting fact is that in 2008, Obama reached a majority of 53% — not a mandate either, but 2% closer to one. But let’s put this in a wider context. In 2004, George Bush got 50.7%, up from 48% in 2000, and not very different from Obama’s achievement this year.

Here are the reelection scores of the other presidents who have sought a second full term since 1950 (significantly omitting Presidents Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush, who sought reelection but lost): Eisenhower, 57.4%; Nixon, 60.7%; Reagan, 59%; Clinton, 49.2%. Clinton is obviously the outlier (or low lier), but all these people, including Clinton, greatly improved their performance from the first to the second election. They all advanced by more than 6% — all except Eisenhower (2.2%). But Eisenhower started high, with a 55.2% majority in his first election.

So Obama started low, went lower. No mandate there, and no correspondence between event and polemical description.

Yet in political discourse, there is such a thing as sliding completely off the bridge between word and fact. I don’t mean lying; there’s a sort of correspondence even in that. Congressman X takes money to pass a bill; Congressman X, accused of doing so, replies, “I never took money to pass that bill.” We know what he’s denying. He’s lying, and he’s guilty; nevertheless, we’re all speaking the same language. Sometimes, however, there’s simply no connection between language and anything that’s real.

President Obama is becoming so proficient at sliding off the bridge and swimming to some other shore that most political writers have lost track of him completely. He and several less able henchmen have attempted this feat about Benghazi. Some of them have had to swim for their lives. But Obama has always managed to turn up in the next county, without either friends or critics being able to see just how he got there.

His best stunt so far has been to commission an investigation of what he and his friends did on the night of September 11, 2012, when our consular facilities in Benghazi were being attacked, and to refuse all comment on what he himself did, until his investigation figures out what it was. Is that elusive, or what? But so far, only Liberty’s Steve Murphy has commented on it. Steve did so on November 24:

When asked . . . what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

You would expect every media writer to exclaim, “Mr. President! What are you talking about?” But few media writers are as observant as Steve Murphy.

Often, indeed, and not just with Obama coverage, a lack of correspondence between word and thing seems inescapable; it’s right there in the reporters’ own words, but it escapes their notice.

Carl Isackson advises Word Watch of one such instance. “The Feds,” he says,

. . . have decided to shut down the last oyster cannery in California to make a marine wilderness area at Drake's Bay. The oyster farm has been in biz over 80 years.

This is the line I like from the newspaper article: "The estuary is home to tens of thousands of endangered birds . . ."

Next time you’re in Northern California, watch out. You may be smothered by endangered species. Then you’ll see who’s endangered, all right.

Unlike some conservatives, I don’t consider Christmas an endangered species. If it is, there are still tens of millions of places where it roosts. But I am disheartened by the many years that have passed since government and corporate officials started insisting that people stop saying “Merry Christmas,” putting up “Christmas trees,” or whistling “Joy to the World,” and confine themselves to “Season’s Greetings,” “holiday trees,” “winter celebrations,” and “Jingle Bells.”

This is bogus, and manifestly so. December 25 is a holiday in honor of the birth of Christ. That is the holiday in question. The concept (holiday) corresponds to the day, Christmas, not to winter or some anonymous season that happens to be winter (who the hell would celebrate sludge and snow?). Nothing could be clearer. If you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, don’t. And if you want to redefine it as a celebration of the winter or the “season,” knock yourself out. But why insist that other people conform to your struggle against the correspondence theory of language? The word Christmas means the thing Christmas. That doesn’t mean you have to go to church.

And in that spirit, faithful readers, I wish you a very merry Christmas, however you celebrate or do not celebrate that day. For many years, you’ve followed this column — endured it, contributed to it, reproved it, and, by your reproofs, educated its author in ways he never could have predicted. Everything you’ve done has been encouraging. More than that, it has been fun. No one could want a better gift than intelligent attention, agreement, and dissent. So, thankful for having the best readers in the world, I wish, as always, every good gift for you — and good times for all of us, as we continue our friendship in 2013.




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Comments

Geezer

As my dear old Pappy used to say: "Don't negotiate with terrorists, and don't feed the trolls. It just encourages them." As tempting as it is to respond to the substance of the troll's latest rant, I think it wiser just to shun him. Your mileage may vary.

Jon Harrison

Invoking Hamilton on limited government is interesting, given that he fathered the doctrine of implied powers. And, like it or not, it is the interpretation by the the living that determines the meaning of the Constitution for each generation. Appeal can made to the authors of the Constitution and the Federalist papers, but they are no longer on the mat, as it were. We the living, or that portion of us that votes, makes laws, and interprets them from the bench, are the deciders of what the Constitution means. Even the strictest, literal interpretation of the document's words (a rather foolish exercise, given the vast difference between the world of 1787 and that of today), will inevitably be influenced by the attitudes of the 21st century. Like it or not, the Constitution either lives and evolves (whether for good or ill is not the point here), or dries up into dust and is scattered by the winds.

The reference to "The Bacchae" recalls a long-ago conversation in which I maintained that it was the god himself who was torn apart by the Bacchants. You, however, pointed out that it was not so -- Pentheus was the one torn limb from limb.

S.H. Chambers

Well said.

Jim Young

I wish to quibble with your denial of the right of privacy. When the Constitution was debated before approval many believed that only enumerated rights were available to the government and that a bill of rights was unnecessary and could be dangerous if it was thought to be a complete enumeration. In answer to this the ninth amendment specifically allows other rights retained by the people. So I have viewed privacy as one of those that I retained. It clearly is not a positive right that would have an economic cost and so is acceptable to me and I believe that it should trump all this government spying on individual citizens.

Stephen Cox

Thank you for your comment, Jim!

Concerning the right of privacy: as libertarians, we are preeminent supporters of the right to private ownership of oneself and one’s material property. But why not just state it that way, instead of saying that there’s a right of privacy? To many people, “privacy” means something different from what it means to you and me. It means, for instance, that “celebrities” should not have their pictures take in public places without their permission. It means that the records of government employees, recording their misdeeds, should be held in secret. It means government’s ability to keep people from passing out political literature to which other people may object. It means . . . Well, you get my drift. The precedent for these extended and asserted meanings of “privacy” was set by the courts’ refusal to be content with the manifest tenor of the Constitution.

I do believe that Amendment 9 and its sister, Amendment 10, have bearing on what you say.

The 9th Amendment says, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

This addresses — very elegantly — the problem of enumeration that you mention. But it doesn’t do anything to define what the “rights” are. One could provide almost any list of positive or negative rights, and satisfy this amendment, by itself.

The 10th Amendment reinforces the 9th, by limiting the powers of government (which are, of course, the problem that the Bill of Rights, as well as the rest of the Constitution, was designed to solve). But the problem of definition is even worse in this case.

The 10th Amendment says: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Many libertarians fail to notice that this amendment has to do not only with the (positive) powers of the people — which presumably means individual people but could also mean communities of people — but also with the powers of the states. It leaves open countless avenues of vigorous state encroachment on what you and I would regard as individual liberties. Along with the First Amendment, it allows the states to continue to maintain established churches, several of which were in existence at the time of the Bill of Rights. It allows the states to do all the things they were doing at that time, many of which were violently anti-libertarian.

The Constitution is venerable, but not perfect. The 9th and 10th Amendments are, on balance, flaws rather than virtues. Their manifest tenor is either impossible to specify (as with the 9th) or easy to specific (as with the 10th), but in an unlibertarian way.

Of course, we could dispense with the whole idea of a manifest tenor. We could treat the Constitution in a way that everyone would regard as ridiculous if it were used on any other text. We could treat it as the unique, and very peculiar, piece of writing that changes as time goes by and new interpreters are born into the world. But if constitutions change to reflect the views of whoever happens to interpret them, what’s the point of having a constitution? A constitution is supposed to provide an ultimate standard, not a changing set of suggestions on which interpreters can develop their own ideas.

Church organists do that: after the recessional, they play their own improvisations on the hymns that the congregation has sung during the service. The improvisations may happen to be better than the hymns, but they are not the hymns, and everyone knows it. It is manifest. The difference with constitutional interpretation is that no one has to obey a hymn, or its allegedly improved version; but people are supposed to obey the constitution, as the courts interpret it.

If the claim is made that the courts’ improvisations on the Constitution’s great score are the same music as the original, the claim is, for one thing, hermeneutically absurd; for another thing, it puts in jeopardy all the real constitutional provisions of which we libertarians approve, and by which our nation has achieved whatever material and spiritual health it still possesses. It is the kind of statement that follows the recessional of a nation’s intellectual glory.

There are many things in the Constitution that I don’t like, and I could try to remove these features by reinterpreting them. But that would grant the power of reinterpretation to everyone else, too; and I don’t think that many — or any — libertarians would like the result.

My best to all,
Stephen

Jon Harrison

I agree with Mr. Young, though I'm not sure the founders shared his view.

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