Words and Things
by Stephen Cox | Posted December 19, 2012
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.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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