Sunday, December 10, 2006

What are Words for? - What Are Words For part 1

A condescending manner and a blizzard of words and jumbled meanings.

Justice Stephen Breyer was on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace 12/3/2006, giving an interview and in my admitedly hostile opinion, very aware that he was Giving an interview, an audience to his Wiseness; Wallace questioned him about the wisdom of some of his rulings. This passage from the interview that asks him about his ruling on campaign finance law, I think sums it up well:

“...say that these campaign finance limits, what they are doing is they are
telling a person that wants to give 20 million dollars, that he can’t finance
all the speech he wants. Doesn’t that violate the first amendment? That’s a
slogan. Why? Because think about it, think about that first amendment. It was
done, enacted, passed to help our country, of now 300 million citizens to run
fair and free elections.

Freedom of speech was passed to enable fair and free elections. The
very point of speech in an election, is to get a message across, and that may
mean in part that you don’t want one person’s speech, that 20 million dollar
giver, to drown out everybody elses. So if we want to give a chance to people
who have only one dollar and not 20 million, maybe we have to do something to
keep that playing field a little more level, in terms of money. If you accept
that at all, you’ve suddenly bought in to the proposition that there are 1st
amendment interests on both sides of this equation – and once you’re there, you
see this problem as complicated, and once you see it is complicated, you begin
to factor in to what extent do we defer to congress and the answer is going to
be quite a lot, but not completely. See what I’ve done? I’ve showed you how to
go back to that quote – I‘ve used that word purpose to help me in a case where
the language isn’t clear, where the history isn’t clear, where the tradition
isn’t clear, where the precedents aren’t clear, but we have to decide how in
that realm of ambiguity to apply the value that’s permanent and always there, in
free speech, to a modern, difficult situation.”

The first switcheroo we have here, quite horrifying in a Supreme Court Justice, is the redefining of the meaning and purpose of free speech. To say that it’s purpose is to run fair and free elections, is breath taking. The original purpose of the free speech amendment was to protect the right of individuals to express political free speech, to freely engage in expressing political ideas and in debating them free from the fear of regulation and penalty from the Gov’t. While that will certainly have an effect on elections, to say that it’s purpose is to assure free and fair elections is appalling, and completely subverts the meaning not only of the first amendment, but of the constitutions itself.

The next switcheroo he makes is to equate fair with equal. That nobody has a right (remember this is a supreme court justice speaking – when he implies rights, it is significant to your future) to have more influence than anyone else. Here he seeks populist approval by dirtying the idea of a particular istance of free speech, by painting it with the soiling brush of “millions of dollars”, but it will be used by those saying that just because a majority of people reject a view [socialism, capitalism, or insert your bogey-ism here] for instance, is no reason that it shouldn’t have just as much say as say, individual rights.

Then he moves to muddy the waters to cover his tracks, to misdirect, confuse, obfuscate what he’s actually just done. Despicable.

But this isn’t what I want to talk about, it is merely a common effect of it. What? Before getting to that, lets take a quick look at the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

It seems that ancient Athens was having to pay a tribute to the distant imperial Minoan King Minos of several of their young, who he would cast into the dark labyrinth beneath the palace of Knossus, to be killed and eaten by the Minotaur, the half man-half bull monster that lurked within the mazes of the labyrinth.

Theseus the newly returned son of the king of Athens, resolved to be one of the next payment, and to kill the Minotaur, or die trying. His father was against his going, but even worse than his going, he couldn’t bear the thought, couldn’t bear the forseeable tension of seeing the ships eventual return and having to watch their slow return over the horizon, waiting for it to land to discover whether he was successful or killed, so he asked Theseus to raise a black sail if he lived.
Ariadne, daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus gave Theseus a golden thread, a way to find his way back out of the labyrinth to her (she thought) after killing the Minotaur. He thanked her and took her thread with him as he went into the labyrinth, deep into the winding passages of the maze. Deep in their darkness he did find the monster and he killed the minotaur, and his mission accomplished, he followed the thread back out of the labyrinth – but not to the completion of his original purpose, not to return to Ariadne and marriage and a future together; instead he abandoned her alone on an island and returned alone to Athens. Also on returning to Athens, he forgot to change his sails to signal his Father that he was there and alive – and his Father thinking his newly found son to be dead, threw himself from the cliffs to his death.

Theseus accomplished the particulars of his task, he entered the labyrinth, he killed the Minotaur, and made it back out alive, but in so doing, somewhere in that dark labyrinth or in killing the monster, or in the process of doing both, he lost not his way, but his purpose. He followed the golden thread of truth back out of the darkness, but he forgot to return to its source. He forgot love, appreciation, a future united with that source that made his survival possible. In so doing he also forgot his past and the new found future it promised too, and it became dead to him as well.
This is a myth, and as with all good myths, it holds more truths within it than any will likely ever discover. It also holds a snare for to twin fools, one twin who believes that there was a half-man, half-bull creature that actually lived and breathed called a Minotaur, and the other fool is the one who complains that there couldn’t really be such a creature as the Minotaur, a half man, half bull. Literalists and those in opposition to literalists, be they Fundamentalists and Atheists, or insert your ‘favorite’ here, nearly always both miss the Truth by equally wide margins.

There is also something missed, however, by those who read meaning into the poetry of the words – the golden thread being truth, Ariadne love and promise, the Father past & destiny lost... there is also a meaning, a spell a magic that lives in the story itself, not in its words alone, but in the poetic imagery as a whole that is contained in the entirety of the tale. We in the West, I, often become so enraptured in Words, that we lose sight of not only what they are for, what they accomplish – but also of what they are not, and what can be accomplished without them, or even with them when used in opposition to their meanings.

We forget that words are not needed to tell stories. Words are Not needed to communicate. In the Pacific Islands there are Hula dancers who can tell entire, intricately woven stories, entirely in the form of a dance. Yes, we can say that that’s only possible, because the people are already with the story and the words that make them, but there is more to it than that.

My next few posts have been rattling around in the overworked underslacked crooks and crannies of my head for quite some time, resisting my intermittent attempts to put them into words. Then they began to kind of spill out in a disordered fashion, and I’ve been unable to put them into any order; until last night when the dim bulb lit above the ol’ noggin, and I think I see the way to do it.
It’ll take a few posts though, the good news is it’s mostly written. The bad news is it’s a bunch of Words, and I’m not entirely sure just what Words are for. We’ll see if we can figure it out over the next few posts.

What are words for...Gazing into a well worn fire, a thick bank of orange embers with old and fresh logs blazing atop them, the night dark around you, stars and moon pale rivals to your Fire; what is it you do looking into that fire? What do you imagine to be the difference to be between you now, and them then, five, ten, fifteen, twenty thousand years ago? Our ancestors? Were they like us? Did they have the potential to be like us?

Are we like them?

You stare into the fire and think, and converse in wonder about your lives, and you tell stories. I’ll bet that even before there existed a large vocabulary, the stories were told still, relying heavily on motions and pantomimed enactments, and I’ll be that their story was conveyed even so – the action, the pain, the quest, fear and triumph – thoughts were transmitted from one person to another, even when the supply of words was thin.

What did those first words do? What are words for? What are words? What are words relation to you, your thoughts and your soul? Why do we need them if communication is possible without them? There are many things which words can do, in song, in giving greetings, relaying how many deer were killed in the hunt, etc, but I think that all of these are just nice to haves.

Words real purpose are much narrower. And stories, and fires purposes are much, much broader.
To be continued... tonight, tomorrow... soon.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding post, Van!

Justice Breyer was the made campaign finance reform "complicated"
with his nuance, feelings, and attempt to produce equal outcomes.

And, as you point out, he redefined words and the intent of the Constitution.

John McCain actually acknowledged that his bill would erode free speech.
But he justified it
(in his mind) the same way Breyer did,
by making "fairness" more important than the right of free speech.

Of course, CFR didn't reform anything.
It eroded our right to free speech, twisted the meaning of the Constitution, and it helps incumbents stay in power.

This is why (among other reasons) I would never vote for McCain.

I eagerly await your next installment.

Anonymous said...

Has it always been the case that lawyers believe that they are smarter than everyone else?

I am firmly convinced that most, if not all, lawyers regard the law as an arena in which they compete with other lawyers. I even got a lawyer to admit that once -- but only once.

Van Harvey said...

USS Ben & George,

Thanks guys, I agree on McCain & suspect t if Shakespeare is any judge, the answer about the lawyers is Yes.

However, in their (partial) defense, at least at the time of the Founders, to be a Lawyer required actual Education - not fact stuffing degree collecting, but Education; and for that brief period, they may well have been 'smarter' than the rest... but those days have been gone for a least 150 years.

Van Harvey said...

Hopefully I won't have to work tonight & will be able to continue!