July 18, 2018

Eating the serpent

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.


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If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? — Luke 11:11
PEOPLE MAKE PROMISES every day. For the most part, when they do not keep them, they are a little embarrassed about it. They make excuses and hope that they sound like good reasons. For most of us, when a promise made to us is not kept, we are a little disappointed, even if the reason it is broken sounds pretty good.

But there are among us a group of people who routinely break promises, and most of us shrug it off. We know enough about how the world works to understand that those promises were not made to be kept, but rather they were made to earn votes.

And now I have given it all away, haven't I. You know about whom I speak.

Whether it's "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars. They are going into training to form a force so strong that, by its very existence, it will keep the threat of war far away from our shores" (Franklin Roosevelt); "I'll never lie to you" (Jimmy Carter); "Read my lips: No new taxes" (George H.W. Bush); "The era of big government is over" (Bill Clinton); or "You can keep your doctor" (Barack Obama), most people weren't really surprised when what those men said turned out to be untrue. Disappointed, maybe, but surprised? Probably not.

And yet, they continue to vote for politicians who make promises. Do they believe the promises? Who knows?

I suspect that the real role of promises in political life is not to inform us about what the candidate will (or will not) do, but rather to give us an idea of what he is like, what kinds of measures appeal to him, and to what group of voters he is trying to appeal.

But there is another kind of promise I want to look at: let us call it the promise of the meaning of words. We accept words as having a certain meaning, and we make plans on the basis of them. You walk into a building called a "museum," and you don't expect to see farm animals walking about, even if a guide explains that this museum is preserving the feel and smell of farm animals. You don't expect to find an orchestra and several choruses performing Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," and you are not satisfied if the docent explains that this museum preserves loud classical music. And if the explainer goes on to tell you about the evolution of museums and the meaning of preservation, you are probably not convinced.

You go into a Christian bookstore and purchase a Bible described as a "Red Letter Edition." You open it and discover that not only are the words of Jesus on Earth in red letters, but the entire Bible is printed in red letters. You ask the clerk about it, and she tells you, "This publisher believes that the Bible is the literal Word of God, so all the letters are in red." Well, even if you also believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, you will probably say, "Yeah, but this isn't what I was expecting."

And most of us don't like to be tricked, either. It was cute — maybe — when Peter Best, a former drummer for the Beatles, put out an album called "Best of the Beatles." Still less would we like it if we purchased an album by Winthrop Best of Our Savior Congregational Church singing hymns titled, "Best of the Beadles" (though in that case we would have only ourselves to blame).

All right, these are ... shall we say "ridiculous"? ... examples.

But how about the lover of Victor Hugo who takes his granddaughter to the movies to see the Disney version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"? Does he have a right to be annoyed when the story is given a happy ending? Did his granddaughter really see "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"?

To be sure, every retelling will be a little different, but ... a happy ending?

What about the lover of American literature who eagerly goes to see the 1995 movie version of "The Scarlet Letter"? Again, with the happy ending? This time because the "inner story" is one of redemption? Because we modern viewers don't really believe that an adulteress should be exposed to shame her entire life? That even a straying clergyman deserves the happiness that comes from a satisfying sexual relationship?

What's next? A movie in which the Scarlet Pimpernel works for Marat and helps round up aristocrats, who go to the scaffold listening to the mob chanting, "We ... are ... the 99 percent!"?

You, know, just to make it relevant.

Or maybe a version of "Moby Dick" in which the whale is coal-black, so that the whole thing can be a metaphor for the racism of New Bedford Puritans?

Well, language evolves. In the Turner Classic Movies edit of the 1969 movie "The Reivers," it's OK if the villains use the word "nigger" when talking about blacks, but not if the good guys do (as Steve McQueen's character does in the unbowdlerized version). If we let the good guys use that word, it would completely confuse modern viewers, who, after all, must be told what to think and how to feel.

Did we nod and say, Well, I guess it's okay if "Huckleberry Finn" is bowdlerized because of "that word"? Fair enough. What about bowdlerizing "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

As readers must have guessed by now, I just love Pythagoras's Theorem. It gives me an appreciation of how society works. We look at the side of the right triangle that's 3 units long, and the side that's 4 units long, and we know that that third side is going to be 5 units long. Every time. We draw the two legs, and that hypotenuse just skips and dances from one end-point to the other in exactly 5 units, and no power on Earth can make it do anything else.

It's like that with words. Once you allow them to mean what you want them to mean, they will just keep spinning out meanings for you, and you just have to keep nodding and nodding and saying to yourself, "Well, I guess so."

Think about the words that form the law against discrimination in this country. Gee, didn't "we" need to do something along those lines? I will not say "we" did or did not. What I will say is that if you pass a law like that, it's going to keep spinning out cases involving discrimination, and if you have granted the premises of the law, you are like one leg of a right triangle, the law is another, and out pops the new legal hypotenuse in a length you have to accept.

In a world that no longer ascribes objective meanings to words or that denies the objectivity of truth, it often seems as though every new idea is like the broom in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" that just keeps pouring out the water and never stops. And if we become desperate, at last understanding that it must be stopped, and we try to smash it to bits, all we get is smaller brooms that continue the work that was implicit all along in the original spell.

Only one choice is left to us: either we learn how to break the spell completely or we drown in the implications of the original premise.

What we have grown accustomed to call "affirmative action" has its roots in a 1961 executive order by John Kennedy that banned discrimination on the basis of "race, creed, color, or national origin." Within two decades it had evolved into a system that allowed colleges, public employers, and contractors to give preferences to candidates and applicants from what we became accustomed to call "minority groups."

But when Americans, a few years after Kennedy's executive order, first agreed that discrimination against blacks in housing should be illegal, do you suppose anyone thought for a minute that that law would one day be used to force an elderly Christian couple to rent a part of their home to a couple of homosexuals? Or to applicants with criminal records? When Americans agreed that commercial establishments should have to fry hamburgers for blacks sitting at their lunch counters, did anyone imagine that someone would one day attempt to use the same law to force bakers to ice cakes for homosexual "weddings"?

When the Girl Scouts embraced the Equal Rights Amendment, do you imagine anyone thought that the sentiments that produced that amendment would one day be used to create expectations that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should nominate motion pictures directed by women in numbers commensurate with the proportion of women in the general population? Or that the girls in the Girl Scouts would have to share their bathrooms with adult men in wigs?

Did it occur to anyone that the sentiments that supported the laws about housing and commercial establishments would one day metastasize into a law that required a barbershop to be remodeled so that it would have an "accessible" entrance and an "accessible" bathroom?

When Congress began passing laws defining terrorism, was it to be imagined that anyone would consider classifying toy guns as weapons of terrorism? Do you think this will not happen? Are you sure it has not already happened?

Last year a statue was pulled down in Durham, North Carolina. The goons that pulled it down said that putting that statue up had been an act of governmental terrorism. Back in the days when people first began to get uncomfortable about Confederate statues and put up statues of the likes of Arthur Ashe, no one thought that the neighboring statues of Jefferson Davis or Thomas Jackson were symbols of terrorism. No matter how ignorant they may have been of the causes of the War Between the States or how much they hated Robert E. Lee because his wife owned slaves, no one thought that putting up statues to them was an act of terrorism.

Allow me a few tales which will appear to be digressions, but which are not.

When I was in college, I had a friend who played a lot of chess. He was a fair-to-middlin' player, but since he liked to play people who were better than he was, he usually lost. But after a game, he would often ask that the board be set up in a position that had occurred sometime during the game, and he would insist that at that point in the game, he could still win. His opponent could explain that even at that position he was in trouble, and they would replay the game from that position and my friend would lose again. Still, he would insist that if he had not made this or that mistake, he would have won.

Some years later I was talking to a woman who was complaining about her on-again-off-again boyfriend. They often quarreled, and the maddening thing, she said, was, "He is perfectly capable of telling me that he was wrong about something in the past. But he never seems to be able to consider the possibility that he is wrong right now."

As different as these two experiences were, I eventually saw that they had many things in common, in particular, the inability on the part of someone to tell — at the very moment that such knowledge would have been most profitable to him — when he was going off in the wrong direction.

No doubt many of us have had a similar experience — being sure that everything is going right only to learn that we had, in effect, driven off a cliff. But if we are sensible, such experiences do not mark our daily experience.

For most people, however, it seems that, at least in politics, they do mark it. They keep thinking that this president will be different, or this Supreme Court nominee will be different. The new man will not be like those of whom the pundits write, "He surprised friend and foe alike." (Meaning, courtesy of Joe Sobran, "He betrayed his friends.")

Perhaps that is inevitable. When one is on the winning side of a political situation, it is natural to think that things will continue to go well.

But what about laws? No law yet has been written that has not "surprised friend and foe alike." We keep thinking that we can "win" the game of lawmaking no matter how many mistakes we have already made. We can see later where we may have gone wrong, but it never occurs to us that right now, at this juncture, we are making a terrible mistake. The damn fools will tell you what is wrong with the law, and the savants will say, "There is no language in the law that will permit that interpretation." And a few years later, the savants will learn that the damn fools were right. Not that that will do anyone any good or earn the damn fools a hearing the next time.

Every law has buried in it the seeds of misuse. That, too, may be inevitable: there are no freedom-specific tools or weapons. Every weapon can be turned against the one who wields it. And every law, every regulation can be weaponized.

That may be a little harder to see, because while, as Sophocles says, it takes only a day to show a man to be a knave, it may take several years before the sprout of a law is revealed to be poisonous weed. Or a triffid.

One reads the Constitution, and for the most part, it seems as if it should work out pretty well. And yet there are certain clauses which, when conjoined, can be seen to carry with them the seeds of a war in which 500,000 battle deaths will result less than a century after it was written.

It seems that in the related realms of politics and government no matter how much bread we try to bake, we keep getting serpents. Ω

July 18, 2018

© 2018 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2018 by WTM Enterprises.

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