Making sense of the right--interpretation is everything

Monday, February 20, 2006 at 08:26 AM

While reading a discussion on national health care, I started thinking about how important it is for people to have common reference points when we speak. In language, the most basic reference points are the very definitions of the words we use.  It's crucial that we share definitions for any meaningful communication to occur. And, conversely, employing a different definition than the one your listener employs makes it very easy to deceive the listener as to your intentions.

Which brings me to the political discourse in America, where I think some folks on the right are using the definitional game to their advantage and to the detriment of real discussion and communication.

I've found that you can make a lot more sense of right wing opinions when you do a little definition work at the start. As used by the right:

  1. "We" does not mean everybody in the U.S., it means people at least at the middle of the middle class.

  2. "Americans" does not mean everybody in the U.S., it means people at least at the middle of the middle class.

  3. "Works" (or "doesn't work") refers to whether a given policy or plan will make things better or worse for people at least at the middle of the middle class; hence the lack of concern with U.S. infant mortality statistics, since most or all of the dying babies are born below the middle of the middle class.

  4. "Democracy" means any system that allows people at least at the middle of the middle class to voice their opinion on which candidate is most likely to perpetuate policies favorable to people at least at the middle of the middle class; hence the lack of concern with the legitimacy of elections using electronic voting and/or counting devices that can be manipulated from afar.

  5. "Freedom" means unencumbered by rules and regulations of the government; it has no reference whatsoever to the "security" component of most dictionary definitions of freedom; hence, you can be gloriously "free" while starving in a rat-infested apartment with little or no hope of survival.

  6. "Activist judges" are all judges who might render decisions based on a reading of the Constitution and statutes which treats the interests of those below the middle of the middle class as equal to the interests of those above the middle of the middle class; this is viewed as contrary to the way things always were and the way things should always be.

  7. "Healthy economy" means one in which (a) corporations have a decent bottom line, and (b) stock prices are high and rising; it has absolutely nothing to do with how many people are participating in this success--how many are struggling to survive economically, how many people are employed, or at what wages, or how many people are sliding down the economic ladder--since profits and prices can be wonderfully high while large segments of the population are simply excluded from the economy.

And, I'm sorry to say, from my limited knowledge of the beginnings of the United States, the right's definitions may well be the same as the definitions that the country's founders employed.  In the few years between the end of the Revolutionary War and the creation of a federal Constitution, the U.S. operated largely based on the various state Constitutions, with only articles of confederation at the federal level.

I believe that during this time, at least one state restricted voting rights to those who owned property, and that most states certainly expected that the wealthy and the commercially successful would largely run things as they saw fit, giving consideration to the wants and needs of those less economically privileged only to the extent that their consciences required.

And of course, even in the original Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights, it was clear that the founders did not include slaves in the "people."  Nor did they include women in many basic terms.

Kind of gives a whole different shading to the debate between those who think the Constitution should be construed solely to ascertain the "original intent," and those who consider the Constitution to be an adaptable document to be construed in light of modern circumstances, doesn't it?