Monday, December 19, 2005

I Plead the Fourth

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Good times.

It is, as Michael said, a safe assumption that previous administrations have violated the Fourth Amendment just as blatantly. Once again, there's a certain degree to which laws are symbolic. They'll always be violated. But the question is, are there consequences for said violations when they're discovered? Do we want to represent ourselves, both to ourselves and to others, as a society that so blatantly flaunts its own systems? Once again, this is indirections finding directions out. We know our values by how we symbolize them as much as by how we behave about them. Values are a guidance; values are society at its best. Society won't always be at its best, but it's equally important to know what best would mean to us, and to keep it as something to strive for.

Bush's pride in violating the Constitution is unique. To defend this country, according to Bush, we have to stop being this country.

I've now found myself in several conversations in which I am, in part as devil's advocate and in part seriously, defending Bush's speech last night. Not defending as in I agree with it, but defending as in there's nothing wrong, in my view, with his self-presentation or the headline on the Times' analysis of Bush's speech ("More Humble, Still Firm"). I don't believe in his humility, certainly, but that's the tone he was attempting, the stance he intended to convey. I hate Bush and I wish everyone else did, but it's not because of his self-presentation, it's because I disagree with and find hypocritical, horrible and morally objectionable almost everything he does. If I didn't think that way about him, I probably wouldn't mind his self-presentation one bit. It's not the problem. The problem is the content. I mean, to be fair to the people I'm debating, the problem is to some degree the form/content dichotomy. As per my usual agreement with the world.

According to my roommate, senators "on both sides of the aisle" are furious at this revelation and are planning to authorize investigative action. I'll spend my evenings dreaming of impeachment, unlikely but plausible. The Fourth Amendment is about as blatant as it gets, and the Constitution is absolute where actions are not.

Am I okay with this, this whole concept of law being absolute where actions are not? Human behavior, no matter what the regulations, will never be absolute. As The Decemberists (covering Bjork, I recently learned) say in "Human Behavior," they're terribly terribly terribly moody. But law then is the same thing as an internal journey of self-improvement in some ways, is it not? It's enforcing what we want to be on what we are.

"Now," says the man to Myron in the basement of Wayside School (read Sideways Stories from Wayside School and Wayside School Is Falling Down, right now, no matter how old you are), "do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?"

"Myron took a deep breath. 'I want to be free,' he said bravely."

Safety is more an emotion than a fact. Being safe is generally an illusion. Feeling safe is real; therefore, like all emotions, it is real and temporary. I do not, on the other hand, believe freedom is an emotion.

By the by, something totally random: does anybody know if there are linguists devoted to the study of syntax and semantics in the U.S. Constitution? Because that would just be fabulous. There's a great deal, in my view, to be gained from historically contextualizing the syntax of the time, could well eliminate some original-intent debates. Just a thought.

4 Comments:

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I don't know about the syntax of the period, but I imagine someone has done a doctoral dissertation on that, if not a Law Review article.

I am not so sanguine about syntax definitively revealing the intent of the framers, however. For one thing, the framers were of more than one brain and probably of more than one mind. Is the intent of the composer the same as the intent of the body of signers? There were compromises, and compromises are notoriously variously interpreted by the parties to the compromise.

Look at all the effort that goes into linguistic studies of Holy Writ (any holy writ) and how much disparity there is in unravelling the intent of the human (not to mention the presumably Divine) author(s).

Look at the various interpretations given the recent Vatican document on gays in seminary. There one can even ask the authors what their intent was, but their responses don't seem to have clarified the issue much. And people also argue whether the intent of the Congregation issuing the document is exactly the same as the intent of the pope who approved it.

Such a study applied to the Constitution would be a fascinating read, though, wouldn't it?

And what do you suppose I meant by that?

 
At 2:16 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I don't know about the syntax of the period, but I imagine someone has done a doctoral dissertation on that, if not a Law Review article.

I am not so sanguine about syntax definitively revealing the intent of the framers, however. For one thing, the framers were of more than one brain and probably of more than one mind. Is the intent of the composer the same as the intent of the body of signers? There were compromises, and compromises are notoriously variously interpreted by the parties to the compromise.

Look at all the effort that goes into linguistic studies of Holy Writ (any holy writ) and how much disparity there is in unravelling the intent of the human (not to mention the presumably Divine) author(s).

Look at the various interpretations given the recent Vatican document on gays in seminary. There one can even ask the authors what their intent was, but their responses don't seem to have clarified the issue much. And people also argue whether the intent of the Congregation issuing the document is exactly the same as the intent of the pope who approved it.

Such a study applied to the Constitution would be a fascinating read, though, wouldn't it?

And what do you suppose I meant by that?

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

That's fair, certainly. I guess I didn't mean "original intent" per se. Or maybe I did, but not as an absolute.

Certainly there are certain ambiguities that historical linguists could resolve. I was looking in particular, though this is an obvious example that doesn't necessarily require a historical linguist, at the Fifth Amendment, considering its structure and seeing how purely the sentence structure could prove that Guantanamo doesn't have a leg to stand on, no matter what arguments the administration attempts to make regarding exceptions for the military. It seems fair enough, to me, to say that there are absolutes to language that could clarify certain legal issues. Not all, but a decent amount. The classic ambiguities would remain, the right to privacy foremost amongst 'em, but syntacticians could resolve a few issues.

And probably, they do. I bet such people are working for the Court already; I find it interesting to think of them.

Disparities are always the beauty; linguistics is only in part a science, and studies of literature most certainly are not. Law is absolute in theory alone. But every now and then a yes or no question appears.

 
At 4:40 PM, Blogger meridity said...

Shhhhhh....I'm safe...lalalalalalalalalalalalala!

Sorry I missed you in NYC. I'd like to go again sometime, though, so maybe we can coordinate something?

 

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