discomfort (2006-09)

If You Don’t Like the Answer…

…don’t ask the question, and other political logic

by Steve Dupree

When someone tells you how they feel about an action or event, there are many ways to respond. You can laugh cruelly and derisively and call them stupid for feeling that way. You can be understanding and comfort or console them. You can commiserate with them. You can express your lack of understanding of how they could feel that way, or you can say that you do see why they might feel that way.

What it is generally agreed upon that you can’t do, however, is tell them they are mistaken, that they don’t really feel that way. Assuming that everyone has roughly the same lack of mind-reading skills that I have, there is little to do but take a person’s word for it when they tell you how they feel. Even if you think they are mistaken or lying outright, proving that you are right is a fool’s errand so long as they claim to feel whatever it is they claim.

Because of that lack of mind-reading skills, humans are typically limited to symbols that individually and/or collectively, imperfectly represent ideas. When I was a kid, they used to tell us that Eskimos had several tens of words for snow. Each type or quality of snow had its own name, whereas the rest of us had to depend on semantic modifiers. It is at least impractical, and probably impossible, to utilize enough words to express absolutely, clearly and accurately any but the simplest of ideas. But we try. The result is contracts that are for all intents and purposes unreadable by any individual.

Laws might very reasonably be thought of as contracts. They are legal documents that establish an expected behavior. When a new law is proposed, responsible lawmakers have their teams of aides, assistants and pages go through it and point out to them the things that are desirable and/or undesirable about the proposed law. Few laws these days are made so simple as to be readable and understandable by the lawmaker without assistance. Still, the lawmaker votes on the law— as he or she understands it .

And so we get to the concept of “the spirit of the law.” Though the entire law might encompass hundreds of pages and tens or hundreds of thousands of words, there will eventually be discussion of the “intent” of the lawmakers, which is, in effect, “the spirit of the law.”

Much of the time, discussions about the intent or spirit of a given piece of legislation take place long after the framers and voters are gone. The Supreme Court exists to divine the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States. We have a situation now though that, while not unprecedented, is fairly uncommon. In the case of the warrantless wiretapping that was done at the behest of the sitting president, one of the things he is claiming, through any of several of his spokespersons, is that Congress gave him the right to do that in the legislation they passed immediately following the attacks of 9/11.

There is no reason to argue with him. The overwhelming majority of those who voted on the bill in question are still alive, and most of them are still in Congress. It would take very little effort to ask them how they felt. Why would we not ask them their intent? It could not possibly be easier to determine the spirit of that particular law, with a test coming so soon after

But that isn’t what is happening. Rather than do the obvious, the administration is attempting a media-driven end run around the Congress. It is trying to use the verbiage of the law to confuse the issue. It is avoiding doing the one thing that would indeed settle it, that being, ask the folk who voted on it what the hell they meant. Bush and his cohorts spend a lot of time saying some version of “Well, duh! Of course I have the power to do that; Congress gave it to me. See, right here.”

If it were that cut and dried, why would the administration not go straight to the Republican majority Congress and ask its intent? Why instead do the Bush people try to convince Congress and the rest of America what its intent was? Why are they trying to tell Congress how it feels/felt? I have a natural and automatic distrust for this (mis)administration, so it should come as no shock to you that I think it knows it was committing crimes and is now seeking to make its actions retroactively legal. This is an incredibly slippery slope for an alleged nation of laws, for a country where it is said that no one individual is above the law, even the sitting president.

What I have heard or read of interviews with members of Congress on this issue does not so far bode well for Bush, were he to take the simple step of asking Congress what was its intent. And so, I guess I have my answer as to why Bush doesn’t ask them. As to why the citizenry does not seem to be boiling the tar and collecting feathers? I guess someone else will have to explain that one.