Fighting Words

One of the things that bothers me about the general drift of our culture is the way that language has become devalued. We’ve essentially decoupled words from real-world meanings; we rarely even pretend to think that words can have consequences. That may be the natural outgrowth of a culture that’s been steeping for fifteen years now in irony and faux hipness — by definition, if someone can get you riled up by saying something that pushes your buttons, you’re hardly “cool” — but it’s sad nonetheless.

Up until just recently in our history, there were such things as “fighting words” — words that, if somebody applied them to you, were so offensive that the only honorable recourse was to confront the speaker and have it out. Up until the late nineteenth century, fighting words were often resolved with an actual fight to the death — the ritual duel. Duelling died out (and rightly so), but there was still a lingering sense that honor demanded a confrontation in these cases, even if the confrontation was only verbal. There was a line over which civilized people did not cross lightly in their conversations with each other.

Today, that line is shot to hell. As I write this, the #4 book on the New York Times’ bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction has a simple, one-word title:


Author Ann Coulter’s argument is anything but subtle. You see, there are Evil Liberals out there who have been opposing the righteous foreign policy of the United States since the 1940s. Since these policies were the official positions of the United States, opposing them means these Evil Liberals were (and are) against America. And an American citizen who is against America is guilty of TREASON.

Taking a step back from Bizarro World, let’s have a look at how the Constitution defines treason in Article III, Section 3 (it is, in fact, the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution):

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

Now, I’m sure that Coulter would argue that the Evil Liberals are guilty of treason because they were “adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” when they opposed the repugnant Iran-Contra deal, or called for an end to the pointless continuation of the Vietnam War. But here’s the thing: regardless of whether she’s right or not, calling “treason” is a serious allegation — probably the most serious allegation you can make against someone under our system. Note how the Founders took pains to point out that, to rise to the level of treason, an act must be equivalent to picking up a rifle and going to war against the United States. And even if you do exactly that — even if you take to the field, gun in hand, and spend years masterminding the deaths of American soldiers — even then, you may not be guilty of treason — just ask Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was indicted for treason but never tried on the grounds that the country’s interest lay more in putting the Civil War to rest peacefully than in stringing up one of the most deadly opponents the Union ever had.

Let me say that again. Robert E. Lee actively made war against the United States for four years, and led an army that inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on the armed forces of the United States — and even that was not enough to justify branding him with the label “treason”, which Coulter so casually slings around.

This is what I mean by the degrading of the language. I tend to be a pretty moderate guy, but I suppose that if you had to draw the world into two camps, Virtuous Conservatives and Evil Liberals, I’d probably end up in the Evil Liberal camp. And I take offense at being tarred with the brush of treason, simply for the crime of disagreeing with the political positions of Ann Coulter. I take offense at the suggestion that I love my country any less than she does. I take offense at the suggestion that any deviation from the One True Way of the GOP makes me the moral equal of the fewer than 30 people in the history of the Republic who have ever been convicted of treason.

In other words, to me, calling “treason” is invoking a fighting word. It’s a charge that crosses the line; a charge that takes the discussion into a whole new realm. You had damn well better have a good case if you’re going to throw it onto the table. But Coulter uses it as just another handy cudgel to use to bash her political opponents, just another tool in the arsenal of the political operative. It’s a sorry spectacle that illustrates just how degraded the language has become.



August 22, 2003
2:33 pm

Ritual denunciation of Ann Coulter: she’s a vapid twit, proving that vapid twits can be meat-eaters as well as tree-huggers.
That being said: Paying any attention to her at all just feeds the troll, and quite frankly, I think a lot of people are enjoying a good bout of righteous indignation over her. Every time somebody bothers to write a rebuttal, it just legitimizes her. She belongs with Robert Anton Wilson in seriousness, though he’s far more entertaining. TSOG, indeed. Responding in public just gives the impression she has an opinion that matters. She doesn’t.
I lump her in with those that call me “racist,” “homophobe,” “Nazi,” or “evil rich white Republican” (well they got one right) every time I suggest a policy that disagree’s with a position taken by Edward M. Kennedy. There are tons of those people out there, and they just don’t matter. If you don’t like the language, don’t debate in forums that promote or tolerate that kind of exchange. If that means not watching Fox News or MSNBC, well, are you that much worse off?
A word about Robert E. Lee, however–his case was far less clear cut on both sides. While he was not ultimately prosecuted, a large minority or even majority of opinion in the North was that he was indeed a traitorous scum and should hang. Much of the opposition to that view was his long stand against slavery, but ultimate decision that his allegiance to his state overrode his allegiance to the federal government. Jefferson Davis or Nathan Buford would be very different stories from that point of view.
But regardless of the mitigating factors, treason is only partially the legal definition. “Class traitor” was long a (sometimes positive) designation of the Left that had nothing to do with legality. One can view, for example, the so-called American Taliban as a traitor despite the lack of legal prosecution of him for it. Likewise, you can decide that Robert E. Lee indeed was a traitor to his country and should not be as honored as he is today.
Whether Ann Coulter’s bleatings and whinings are sufficient evidence for someone to say that anyone to the left of Oral Roberts is a traitor is a separate, and, in my opinion, a best-left-forgotten issue. But the fact is that legal definitions are not the only basis for the use of the term traitor, so don’t restrict yourself too much to that definition. Else we wouldn’t be able to tell OJ he’s a murderer. Alleged, of course. 😉

Jason Lefkowitz

August 22, 2003
3:06 pm

As you might expect from my original essay, I disagree 🙂
Regardless of whether or not Miss Coulter is a troll, the fact remains that her book is a bestseller, perhaps one of the bestselling books of the year. It’s not a fringe opinion being muttered darkly in easily-avoided dark corners. You can’t just wave off an opinion that has that kind of currency. It demands a response.
And ignoring her just feeds into my central point — that you’re suggestion that we abandon the meaning of the word “treason” to those who would trivialize it, turn it into just another word to spew at your opponents. I don’t think that’s wise.
Some words need to keep their import to have any value as part of the language. “Treason” is an extremely serious word. As I noted, there have only been about 30 convictions on the charge in the entire history of the country. That means it’s an *extremely serious charge* regardless of the legal details or the specifics of the Lee case (which, btw, I believe was resolved correctly; trying Lee would only have polarized the country and reopened old wounds for no tangible benefit). If we allow its definition to be fuzzed out, we just become complicit in trivializing the word — we contribute to the problem.
And it’s not partisan — I felt much the same way about Bill Clinton as I do about Coulter, that he dishonored nearly everything he touched. (See this contemporaneous essay — — for details.)
No. I stand by my essay. If that’s feeding the troll, so be it (though I doubt that my spitting in the wind will ever impact Coulter materially one way or the other). If we roll over whenever we’re challenged — and, IMHO, calling someone guilty of treason is certainly a challenge — all we accomplish is encouraging people to roll us more often. Maybe that’s how most people react to that, but I don’t, and won’t.


August 26, 2003
10:55 am

Don’t confuse this year’s clown with a movement toward wearing face-paint and floppy shoes.