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.