De-meaning words

That's the ultimate cost of the Senate's failure

Issue: "Fighting Potomac fever," Feb. 27, 1999

Well, yes, I too would like to see us put this whole process "behind us." I too would like to "move on" and get at the nation's business.

The problem is that none of us knows exactly anymore what the words "behind us" mean, or exactly what is in mind when we say it's time to "move on."

I don't say that to be clever or facetious. The most costly fallout of the failed Clinton impeachment process is not that Bill Clinton is still in office. That will end in 23 months, no matter what, and the republic might well survive his personal and presidential deviousness. The really costly result, and the big bill for our nation, is the long-term societal demeaning of truth.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

Take that word demeaning literally. We're talking here about the de-meaning of truth-the extraction of meaning from words. But a society cannot survive with stability unless words have predictable meaning.

Only in a minor sense can we say that this started with Mr. Clinton's frontal assault on little words like is and alone-although that certainly framed the issue in stark terms. Nor did we first get on this slide to verbal meaninglessness when the media back in 1992 persuaded the American public that the Clinton stories they hinted at didn't really mean what they seemed to mean.

Instead, we've been heading this direction for a very long time. As a boy in the late 1940s, I heard with dismay about the "modernists" who were reinterpreting biblical truth. They said that Adam and Eve were not real people, that the story of Jonah and the whale was only an allegory, and that Jesus didn't have to walk on water in a literal sense for it to have moral meaning for his disciples and for us. Such "modernists," of course, were demeaning words. They were sucking the significance right out of what was being said, but American society went along with the robbery.

Soon, the old modernism was no longer modern. It was replaced for the most part, even by the time I became a teenager, with a much more nuanced neo-orthodoxy that said words might properly mean whatever you wanted them to mean-whatever was particularly "meaningful" to you. Neo-orthodoxy seemed kinder than modernism, because it never made folks line up on one side or the other of a particular assertion. Both sides of a truth could now be true. It just depended on how you looked at things. This was more like embezzlement than robbery, and the American people found it pleasing.

For years, though, such fancy thinking was mostly the province of theologians, philosophers, educators, and others who didn't have to live in the real world. Businessmen who cut deals, scientists who designed space shuttles, lawyers who wrote contracts, judges who passed sentences, ambassadors who wrote treaties, and legislators who formed bills still had to say what they meant with specific words.

At least that's what everyone thought. We naively pretended that we could exist forever with a double standard. We bought into the idea that we could trade away the truthfulness of the words of the Bible but still trust the words in our daily newspapers. We accepted the concept that the U.S. Constitution consisted not so much of principle as of penumbra, but never dreamed that that kind of thinking would ultimately infect articles of impeachment as well. Can guarantees on refrigerators and warranties on cars be far behind?

Bill Clinton didn't bring us where we are today. He is simply the logical conclusion of where we've come. So is West Virginia's Senator Robert Byrd, who was able to say in so many words in a single interview that the president was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors but not liable for impeachment. Members of the U.S. Senate who agreed with Mr. Byrd were able to engage in the same kind of double-think not because they were razzle-dazzled by Bill Clinton, but because they had been taught all their lives that it was OK to think just that way.

And they will get away with it, for a little while, just as Bill Clinton has gotten away with it, for a little while. For the American people at large have profoundly learned exactly the same lesson. Truth is true and not true-all at exactly the same time.

It works for theologians, for educators, and now for politicians as well. It works for them because all the rest of us, deep in our hearts, still naturally resonate with the Evil One's age-old question: "Did God really mean it when he said that certain things are so?"


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…