The Death of Language


“Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the State.’” Justice Antonin Scalia, King v. Burwell

As legal victories go, it was small. On June 22, Judge Robert A. Hendrickson and the 12th District Court of Appeals in Ohio overturned a parking violation. Sixteen months earlier, Andrea Cammelleri had been cited for violating this municipal ordinance:

“It shall be unlawful for any person to park upon any street in the Village, any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours.”

Cammelleri argued that she parked a truck, not a “motor vehicle camper.” The trial court disagreed, stating that “anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma.”

Cammelleri appealed. In his opinion, Judge Hendrickson explained that the rule of law necessitates following the plain meaning of words:

By utilizing rules of grammar and employing the common meaning of terms, “motor vehicle camper” has a clear definition that does not produce an absurd result. If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase “motor vehicle” and the word “camper.”

This case might be merely amusing if not for the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the English language in two rulings delivered days later.

On June 24, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court saved the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from its own legal incoherence for a second time. The primary issue in King v. Burwell was whether tax credits to offset health care costs could be granted to people who enrolled under federal health exchanges rather than state exchanges, as defined in the law. The majority opinion held that Congress really meant to help people. Therefore, Congress also wanted these credits to be available to everyone, regardless of the statute’s wording.

In his dissent, Justice Scalia blasted this specious reasoning:

The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.

Scalia’s full dissent is filled with tragicomedic legal gems that would be funnier if the threats to liberty weren’t so serious. It is a true mark of the times that a sitting Supreme Court justice must remind his colleagues “that ours is a government of laws and not of men. That means we are governed by the terms of our laws, not by the unenacted will of our lawmakers.”

The plain meaning of language is essential to the rule of law. Those interpreting the law cannot make it say what it does not, in fact, say. This basic standard is as important when adjudicating a parking ticket as when considering a landmark case at the Supreme Court.

Justice Roberts in Wonderland

The majority opinion in King v. Burwell was penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, although it could have easily been drafted by Humpty Dumpty. Justice Scalia’s use of the word “absurd” brings to mind this exchange in “Alice in Wonderland”:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

The day after King v. Burwell was released, the Court proclaimed its discovery of a previously hidden constitutional right to so-called same-sex marriage in Obergefell vs. Hodges. This case was not about what is good for families and society, nor about equality, nor even about marriage itself. The question was, as Humpty said, which is to be master.

For most of American history, marriage was understood as a civilizing force that provides social stability by binding men and women to their children and to each other. Social science research is clear that children in homes with intact marriages between birth parents rank statistically higher in nearly every measurement of health and well-being. A healthy society would work to strengthen this foundational social institution.

But since the Supreme Court unearthed a hidden constitutional right to contraception in 1967 and another new right to kill pre-born children in 1973, social policy has increasingly been less focused on forming and sustaining stable families than on protecting individual sexual self-gratification.

The advocates of the Sexual Revolution are desperate to be the new social masters and they will stop at nothing less than total cultural embrace of sexual anarchy, which, of course, they call “freedom.” That is the end game. For half a century they have worked tirelessly to reshape education, business, religion, entertainment, and law toward this end. The Perpetual Revolution advances.

Disciples of Derrida

This reshaping of culture is how we got to the point where Bruce Jenner is courageous for believing himself to be a woman and Caucasian Rachel Dolezal is African-American. Logical—and biological—fantasy is increasingly the norm in the United States of Wonderland. Philosopher Jacques Derrida claps from the grave.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains Derrida’s philosophy—which I had the misfortune of studying in college—like this:

Deconstruction has at least two aspects: literary and philosophical. The literary aspect concerns the textual interpretation, where invention is essential to finding hidden alternative meanings in the text. . . . It is committed to the rigorous analysis of the literal meaning of a text, and yet also to finding within that meaning, perhaps in the neglected corners of the text (including the footnotes), internal problems that actually point towards alternative meanings. (Emphasis added.)

This kind of illogical thinking has gripped the Supreme Court’s approach to social issues ever since Griswold v. ConnecticutIn this case, Justice William O. Douglas and six other Justices discovered a right to contraceptive use hidden in the “emanations” and “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights. Another example is the poetic death sentence written by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. . . .”

Ignorance is strength

Much of the horrifying future George Orwell predicted in “1984” has become commonplace, including a media machine that serves as a mouthpiece of the State, overwhelming surveillance without cause, and a real fear of secret government agents knocking down the door over political disagreement.

But Orwell’s attention to the manipulation of language in relation to power is what concerns us here. He wrote:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.

Sadly, these aren’t just dystopian literary fantasies. Just days after the Obergefell decision, more than two dozen Democrats filed a bill to remove the words “husband” and “wife” from federal law. To retain these words is to allow that people might begin to question what the meaning of marriage actually is. This the Revolutionaries cannot abide.

Given the LGBT lobby’s near total control of the Education Industrial Complex, it seems just a matter of time before a majority of Americans come to resemble the poorly educated patients and prisoners served by British psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. He writes:

With a very limited vocabulary, it is impossible to make, or at least to express, important distinctions and to examine any question with conceptual care. My patients often had no words to describe what they were feeling, except in the crudest possible way, with expostulations, exclamations, and physical displays of emotion. Often, by guesswork and my experience of other patients, I could put things into words for them, words that they grasped at eagerly. Everything was on the tip of their tongue, rarely or never reaching the stage of expression out loud.

This is what we can expect under America’s new “Ministry of Truth.” (See Mark Shea’s article “Transgender Newspeak” for more.)

Speak the truth boldly

The fearmongering, personal attacks, and incitement to mob rule are deliberate efforts to silence dissent—particularly from the church—so that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, we will even “walk down the stairs on tiptoe, as [we] are ordered to do, so [our] neighbors won’t hear” when they lead us to the secret trial at night.

It may seem overly dramatic to invoke the famous Russian dissident, but Solzhenitsyn’s experience may serve us in these difficult times. In “The Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn practically pleads with his younger self and all his countrymen to stand up, to resist, to speak the truth. The few that did were quickly dispatched. But if many more had stood up, he thought, there might have been a chance to turn things around.

Our government theoretically still exists by the consent of the governed. The damage wrought by the Supreme Court—and our own years of apathy—will only stand if we give our consent to it. I side with Solzhenitsyn in believing we must oppose these changes en masse, but even if no one else chimes in, I will continue to speak.

The Christian mission didn’t change because of the events in June. We are now, as always, to speak and live the truth boldly. We now have opportunities to be martyrs—that is, witnesses—to our faith in different ways. At least now, we need longer worry about offending someone. Our very existence is offensive. Nor should we fear the loss of the larger culture’s admiration. This, too, has been stripped away.

Even though cultural Christianity lies gasping on its deathbed, the cross of Christ shines brightly. Let us mimic Paul and preach Christ crucified. For if there is any ultimate meaning to which we might cling, it will not come from the Supreme Court, the Constitution, or even the plain meaning of words, but only from the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

For Further Reading:

Stella Morabito, “How to Escape the Age of Mass Delusion,” The Federalist, June 8, 2015.

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Daniel Weiss is the founder and president of The Brushfires Foundation, a nonprofit ministry working to ignite a Christian vision of sexuality, relationships, and the human person.

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