EDITORIAL: What Government Is, When Words Have No Meaning


What is government, if words have no meaning?

This is the question that Jared Lee Loughner asked Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, the one that she was not able to answer, the last question posed in Loughner‘s Youtube video series.  

Many media commentators have characterized Loughner‘s writings as complete, rambling nonsense.  Some have said one cannot rationalize with someone who themselves is irrational.

But I think to miscount Loughner that way would be a mistake.  It’s the easy thing to do; it’s the safe thing to do; but it’s a mistake.

What Loughner did was inexcusable, horrendous, repulsive, shocking, and morally wrong.

But if we as a society do not take time to examine Loughner‘s message, we risk tragedies like this happening again.

In the human body, if you have a pain, it’s a message to the whole body that something is wrong somewhere.  If society is like an organism, then we too are experiencing a pain, a horrible, unjustifiable pain, but perhaps a pain that is a symptom of a real problem.

So I would like to address the question of what is government, if words have no meaning, because I think the exercise could be valuable.

First of all, do words have meaning?  The answer is, yes, but only yes with an asterisk.  And the asterisk is, words have a meaning that we construct as a society to fit our purposes.  We as a society create and recreate through our actions a shared understanding of what reality is.

That means, words like democracy, government, freedom, do not come predefined through nature, God, or destiny.

And that takes us to by the people, of the people, for the people.

Government is something we create with words which we also create.  And so, I think that was part of what Loughner was trying to convey- some frustration that the citizenry has lost touch with the fact that they, and they alone, create, define, and legitimize our form of democratic governance in the United States of America.

If you look back to the writings of Thomas Hobbes, a Western political thinker, in 1671, he noted, “the most noble and profitable invention of all other was that of speech, consisting of names or appellations, and their connexion; whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither Commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves.”

A classical political thinker like Hobbes found it necessary to define language itself before daring to define government.  So from that standpoint, Loughner‘s question made quite a bit of sense.  It was a hypothetical question, though, because words, of course, do have meaning, a meaning that we can deconstruct, perhaps 

That Congresswoman Giffords was unable to respond to the question is understandable because it was already a hypothetical question.  He probably could have explained it better, but he had no grounds to be upset that he did not get an answer that day, let alone to go on a murderous rampage.

I believe–and am deeply concerned and troubled that–there are many young people who perceive such a disconnection between the ordinary citizenry and the government.

What’s worse, I worry that this alienation and estrangement has been seized upon and capitalized in a cynical, insidious way by political forces who do not favor the ordinary citizenry.

It is up to us all to ensure that the next generation of citizens in our democracy have a meaningful understanding of how public policy affects their lives, and how they can engage in the democratic process.  For some parents, that will mean educating themselves first, and providing their children with a civic foundation that they never had.

If words have no meaning, then government is nothing.  But if words have a meaning that we create, then government is a tool that we create, and can change at our will.  I think we would do well to remember that.

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor of the Atlanta Progressive News, an online news service founded in 2005.  He has an MA in Sociology from University of California, Irvine, 2005, and an MPA from Univesity of New Orleans, 2007.  He is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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