Sunday, November 22, 2009

Contemplations on hyperbole

“This proposal of altering our federal government is of a most alarming nature! ... You ought to be watchful, jealous of your liberty; for, instead of securing your rights, you may lose them forever... I beg gentlemen to consider that a wrong step made now will plunge us into misery, and our republic will be lost, and tyranny must and will arise...”
No, this was not spoken by a member of the Tea Party Movement or a conservative politician railing against health care legislation. This was written by Patrick Henry about the proposed U.S. Constitution. Henry was most alarmed that the Constitution contained no Bill of Rights at the time and feared that it would create a central government with too much power.

The Anti-Federalists, as they were known then, included Henry, George Mason and other Revolutionary War figures. Thomas Paine, revered author of “Common Sense” – a key and particularly articulate argument for American independence published in 1776 – is considered by many scholars today as the original American political “liberal.” He, too, opposed the Constitution.

The anti-Federalists were a disparate bunch. Some thought the Constitution went too far, some thought it didn’t go far enough. What they shared were rhetorical skills and a tendency toward hyperbole.

“This will be a government of oppression,” wrote Melancton Smith.

George Clinton warned that the Constitution would place too much power in the hands of too few, who would “oppress and grind you.” He feared that “the science of government will become … too mysterious for you to understand and observe…” He also feared the Constitution would inevitably lead to a monarchy.

It would be a dangerous mistake to see too many similarities between the hyperbole of the 18th century and that of the 21st, other than these: It’s a well-worn rhetorical device, it usually has only a limited impact, and it demands that we look beyond it to the facts of the matter.

That rhetorical hyperbole has ancient roots – the word “hyperbole” is from the ancient Greek, after all – doesn’t mean that we should be sanguine about it. You might think that we would have made some progress over the centuries, after all.

There also might be a tendency to think, “well, despite all that nastiness back in the day, the Constitution worked out OK.” This, too, would be wrong and potentially dangerous. The examples of real harm done in the name of “the people” – from Joseph McCarthy to any of a thousand liberal and conservative bloggers that spew nonsense. Words do have consequences, often unintended.

Still and all, it is helpful to keep the current debates in context and realize that this has been going on for a long, long time. It would be great if we could improve on the process, even just a little.

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