17 February 2017

words matter

As the National Security Advisor debacle unwound, I became increasingly concerned with some of the language that my liberal friends have adopted. In particular, a single word, treason, troubles me.

When James (Jamie to his friends) Madison was writing the Constitution, he included a clause defining one word, the only definition 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.

The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.
This one word was so repugnant to Madison and the other founders that it was defined, and the sentence specifically limited. Some of this matters today and I shall unpack it a bit.

Treason in England and much of Europe meant whatever the crown said it meant. Punishments were horrible: "traitors" took a long and painful time to die, leading to another item in the Constitution, the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" in the 5th Amendment. What the French called, "les majesty" or in any way dismissing or (in the current language) disrespecting, the king, queen or government was treason in England. Conspiracy or rebellion was not required.

Madison defines treason, and while leaving the penalty to Congress, he limited its authority. Specifically, the English rule that a person executed for treason left to any descendants something called, "corruption of blood"is prohibited. The idea is disturbingly simple, it means that they could neither inherit or earn any real property or title. While Madison and his co-authors prohibited titles of nobility, they did not object to simple inheritance, or land ownership. They found the idea of carrying a penalty to descendants unjust and prohibited it.

It is then no small thing to suggest someone has committed treason, or to carry disapproval to succeeding generations. Which is why the way progressives including those on talk radio, are tossing around the word, and the treatment Tiffany Trump has been receiving are worrisome. General Flynn may have violated the Lawson Act which prohibits a private person from intruding on the president's foreign policy authority. His conversations with the Russian Ambassador appear well over the line.

But notice something. Two hundred years ago, Congress enacted the Lawson Act, defining unlawful conduct, not treason! Were the conversations the General held treason, no reference to the Lawson act would be relevant. In fact the law would not exist.

Calling a US Marine flag officer a traitor is pretty far out. People who choose to be Marine officers are almost by definition patriots. They may be authoritarians, they may simply be wrong, but they do not levy war against the USA, nor do they assist its enemies. Do I think the general erred, sure. Do I know if he committed indictable felonies, nope: that is what we have prosecutors and grand juries to determine.

Consider the prohibition of inherited penalties. Whatever I think of President Trump (I do not think much of him) neither of his daughters are responsible for the incredible incompetence he and his staff have exhibited. Boycotting Ivanka's fashion line, or refusing to sit near Tiffany at a fashion show is simply wrong.

As is so often the case, the founders were right. Yes Gen Flynn erred, and it appears lied about it, and yes he could not continue as National Security Advisor. Yes nothing he has done to date suggests Mr. Trump or his staff either know or respect truth, and yes nothing suggests even marginal competence. But General Flynn is not a traitor, and Trump's daughters are not responsible for him.

Finally there is a "what if" lurking on the horizon. What if the Trump campaign actually was in touch with and perhaps receiving aid from Russia during the campaign? Go back and read Section 3. It may be that US Campaign law was violated. It may be that Mr. Trump or his campaign may have legal troubles. And whoever may have been a liaison to the Russians may have more legal issues. But again, Russia is not an enemy of the US, and violating election law is a specific action, not treason.

Words matter. Actions matter. I would not accept Mr. Trump's invitation to dinner, White House or otherwise. But, neither Ivanka nor Tiffany deserve to be shunned. I am poor. We do not buy fashion jewelry or gowns. But if we were to do so, the father of the designer would not be a factor.

We progressives do not need to adopt the worst characteristics of the rightwing. The willingness to name, "traitors" and carry penalties for generations (Tennessee is debating "legitimacy" a dark ages idea) is what I think of as the worst of the worst. We can and should do better.



The Constitution of the United States of America


Unknown said...

are you talking about the logan act?
Is there any evidence Flynn violated it?
If there are traitors perhaps we should be looking at the people who leaked the conversation of the national security advisor...
All the evidence I have seen says he was trying to set up a conversation for trump. Does not seem to be a smoking gun but lots of media have acted like there is.
Trump supposedly intends to end proxy war in Syria and intends to avoid conflict with Russia and work to a larger Mideast deal. some people on trumps team may need to help set up diplomatic conversations for him so he can work with countries that are not our allies. (perhaps the more he uses his team and the less he talks himself the better;)
many other people have seen the evidence.(both Russian and within our intelligence community) but who knows if they can be trusted. perhaps small parts have been leaked out of context. if the conversation remains classified it will be impossible to defend the unlikely allegations of logan act violation. but I'm guessing court of public opinion was the only venue this case has a future in.

Unknown said...

corruption of blood is a true fact.
betsy devos is brother of eric prince the founder of blackwater
some bloodlines are crime families! the reason this happens so much is because we have such a corrupt intelligence community in America. They leak insider trading info to their family and are paid back for it. by tracing this I have been able to expose multiple false flag events in advance!
btw look for isis attacks on airports to hurt pro-immigration activists after trumps new executive order.
other examples
Linda poindexter. john mcain.
we need a French style revolution to end the crime families. any property earned or controlled by these crime families should be confiscated.

I don't consider it relevant if tiffany T becomes the next princess Anastasia. so her feelings really don't matter.
bad stuff happens to lots of people because of who they are related to. But caring that some rich girl feels alone because her father is mean is pointless. Don't the kids killed in yemen because of who their parents are matter more?

JimB said...

There is at least some evidence that Gen. Flynn violated the Logan Act. We both know that no one is ever been prosecuted for violating the Act. I doubt General Flynn is in any danger of indictment. I do not know that the intent was to initiate contact. It appears that the Russian raised the topic of the sanctions, at least from what was reported. I think the conduct was inappropriate, but I do not think that was my point.

The FBI is investigating (I read) the behaviour. They not I are competent to do that.

What troubles me, what I wrote about, is the willingness of some in the media to lable the conduct, "treason." Even if General Flynn violated the Logan Act, that is not treason. Stupid, perhaps, unlawful to-be-determined, but not treason.

"Corruption of blood" is actually a sentence a court could impose in Europe. It is simply not something we do.

I am not a supporter of Mr. Trump, far from it. But whether he is a good president or not, his daughter does not deserve to be shunned or otherwise mistreated. Tiffany in particular was notably inactive during the campaign. She is not guilty of whatever evil or failure one might lay at Mr. Trump's feet.

And that is really what I was writing about.


RonF said...

I was on a left-wing blog and made exactly this point - and was condemned for quibbling over the actual meaning of a word and thus outing myself as a supporter of Pres. Trump. There's an awful lot of people on the left to whom facts mean nothing if they do not serve their ends. Pres. Trump has been accused of this, but it's pretty clear that a whole of people have just lost their grip on reality when it comes to the outcome of the Nov. 8th election.

JimB said...


I do not know what blog that was, but they are wrong. Words and definitions matter. That is why we have courts, lawyers, philosophers, theologians, and historians.

In the case of, "treason," the founders defined it in the Constitution because that definition really, really matters. Using that word indiscriminately is simply wrong, especially for Americans.

I do not, however agree that the issue is whether liberals, or progressives (not precisely the same people by the way) are prone to ignoring facts, or are more or careless about truth. That is like quoting St. Paul, "All have sinned and fallen short." [Romans 3:23]

I am stunned by the number of honest conservatives with whom I have conversed over the years, who seem determined to support the clearly (in my view) facist policies which are not conservative advanced by the Trump Administration.' But that is I think another post.

Let's agree that while we do not always agree, neither of us is a traitor, both or us are patriots. And tossing accusations of treason around is simply wrong.

If you wish, feel free to link your correspondents to this post. I am perfectly willing to defend the point. And I was a Sanders and then a Clinton voter.


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