Ideas Have Consequences and Words Matter

As Noah Feldman shows us in "A Prison of Words," his Times Op-Ed piece yesterday, "refinements" filed recently by the Justice Department regarding the Guantanamo Bay lawsuits showcase the subtlety with which the Obama Administration employs editorial prowess—and restraint.

Words mattered in the campaign because they elevated expectations, and served to sustain optimism even as the world's delicate ecosystems shook.


Words matter even more now, as they not only serve as signifiers for how this Administration does things differently but, moreover, as historial record. Obama knows this. And it is for this that I—we?—first fell in love with him: Books, speeches, wit, even self-deprication.

The combination of earnest and rational in a President is nothing new; this is what "wonkishness" is. Rather, this president's proprietary technology remains the unique, often subtle verbal flourish ("Yes, we can," as opposed to "we can do it"). It's no accident to see this technique echoed in his legislators' prose.

Words matter. Feldman points out that the new administration may possess the same access to executive powers as the last, but unlike their predecessors they didn't mock the privilege. Feldman recalls Alberto Gonzales's use of "quanit" to describe the Geneva conventions.

He writes, "Here is where the law gets complicated: In 2001, Congress told the president he could make war on anyone who had "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration, though, went further; it claimed the power to detain any "enemy combatant," defined to include "anyone who is part of or supporting Taliban or Al Qaeda forces or associated forces." In an unfortunate legal overreach, one administration lawyer said the government could detain a "little old lady in Switzerland" whose donation to an Afghan orphanage ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda."

Legal overreach, and an unforgettable—unforgiveable?—use of words. It's the historial record, stupid.

Indeed, words matter. All presidents know this, some better than others. The early historical instances of this are the best, as they provided the foundation for how it's done right. Jefferson takes my heart in this game. He changed "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," likely not only because it sounded better but because it kept his citizens' eyes on the real prize: be your best self and contribute to a "more perfect" (again, adverbs are key) union.

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