Column by Paul Hein
Exclusive to STR
Suppose you hired a landscape architect, and asked him to submit a plan to beautify your yard. He would ask you what you had in mind. “Well, how about some vegetation?” He might smile at that, or frown; but he would want you to be more specific. “What vegetation would you like?” “You know, green plants, maybe some flowers. Stuff like that.” It’s likely your contractor would demand more precise information.
It might be ridiculous to hire someone to do a job without specifying exactly what you want done, but every day we get information about far more serious matters couched in imprecise, ambiguous terms that we have come to accept without question or thought. Consider this news report, for example: “United States launches attack on rebels with drone aircraft.” Isn’t it remarkable that the singular form of the verb is used? “The United States launches--.” Shouldn’t it be “The United States launch--?” The term “United States” refers to 50 sovereign (presumably) states, doesn’t it? So why the singular verb? Has Wisconsin launched an air attack on the enemy de jour? Or Delaware? Nevada? If you asked the soldiers operating the drones on whose behalf they were killing assorted foreigners, they would certainly not answer, “I’m doing it for Tennessee (or Georgia, or Florida).” No, they would say, “I’m fighting for the U.S.” So what exactly is this grammatical curiosity—a single multiplicity? Most would describe it as the central government of the states, in Washington, D.C. That’s 535 Congressmen, plus the administration. (Federal courts may not be involved unless there’s something to litigate, in which case, in any suit between the U.S. and anyone challenging it, the arbiter is--the U.S.) But when it comes to actions of the “U.S.” in recent years, the 535 Congressmen are more window dressing than active participants. Congress, despite the Constitution, hasn’t declared a war since WWII, but the “U.S.” has been involved in dozens of military actions since then. For many years, the “U.S.”--especially in foreign matters--has been simply the president, and whoever in his cabinet has advised him. It puts “representative government” in a whole new light! The “U.S.” is a handful of people with power, nothing more.
The headline may read, “Missouri bans over-the-counter sale of ephedrine products.” Really? “Missouri” did that? If pressed, few people could define “Missouri” except in the most general, and meaningless, terms. “It’s a place on the map,” or “It’s one of the states.” But why should people on one side of an imaginary line be “Missourians,” and those on the other “Oklahomans” or “Iowans”? Do you undergo some change when you step across the line? Does calling a place a “state” somehow personalize it? Evidently it does, since a “place on a map” can’t do anything, if indeed, it exists at all except as a mental concept. But people, not mental concepts, ban products, enforce the ban, and punish those who disregard it. “Missouri,” in fact, may be nothing more than a gaggle of officious busybodies calling themselves our representatives. (When was the last time your “representative” asked your opinion about some bill? And don’t other “representatives” have as much influence on the “laws” which affect you as your own?)
Behind those impressive edifices, national anthems, flags, and assorted other pomposities (even an “official” state bird and state tree!) it’s just a handful of people—not outstanding in intelligence or virtue--who call their ideas laws and thereby control almost every aspect of our lives. They never refer to themselves as “rulers,” but always as “government,” or, hilariously, “public servants.” They huddle securely behind the designation “United States,” or “Missouri,” instead of “ruling clique.”
It isn’t just the “U.S.” or “Missouri,” but your local city as well, and even, perhaps a neighborhood association: groups of people who feel compelled to dominate and regulate. All claim to be working for you, to protect you, and enhance your freedom. But suggest that you would like to exercise your freedom by withdrawing from their jurisdiction (which they bestowed upon themselves) and find out just how “free” you are in the land of that designation!
Returning to our botanical reference: Freedom may be likened, by some, to a lush lawn that, with careful attention and diligent care, is a thing of beauty and a delight. Maybe, in theory. In fact, however, freedom is more like the weed that, despite the attacks upon it, still manages to thrive here and there until it’s cut down, to reappear somewhere else, maybe a crack in a concrete driveway. But always under attack!
Hooray for the dandelions!