Senator Biden's words

Posted: Jul 06, 2005 12:00 AM

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -- that's all.' … 'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'"
 Mindful of the foregoing, Sen. Joseph Biden must have written a particularly handsome check to the account of the word "ideology," because in his July 4 op-ed he has the word ideology jumping through hoops and making one and a half gainers neatly into the public debate.

 For Sen. Biden, "The most important criteria a president should use in exercising his or her constitutional duty to appoint justices to the Supreme Court should be the independence and impartiality of the nominee." I admired the way [Sandra Day O'Connor] approached her job: with open-mindedness, without ideological preconceptions." I would hope the president looks to these traits in selecting a nominee. When other factors, however, such as ideology, become preeminent in a president's selection, the Senate itself must engage in stricter scrutiny and take a closer look at a nominee's constitutional philosophy."

 The word ideology is one of the most loaded terms in politics. It was invented by 18th-century French philosopher Claude Destutt de Tracy to mean the science of ideas, but came to mean the set of ideas themselves.

 The mid-twentieth-century Harvard academic Daniel Bell called ideology "an action-oriented system of beliefs [whose] role is not to render reality transparent, but to motivate people to do or not do certain things."

 But the word's deepest villainy was given it by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for whom, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "it is the exploitative and alienating features of capitalist economic relations that prompt ideas they dub 'ideology.' Ideology only arises where there are social conditions such as those produced by private property that are vulnerable to criticism and protest; ideology exists to inure these social conditions from attack by those who are disadvantaged by them."

 Interestingly, in the 1970s, the Marxist offshoot Critical Legal Studies Movement argued that the law itself was little more than an ideology, with the impression of the law's certainty and legitimacy being a mere capitalist ideology used to deter "The People" from seeing that the law need not be a tool of the capitalists.

 In other words, for them, the law may be anything those with power wish to make it. There is no objective law, only an opportunity to deconstruct it to one's own likings. First get power; then re-make the law.

 Now I am not suggesting that Sen. Biden is even aware of the Marxist intonations to the word ideology. Those origins don't really matter -- except to etymology enthusiasts. But most of us have at least a partially negative reaction to the word ideology -- which is why, one suspects, Sen. Biden and other Democrats use, and will continue to use, it to describe principled conservative judges. If he didn't mean to be disparaging, he might use phrases like jurisprudential philosophy, or principled jurist, etc.

 The reason Sen. Biden speaks well of Sandra O'Conner is precisely because she was merely "open-minded" and never developed a higher structure to her thought.

 Yet most serious people, whatever their area of study, by middle age have developed some structured understanding of their discipline.

 The great liberal jurist Benjamin Cardozo was known in his time as "a spokesman on sociological jurisprudence." Justice Felix Frankfurter was called an "articulate and persuasive advocate of judicial abnegation." Justice Hugo Black earned the title of "strict constructionist" and "first amendment champion."

 They were not necessarily "mainstream" when they first started making their philosophical cases. Sometimes they never became mainstream. But historically, American politics has admired and found room for serious jurists with considered judicial philosophies. Sometimes they formed a new mainstream. Sometimes they left the bench known as a "great dissenter." And usually, presidents nominated such jurists in the hope of moving our jurisprudence in the favored direction.

 But not until recently have serious judicial thinkers been meanly smeared as ideologues just because they have a judicial philosophy with which a senator disagrees.

 If I am mistaken, and Sen. Biden did not mean to use the word ideology in a disparaging, name-calling way, then he is guilty of anti-intellectualism -- because if he only meant structured philosophical thought, well, that is the hallmark of intellectual activity.

 We are just at the beginning of a long and ugly fight. The public is not going to like the specter of yet another Washington partisan fight -- but it is a fight worth having. It is worthwhile both because the future of American jurisprudence hangs in the balance, and because while Humpty Dumpty may choose the meaning of words, the rest of us will be judged by how we misuse them.