Jewish World Review March 14, 2006 / 14 Adar, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Singing the neo-conservative blues | Dear Critic, It was wholly a pleasure to receive your response to my column defending the idea of a living Constitution. To quote an example of your flavorful prose:

"Your attack on the Constitution today is not surprising. As Arkansas' premier neo-conservative you would have us believe that principles change over time. Au contraire . . . that' s exactly what they don't do."

Actually, it's prejudices that tend not to change over time. The challenge in constitutional law — well, one of them — isn't that the principles change, but that the Constitution is so rich in them, how do you determine which principle governs at any particular time?

Circumstances, as the lawyers say, alter cases. And every time that happens, the case law alters the meaning of the Constitution — the way sunlight, wind and the competing forest may alter the shape of a great tree. If it didn't keep adapting, it would surely die.

All Americans may believe in the Constitution, but each of us has his own ideas about what it means. It's much like the relationship between believers and the Bible, and the Constitution is our civil Bible.

That interpretations of the Constitution can vary so widely says something about how artfully it is constructed. It's a masterpiece of ambiguity, or at least flexibility. A much underrated principle, flexibility. Like trees, legal codes that bend may survive the fiercest winds; those that don't may be swept away in the first great storm.

But do feel free to respond. I figure that as long as Americans argue over the meaning of the Constitution, it'll live. I haven't heard many spirited arguments lately over the meaning of Hammurabi's Code. If the meaning of the U.S. Constitution were as fixed, it, too, would be of interest mainly to archaeologists.

So keep fighting!

Inky Wretch
P.S. and Peroration:

The most prominent neo-conservative in Arkansas? Is that anything like being the most prominent, paleo-conservative in Rhode Island? Or the most prominent mountain in Iowa, that is, not very prominent at all?

What is a neo-conservative, anyway? Irving Kristol famously defined a neo-conservative as a liberal who's been mugged by reality. (It must have been someone else who defined a cultural neo-conservative as a liberal with a teenaged daughter.)

Also, I can't remember ever being a liberal — except in the eyes of those who assumed that anybody who was soft on the race issue back in the bad old days here in Arkansas was by definition a wild-eyed liberal integrationist, if not a Communist prevert (sic) fluoridationist out to drain America of its precious bodily fluids.

And I've been mugged only rhetorically, which seems fair enough. It scarcely becomes one who criticizes others to complain when he's criticized; it comes with the territory.

It's always amusing to see politicians who regularly lambaste others and their ideas get the hootie-puckers* when they themselves catch a little flak.

Besides, we really do learn most from our critics, even if it's only how not to sound. After all, who ever learned anything from flattery, much as we lap it up?

Or you may be using Neo-Conservative as just a general term of invective, the way Robert Welch used Communist to describe anyone he suspected of harboring decent impulses, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, those notorious agents of the Communist conspiracy.

Call everybody a Communist and soon it becomes hard to believe anybody is. Mr. Welch did a lot to make Communist a meaningless accusation. So did Joe McCarthy, who accused so many people of being Communist spies, people tended to forget there were real ones around. The result was that no one probably did as much harm to the anti-Communist cause in this country as the junior senator from Wisconsin. Almost single-handedly, he made anti-anti-Communism a popular cause. The Soviets should have given him a medal.

At the rate the Neo-Conservative label is being flung around these days, it, too, will soon be reduced to just a meaningless pejorative signifying "I don't like you/your politics," rather than anything specific.

That's what happened to "fascist," which became a general term of abuse, preparatory to not being used at all because it had lost all specific meaning and, with it, any bite.

Fascinating topic, political labels. Somebody ought to do a history of the rise and fall of those that once meant something but now are scarcely heard. Note how Liberal, which fell into disrepute a while back, is being phased out in favor of Progressive. Same product, different label? Other examples surely abound. Stop me before I remember more . . . . I.W.

* A hootie-pucker is about halfway between a pout and a sulk. Here in Arkansas, a small child who comes down with this malady can usually be jollied out of it if you'll look deep in the subject's eyes, and say, soothingly and sympathetically: "Awww . . . do you have the hootie-puckers?" This technique also has been known to work with adults provided they have any sense of humor.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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