March 31, 2006

The straw dog of amnesty

The debate over a Senate bill to legalize illegal immigrants has devolved into squabbling over the word "amnesty," Dana Milbank reports in today's Washington Post. Opponents of the bill are doing their best to invoke the scary "A-word" whenever possible, while supporters insist that the bill promotes not "amnesty" but "earned citizenship." One vocal opponent, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), bulldozed through any pesky semantic nuances:

"In every sense of what people mean by amnesty, it's amnesty. If it's not amnesty, it's the same thing as amnesty. That's just what it is. ... By any standard definition of the word 'amnesty,' this bill has it. I know that's a loaded word, and I don't want to be playing around demagogically with the word 'amnesty.' "

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the exquisite logic of "If it's not amnesty, it's the same thing as amnesty." I suppose he means that even if the bill doesn't fit some narrow legalistic definition of "amnesty," it's still close enough to the popular conception of the word. But then after taking this populist, Colbertesque approach to language, he changes his tune and appeals to the "standard definition of the word." (I'm surprised that Sessions, wryly identified by Milbank as "the Alabama lexicographer," didn't pull out a dictionary to provide a "standard definition.") And after all that, he has the temerity to claim that he's not "playing around demagogically with the word 'amnesty.'"

Sessions' colleague in the House, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), went so far as to equate "amnesty" with another notorious A-word:

"Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter, 'A' for amnesty, and they need to pay for it at the ballot box in November."

There's nothing like references to puritanical persecutors to rally the public to your cause! Meanwhile, a more temperate opponent of the bill, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), unwittingly provided his own literary allusion:

"I think that's a straw dog, to be very honest with you, this argument of amnesty. The debate is misfocused in some ways when the word 'amnesty' becomes the hot button, nomenclature versus the more substantive question."

Gregg's measured response is undercut a bit by his odd use of "straw dog." Granted, the expression avoids the gender specificity of "straw man" without resorting to the awkwardness of "straw person." But I've never heard "straw dog" used as a replacement for "straw man" (straw man's best friend?). It's possible that he was mentally juggling "straw man" with some canine idiom, like "that dog won't hunt" or "that's a dog of an argument." More likely, though, there was interference from the title of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 film Straw Dogs. Peckinpah borrowed his cryptic title from a passage in Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching:

Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

D.C. Lau's translation of Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics edition) explains in a footnote that "straw dogs were treated with the greatest deference before they were used as an offering, only to be discarded and trampled upon as soon as they had served their purpose." So perhaps Senator Gregg's comment contains a hidden Taoist message. Opponents of the immigration bill will use the "amnesty" argument as a sacrificial offering to the American public. Then as soon as they have defeated their foes, the argument will be instantly disposed of. Sounds like a keen insight into the transience of opportunistic political demagoguery.

[Update: See Languagehat for further discussion of the Tao Te Ching passage.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 31, 2006 06:36 AM