Monday, May 6, 2013
From the Annals of Abused Participles
From time to time, certain words are taken up by advocates or advertisers to function as mental or ethical triggers, in the forum of debate. Formal definitions are largely ignored in favor of a specific partisan "spin" or slant in usage. The meaning of the word is turned in context to suggest connotations or implications that are not really contained in the definition of the word itself.
One such word which is presently being (deliberately) misused is "broken."
We hear a lot these days about our "broken immigration system," or our "broken legislative" branch, or the "broken" Mideast policy.
What is meant by the use of the word broken in these contexts?
If something is broken, that means, specifically, that whatever it is, it no longer is functioning properly, or that some part of its structure is damaged, or some part has dropped off, or that, due to some error in its design, it no longer serves its intended purpose.
We know that a bicycle no longer functions if its chain link from the pedal wheel gear is separated. We know that a broken piston head will cause an internal combustion engine to freeze up, and stop firing. We know that a leak in the coolant system will cause an engine to overheat, or worse.
But describing a "broken" bureaucracy, or a "broken" system of laws, is more ambiguous. Internal inconsistencies in the law may cause society to prosecute regulations against its own interest, or to administer justice unequally.
Inconsistencies in the law are routinely addressed in our courts, and usually people can come to some common understanding about how they might be coordinated, or rendered less contradictory. Different levels of jurisdiction is a common area of consolidation in law and administration.
Recently, people have begun to describe laws or systems they don't like, or which they disagree with, or want changed, as "broken." People who want our immigration laws changed, will assert that our Immigration and Naturalization System is "broken," and needs to be overhauled. Our immigration offices are overwhelmed with illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the country, or once here, attempting to adjust their status in various ways to facilitate their continued presence, or that of people related to them.
Any machine can be broken, if enough stress is put upon it. If six people try to ride a bicycle at the same time, the bicycle's structure and moving parts will fail. The same can be said of the administration of any law. If too many people are committing too many crimes, the courts and prisons and parole and probation bureaucracies become overburdened.
But the inherent intent of any law is tailored to its intended tolerances. If our immigration laws are intended to address a lawful quota, say, of a quarter of a million souls per year, an uninvited influx of 3 million will quite likely cause the system to stagnate and buckle under the weight.
The problem, however, isn't with the design of the system, or of any failure of implementation. The failure lies in the excessive over-utilization of the system for which it was designed.
We can design immigration laws and bureaucracies to handle the legal limit of foreign newcomers, plus a few marginal "cheaters." But no one would deliberately design a system to function with an uninvited population of illegals whose proportion is several times greater than an allowed limit.
What immigration rights advocates mean when they talk about our "broken immigration system" is that our immigration limits, and the laws and procedures designed to deal with the "excess," "illegal immigrants," are not tolerant enough of the degree of illegality (or crime) to warrant their approval. In their view, "broken" means that the system presently in place, no matter how well-intentioned, is not lenient enough towards the criminal elements of the immigration flow.
In other words, "broken" has been given an entirely new meaning. Broken now means "whatever doesn't work for us." Or, if we don't like something, we accuse if of being broken. If something is broken, then it must be fixed. But immigration advocates don't mean to suggest that the original intent of the I&NS laws needs to be more vigorously prosecuted; on the contrary.
What they mean is that the laws which constitute our immigration policy and authority need to be dismantled, and rendered impotent, in the face of an overwhelming flow of undocumented, illegal immigrants sneaking into the United States, hoping for an amnesty which will allow them to stay, and reap the benefits and rewards of citizenship by fiat.
We also hear the phrase "broken Federal government." By which is meant, that respective partisan factions which are elected to serve the common good, no longer are willing to compromise to enact effective legislation. Those with whom one disagrees are acting as "ideologues" or "radicals" or "extremists." It is they who are preventing the smooth, reasonable progress which, according to some notion of consensus, can be expected to solve the problems which beset our society.
Accusations of extremity are as common as the ground on which any two people may stand. And such accusations are as idle as the breeze. Our representative system of government was designed to prevent action, except by common agreement. Our three-part system of branches was designed to prevent the wholesale domination of the electorate by any one of them, and to dampen the preponderance of the Federal power over the respective States. It's deliberately designed to make it hard to pass a law, with which a significant proportion of the people actually agree. And even then, as we have seen with the failure of the weapons regulation bill recently, it still may be thwarted.
But the point here is that our system of governance, which has guided our nation for almost two and a half centuries, is not "broken." It's only "broken" if what you want isn't being done.
We need to stop describing public policy, and the various systems designed to administer them, as "broken." We can say we would like to change them, that they function in ways that we dislike, or that we want them removed completely, because we disagree with them. But to claim casually, as so many lazy or conniving public commentators do these days, that they are "broken" and therefore must be fixed, is simply demagoguery.
Whenever anyone starts talking about our "broken immigration system" I immediately stop listening, because I already know where the argument is headed. Someone representing the interests of those who are excluded by our lawful jurisdiction wants to sweep it aside, and put in its place a policy or procedure which serves their interests, rather than the interests of those who passed the law in the first place, and are doing their best to carry out its provisions.