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ColoradoGuy
05-12-2007, 08:44 AM
There is an excellent review by David Hawkes in the May 4th issue of the London Times Literary Supplement that asks that question and reviews the history of the notion, particularly as it applies to fiction. (Unfortunately the online TLS site will not let you in to read the whole article unless you subscribe, so I'll summarize a few of the arguments.)

Apparently the idea that words could in themselves constitute treason, even if they did not result in any treasonous acts, was widely accepted in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. In fact, treason was largely defined as verbal rather than actual; to imagine doing a treasonous thing, even in a work of fiction, was tantamount to actually doing it.

There were objectors to this. Our own Medievalist's favorite guy (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showpost.php?p=1055909&postcount=13), Sir Philip Sidney, wrote: "For the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth." John Donne argued that the king had no power over an individual's conscience, and this idea percolated through such works as Milton's Areopagitica until ultimately even James II, no friend of republican notions, decreed that no one would be charged with treason "if hee breake not out in some outward acte." It was the beginning of our modern concept of free speech. Words were free -- it was acts that mattered.

So as I listen to the current crop of pundits on TV argue about what is right and proper to say about Iraq and whatnot, and read how Ann Coulter and friends call various liberal ideas "treasonous," I think it's worth asking: can mere words become so powerful that they constitute treason?

Sean D. Schaffer
05-12-2007, 09:15 AM
In a song by Simon & Garfunkel, recorded I believe during the Vietnam conflict, there was a news report that went along with the words to the song.

The original song was 'Silent Night', the famous Christmas Carol. This new version was called '7 O'Clock News/Silent Night'.

But in the supposed news report, there is a quote where the reporter is discussing something then former Vice-President Richard Nixon had talked about concerning the war in Vietnam. The reporter quoted Nixon as saying that anti-war protests were the single biggest weapon being used against the United States.

It's interesting to me that this was recorded in the Vietnam era, but that the topic of freedom of speech, at least according to the way the song was presented, was just as hot a topic then, some 40 or so years ago, as it is now. I don't think freedom of speech will ever be out of the cross-hairs of politicians completely, because freedom of speech is so dangerous to the said politicians.

Higgins
05-12-2007, 04:53 PM
can mere words become so powerful that they constitute treason?



Treason is like mutiny in that the essential action is leaving (ie abandoning either literally or simply by turning things over to an endangering enemy) an endangered social unit for reasons that cause even greater danger to the social unit. Getting sick is not treason, though it may be more damaging. Self-inflicted wounds however can be considered treasonable mutiny. I would assume that talking about inflicting a wound on yourself could be considered treasonous mutiny, while saying "I'm going to be sick"...could be ambiguous. Being afraid is okay, but abandoning your post is not. Though as with most things in the realm of treason and mutiny, if everybody runs away it is rare for the authorities to do more than simply shoot a few absconders to encourage better discipline. Surrendering to an enemy can also be a tricky thing. In WWII, the Russians took a dim view of anyone who had surrendered and naturally Hilter had some nutty rules about such things as well.

Which leads to Vichy France. The leaders of Vichy were running a legally constituted country (with large colonies even) of sorts, but after the war they were tried for treason. Among those tried for treason was Marshall Petain who had quelled a huge mutiny in 1917 with a policy of shooting only a few of the mutineers and going easy on most of the mutinous French Army. The French were still busy with traitorous mutinous armies until the early 1960s. To take care of such things, C. de Gaul had to technically commit treason by running the 4th Republic informally according to the rules of the 5th Republic which had not yet been legally constituted.

And of course the American Civil War: technically the Confederates were about as treasonable as it is possible for somebody to be, but once the war was over they were not tried for treason.

The really essential points are the actual danger and the potentially infectious aspects of the reason for leaving. The actual danger will influence both the mutinous traitors and their suppressors, but words and unauthorized assembly or communications are the very stuff of traitorous mutiny. So naturally, in situations of great danger, words or signals can constitute treason. For example, during WWII, people in England were sent to prison for ringing church bells because that was the signal that the Germans were invading.

Compared to most traitors (such as the Confederates or Vichy France or Charles deGaul) American liberals are not very treasonous and since of the three examples above only one set was tried for treason, it is unlikely that liberalism will become a treasonous offense.

ColoradoGuy
05-12-2007, 06:23 PM
Most of the examples you use are acts, not words. It is the mere words I wonder about.

robeiae
05-12-2007, 06:52 PM
One of my favorite quotes, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, made in 1737:

The Stage, my lords, and the Press, are two of our out-sentries; if we remove them, if we hoodwink them, if we throw them in fetters, the enemy may surprise us.

It would seem his position leaned towards viewing words as only indicators of what might happen. I tend to agree. Words are not treasonous, in and of themselves.

Higgins
05-12-2007, 07:43 PM
Most of the examples you use are acts, not words. It is the mere words I wonder about.

The more immediate the danger, the smaller the traitorous word or sign would need to be, especially if it is a direct communication with the enemy. Even hearing or reading things from the enemy can be considered traitorous....ie you don't even have to use any words yourself, you just have to tune into an enemy radio broadcast. So, yes, obviously words can be matters of treachery, or traitorous or traitorous mutiny or simple mutiny. The mere appearance of acquiesing to somebody else's possible perception of words that might be code words could be considered traitorous under extreme circumstances.

Chumplet
05-12-2007, 07:51 PM
Words may not be treasonous, but the Basque Nationalists beg to differ. I'm just beginning my research on Basque history and they went through a lot of grief just to get where they are today, no thanks to Franco.

I seem to recall reading about a few journalists being imprisoned or shot for their words. I'd have to look it up to confirm - I'm suffering from sensory overload.

Higgins
05-12-2007, 08:06 PM
Words may not be treasonous, but the Basque Nationalists beg to differ. I'm just beginning my research on Basque history and they went through a lot of grief just to get where they are today, no thanks to Franco.

I seem to recall reading about a few journalists being imprisoned or shot for their words. I'd have to look it up to confirm - I'm suffering from sensory overload.

Ezra Pound, the wholesome, illiberal, nutty poet from Idaho, was tried and convicted for treason for radio broadcasts sponsored by Fascist Italy. And he wasn't even a liberal. Just your average antisemite -- which used to be a respectable semi-profession for upstanding Americans, as H. L. Heineken, Charles Lindberg, Father Conklin, and apparently T. S. Eliot would have attested.

ColoradoGuy
05-12-2007, 08:37 PM
The more immediate the danger, the smaller the traitorous word or sign would need to be, especially if it is a direct communication with the enemy. Even hearing or reading things from the enemy can be considered traitorous....ie you don't even have to use any words yourself, you just have to tune into an enemy radio broadcast. So, yes, obviously words can be matters of treachery, or traitorous or traitorous mutiny or simple mutiny. The mere appearance of acquiesing to somebody else's possible perception of words that might be code words could be considered traitorous under extreme circumstances.
So perhaps in those situations words cease being mere words, becoming rather a kind of act?

Higgins
05-12-2007, 08:56 PM
So perhaps in those situations words cease being mere words, becoming rather a kind of act?


You seem to want some kind of legal distinction such as might apply in the case where little Joey Liberal thought that the USA was not perfect and having done no more than inform his irate neighbor of that opinion had seemingly committed no crime, versus the case where a Great Bladdered Conservative (named Connie) urinated on the casing of a damaged thermonuclear bomb while on a secret fact-finding tour in Eurasia and triggered the fuse and blew up the base where our allies were secretly torturing our enemies. We will never know what prompted somebody so conservative to pee so freely or possibly heedlessly, but though it was not a verbal act, it did have a mental component...indeed, had Connie only asked for the proper facilities our National Security would have been infinitely better off. It was in fact Connie's unspoken modesty that spelled the doom of Our Nation's Most Perfect Policy even as Joey undermined it verbally at Home. Thus Joey's act is verbal and treasonaously criminal, but paradoxically had less of an impact than Connie's unspoken modesty. And yet, though Connie had never so much as mentally imagined her detonation as an act, this non-act, this oversight had a big impact and Joey's actively uttered words had relatively little impact.

ColoradoGuy
05-12-2007, 09:25 PM
You seem to want some kind of legal distinction
No, I don't. I'm simply interested in the boundary between words and acts taken as a result of words. The debate over "hate speech" is another such boundary -- the extent (or not) that words become actions simply by being spoken or written. I was intrigued by the TLS article in my opening post because it pointed out the historical context of the question. The rest of your example is simply a bad analogy because it describes the unintended consequences of a trivial act. I don't think my question is a trivial one.

Higgins
05-12-2007, 09:47 PM
No, I don't. I'm simply interested in the boundary between words and acts taken as a result of words. The debate over "hate speech" is another such boundary -- the extent (or not) that words become actions simply by being spoken or written. I was intrigued by the TLS article in my opening post because it pointed out the historical context of the question. The rest of your example is simply a bad analogy because it describes the unintended consequences of a trivial act. I don't think my question is a trivial one.

Not trivial, but if it is not a legal distinction, then what kind of a distinction is it? Words are obviously actions, common sense not withstanding. There is a kind of folksie distinction between saying and doing, but this seems to refer more to boasting or claiming to be about to do something, not inciting others to do things. I think even in common sense, folk-wisdom terms, if you urge people to do something, then you are an implied participant with some responsibility. Legally, if a crime is involved it could be conspiracy or incitement or suborning or extortion or slander or any number of crimes that have implied verbal componets...but since I think words are always actions, the distinction is utlimately a legal problem and not something that can be analyzed rationally. It's for the courts to decide and its a mystery to me how they will do that.

MajorDrums
05-12-2007, 09:56 PM
From Yahoo!'s Online Dictionary:

trea·son (trzn) KEY

NOUN:

1. Violation of allegiance toward one's country or sovereign, especially the betrayal of one's country by waging war against it or by consciously and purposely acting to aid its enemies.

2. A betrayal of trust or confidence.

(Emphasis mine). Because of this, I'd have to say no, words alone are not treasonous. Though, for a minute there, I had to think about it, because words can be so powerful. Especially since the second definition had me saying, "Well, can't one betray trust or confidence through communication alone?" I then began thinking, the lead-in to possibly believing words alone can be treasonous is censorship, which I don't think is a good thing. I'm thinking political pundits who are saying some liberal views are "treasonous" are doing so under the same guise as some of them may call someone who disagrees with them a Nazi or fascist, etc. It's a damning word, treason. "Unpatroitic" has been worn thin, lol, so they (pundits) had to move up another level.

Jamesaritchie
05-12-2007, 10:58 PM
Of course words can be considered treason. Speaking or writing words is an action, and can show intent to commit further actions. Words alone can damage any country that's at war. Words alone can aid the enemy in many ways.

Why and when and how you say the words is what matters, but certainly words can be treasonous. Anyone remember Iva Ikuko Toguri d’Aquino, also known as Tokyo Rose, the seventh person to be convicted of treason in the US? Radio broadcasts were her crimes. The words she said on the radio were treasonous, and she was convicted thereof.

Now, she probably wasn't guilty because most of the evidence said she wasn't actually Tokyo Rose, but guilty or not, she was convicted of treason for words alone.

Words can convict people of all sorts of crimes. Yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is a crime if you know there is no fire. You can be convicted of assault simply because you threaten someone. You can spend long years in jail for threatening the life of a president. Words can inspire troops, or an entire nation, and words can demoralize troops and an entire nation.

"The pen is mightier than the sword" literally means words have more power than any other weapon. "Mere words" is a nonsense phrase. Words have power to do good, and power to do evil. Freedom or speech has never been absolute. Nor has freedom of the press.

MajorDrums
05-12-2007, 11:38 PM
Thanks, JAR. I think you're talking from the standpoint I believe the pundits the OP is inferring to, which is words being so powerful that it may, in some instances, affect others (who may share those same "liberal ideas") to act. I don't at all doubt that words can result in varying levels of behavior modification, but personal responsibility is personal responsibility, and calling words "treasonous" brings the responsibility of those who may hear or read said words into question.

Calling what someone may write "treasonous" invites those (possibly government) to earmark which words are treasonous and which are not, aka censorship. Also, labeling someone to be "treasonous" isolates the person who spoke or wrote such words, with the aim of reducing his/her influence, which is what, I believe, some political pundits are going for.

ColoradoGuy
05-12-2007, 11:44 PM
Can I then assume that both James and Sokal support the validity of banning or prosecuting "hate speech"? (Once we decide what that is, of course.) Do you both think the convictions of Pound and Tokyo Rose for treason (or "treasonous speech") were proper? I'm not sure that I do, since it is impossible to say that either of these persons contributed directly to the death of anyone.

Higgins
05-13-2007, 12:35 AM
Can I then assume that both James and Sokal support the validity of banning or prosecuting "hate speech"? (Once we decide what that is, of course.) Do you both think the convictions of Pound and Tokyo Rose for treason (or "treasonous speech") were proper? I'm not sure that I do, since it is impossible to say that either of these persons contributed directly to the death of anyone.

Ezra Pound and Benedict Arnold didn't get anyone killed by their treason and yet they were convicted, unlike say the KKK or southern governors who refused direct orders from the President of the United States in the 1960s...or the Confederates in the 1860s...so treason is obviously a crime with a political side to it, but then many crimes have political aspects such as the curious crime of purjurious lying about sex for which Clinton was nearly impeached. On a side note: I'm working day and night on a secret decoder ring you can get in a box of cereal that will tell you how to get 12 Aztec Sun Priests onto the Supreme Court who will allow infinite freedom of speach, but only from people who are waiting to be sacrified to the Sun god, not for treason, but for the good of all mankind. That will clear up all these legal issues.

Monkey
05-13-2007, 02:37 AM
Discussion, debate, and yes, sometimes even disagreeing with the government can be quite patriotic. We must discuss these things, and act on them through calling our representatives and being saavy with our votes, if we (as a whole) are to act in the ways that are best for our people and our country. This is the bedrock of democracy. Take away our right to disagree with our government, and you take away our democracy...and in the US, there could be no bigger treason than that.

Disagreeing with the way a war is being conducted is not the same as showing allegience to the enemy.

Saying, "I think this war is being run badly" causes no death, and could - if acted upon - stop deaths from occuring.

Saying, "Valerie Plame is a CIA agent" could cause death, and is most definitely treason.

It's a crime to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre because it can cause havoc. "Hate speech" can easily be used to intimidate, and therefore modify the actions of, others. Disagreeing with the government, on the other hand, tends to cause discussion and voting...very rarely do we get a unibomber, and trust me, when a freako like that comes on the scene, it isn't because they overheard two neighbors debating the current system.

On a ship, one or two people threatening to mutiny or even talking about it can be considered treason...because it could cause an actual mutiny.

The line, I think, is when the words are likely to incite terrible consequences.