EP&M Online Essay

The Quality (of the Electorate's) Mercy....

by Arthur Mortensen

Quality:  That aspect of things under which they are considered in thinking or speaking of their nature, condition, or properties.
The notion of quality includes all the attributes of a thing, except those of relation and quantity. ‘Quality’ is the third of the Aristotelian categories.
(9th definition of the noun)
                                                                   The Oxford English Dictionary

Quality is used as the generical name of every thing in objects, for which a separate notation is required.
                                                                    Mind,  J. Mill, 1889

Remarking on the ancient comedy, the student stumbled with the usual clichés.  His classmates tried not to hold their ears while staring at their shoes.  However, the woman at the head of the class (she would not sit in its center) glowered, emptying out her contempt for feel-good pedagogy.  "Semantics, semantics! You must know what you are saying," the old professor shouted, remembering a world which presupposed meaning as the object of both reader and writer.  She knew as well that with the years a word acquires more than one definition and depends on context to arbitrate which one applies.  She had asked about the student's favorite quality in the play under discussion. These things are not available in Cliff's Notes or in essays in deconstructive criticism.  To know what quality you like in a play or a poem, it is necessary to get to know what the author was doing by close reading of the work.   This is why some works are read in critical classes.  Casual reading is best done at home.  Comic books, novels by Tom Clancy, and most political speeches, for instance, lend themselves to a bedside lamp.

Now, "quality" has thirteen different definitions in the OED, most of those with sub-categories.   But the old professor also knew that semantics have to do with context, so when we speak of qualities of some lines of verse, whether a sonnet, an epic, or Measure for Measure, we're not describing the quality of the work as good or bad, prissy or vulgar, but what comprises that sonnet, this epic, or that play -- its form, its elements, the particulars of creating it.  This troubles many modern minds, who prefer to think that such definitions are purely arbitrary, and that if we choose to call a paragraph of prose a free verse sestina, we may do so at our will without consideration of any past but our own.  Further, as such minds are apt to remind us, to think differently violates two ghastly concepts in  contemporary critical posture:  the Modernist idea of absolute originality (which is an unconscious parody of the novelty of consumer capitalism);  and the post-Modern sneer that says that all qualities of poetic  literature, from prosody to dramatic scene, to the form and movement of plot,  are nothing more than conventions, as easy to violate as any grade-seeking sycophant in class.  To anyone aware of both the development of language and of a given art, it should be plain that both concepts are nonsense.  (Todigress, to get through a class that specializes in such critical thinking, however, best to memorize them before you fall unconscious from your desk. By doing so, a candidate for future employment as an adjunct might get a leg up.  The effect for those who have no interest in careers of writing critical essays will be to earn a congratulatory 'A' so she may pass on to anatomy class to preparing to be a doctor whom we can both depend on and sue for damages afterwards.)  But, why nonsense?

Simply this:  the qualities of a particular form in verse are to the ensuing poem as a genome is to a human being:  they are both its past and a foundation for an otherwise unpredictable future.  In human reproduction, a process which generates our future, while results are often different, these differences, however special, are variations on standard human themes developed over millions of years; otherwise, the result would not be human.  Similarly, while only a plagiarist would write a sonnet exactly like someone else's, all sonnets are related; they are a species of poetry, with analyzable traits, and would be something else if their creators used other elements.   This is not hard.  Compared to the least problem in supersymmetry, which may take a decade of mathematical study to even state, it's child's play, the rules of a game to learn in a day.  Any poet knows, however, that child's play is only rehearsal for adult expression.   Writing a good and original sonnet is something few children can do.

The qualities of a sonnet, defined over eight hundred years of different people writing them, include fourteen lines, an initial octave and a concluding sestet, one of several major forms such as Petrarchan, Elizabethan or Mason, whose qualities include a rhyme schemes (with variations, usually in the sestet), most often meter, and, in English, at least four, and usually five, beats to the line.  The vast majority of sonnets play out in iambic pentameter, though a sonnet may be in free verse if its author observes the other qualities.   Even an unrhymed piece may be a sonnet if it has enough of the other qualities, especially the octave and sestet.  If it doesn't, as so many unrhymed sonnets don't, it's just 14 lines of blank verse. Use these elements in your own piece and you may not write a sonnet of any quality whatsoever, but if you don't include a combination of those qualities you're not writing a sonnet at all. 

In an epic, some of its qualities are plot which includes a beginning, a middle and an end; characters who interact in dialogue; a setting or, more often, many settings; oftentimes heroic conventions, mythical reference and mythical resonance; verse of some variety; movement from some past into some future; and an author's pacing, whether scene to scene, or event to event.   Milton in Paradise Lost wrote scene to scene, a dramatic poem;  Stephen Vincent Benet in John Brown's Body wrote event to event, more like a poetic novel.  As in the mixtures of capabilities in human beings, there are often poetic cross-breedings.  Richard Moore has written a long poem using sonnets as stanzas; Joseph Salemi has written shorter poems using limericks as stanzas;  W.H. Auden wrote a very long comic poem in rime royal stanzas.  It is not necessary to write epics in blank verse, though one may find it easier to pay attention to the vagaries of dramatic scene and plot if one does.   The variety of verse is a minor quality.  As to the quality of results in any sonnet or epic, that's a different kind of reading.   What about the qualities of political speech in a democracy?

This has become a significant matter in 2004.  Congress, in its purported wisdom, has decided through McCain-Feingold to protect us from the moneyed interests (were they thinking of oil companies, immigrant associations, George Soros, the PTA, a trade association, or labor unions?), i.e., those organizations to which many of us belong.  McCain-Feingold was passed, its authors say, so that political expression by all organizations except for the press shall be banned in the sixty days prior to a national election's voting day.  As this has now been extended to book publishers in lawsuits emanating from this legislation, rather like the stink of garbage from Staten Island, it seems that Congress and the courts really didn't mean it when they said that the press was excluded.  Apparently they only meant the large press tacitly recognized as official, including television networks and the NY Times.   It is easy to draw this conclusion as both conservative and leftist publication of books has now been affected, whether in attempts to block distribution of books about John Kerry's unfitness or about George Bush's.   Why?

The qualities of political speech are many, but among the most important are 1) statement of issues by affected parties and by elected legislators and administrators;  2) definition of the terms in a given issue by those affected and by elected officials;  3) expression of an affected party's opinion on the issue;  4) expression of disagreement with either advocates for or against the actions of government; 5) expression of a legislator's or administrator's decisive opinion in a vote or a regulation.    If only legislators and elected administrators are allowed to handle items 1, 2, 3, and 4, then the effect of McCain-Feingold is to destroy the viability of political speech in favor of the coward's way out of "if you don't shut up I'll put tape on your mouth."   It's not hard to make this assessment if we look at the qualities of political speech.  Except for narrowly-defined groups, McCain-Feingold denies the statement  of issues by anyone but elected officials; McCain-Feingold denies the definition of terms to anyone but legislators and administrators; McCain-Feingold denies the expression of opinon by parties affected by the work of government; McCain-Feingold bars the expression of disagreements with the acts of legislators and administrators.   In sum, in terms of the qualities of political speech, of which only five primary ones are named, McCain-Feingold is a tool for creating a political class free of either criticism or meaningful discussion of issues by anyone except elected legislators and administrators.  Voting for them, in fact, is deliberately reduced by this act to a choice between personalities.   It concretizes in law a trend going back forty years in American political life, in which elections are essentially meaningless.   But it also concretizes the notion that the only meaningful constituents of elected politicians are lobbyists and others of that special elect who are allowed to express opinions to Senators, Representatives, and Presidents.  The rest of us are effectively excluded from the conversation.  How?

Should you get together with a thousand other people, for instance, and, on the basis of research, both anecdotal and statistical, determine that the election of John Kerry might endanger the future of your community, under McCain-Feingold, at the cutoff point of sixty days before the election, you would not be able to publish or broadcast this information.   The First Amendment, the keystone of representative government, does not apply to you and your organization unless you fit McCain-Feingold's criteria for having the right to an opinion during the two months leading up to a national election.  This is not a trivial matter.  Why?

Of the many qualities of a free republic, the free exchange of information is a primary tool for surviving the inherent problems of an absolutist state.   Why? This shouldn't be necessay to ask, but since the writer asked it, he will try to provide an answer.   Republics survive crises which absolutist states don't for a very simple reason.  Citizens know what's going on.  That knowledge effects change, not only through voting, but through a wide variety of devices, from traditional news reporting to polls to Internet blogs to political night letters to e-mail to gossip.  When such is available, in a crisis of any kind, it gives a people a significant leg up in surviving an upheaval or a change over a system where knowledge is controlled by the political class.  If, say, the Vice President is trading atomic secrets to an international adversary for campaign contributions to his party, and the people know about it, it is likely that such trading will be stopped and even more likely that that Vice President and his party will be looking for work after the next election.  An absolutist state, confident in its secret means of maintaining power, would not only retain the Vice President and his party in power, but would probably further restrict free exchange of information to further reduce the risk of exposure.  As a consequence, the impact of selling national security secrets to an adversary would not be known to the citizenry until it was too late to do anything about it, and the adversary was threatening to use, or already using those secrets to affect that country's policy or even to wage war on it.  In fact, it is fair to say, based on historical evidence, that the greater restrictions there are on the free exchange of information the more likely a political system is to fail.   The most recent example is the Soviet Union.   Why is McCain-Feingold so careless about this?

It is doubtful that either Senator or the various co-sponsors could tell you.  It is possible, even likely, that they don't know what the qualities of political speech and debate are.  That's certainly suggested in the manner of speechmaking by most elected US representatives and has been for decades.  On a purely personal level, however, to a Senator like John McCain, who was raked over the coals by the press in a recent election year over his office's relationship with an Arizona banker, such legislation would offer relief from personal suffering.  No longer would Senator McCain have to listen to people with contrary opinions or contrary facts in the last two months of an election cycle.  Instead, he could rely on "dependable" sources, such as CBS News to give "objective" reports about him.   How nice.  It's the same sort of dependability that Leonid Brezhnev took for granted in the USSR; only official press outlets such as Pravda ever commented publicly on any issue.   While McCain's passionate diatribes on the subject are fairly easy to guess at for motivation, for the co-sponsors it's harder, though the possible reasons are more depressing.  For instance, they probably didn't read the legislation; they probably saw that the buzz words "campaign finance reform" played well among constituents and so, without a second thought, and probably knowing next to nothing about the qualities of political speech, they voted the legislation in.   What about the courts?

This is a great mystery, for the courts have defended the First Amendment for almost any kind of expression, save outright pornography, for generations.  And in recent years, outright pornography has received the courts's blessing as well.  But political speech?  When has that ever been attacked in the last thirty-five years by US courts?   Someone is whispering in the back -- yes?

"The only speech the federal courts haven't restricted in the last thirty-five years is that regarding pornography and the advocacy of an agenda that can only be described as liberal or left-wing."

To repeat, one of the qualities of political speech is the expression of opinion by someone affected by an action of the government, whether through the legislature, the courts, or the executive.   The little speech in the previous paragraph is a fine example.  If you disagree, stating that is a quality of political speech.  If you're not allowed to disagree, that's a quality of tyranny.


                                                                                     Arthur Mortensen