Monday, January 17, 2005

Selective Cites

Question: How far does one go to make a point?
Answer: Apparently pretty far

In order to rationally argue a viewpoint we often need to quote others to bolster our position. Nothing inherently wrong with that but often those quotes are stripped of their real meaning when they are diluted by the discussion. I was strolling by Reptile Wisdom and to my surprise shoveldog had quoted Martin Luther King on the arrogance of America. Dr. King was a great leader who used scripture to change a nation. This quote shows that:

Don't let anybody make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with justice and it seems I can hear God saying to America, "You are too arrogant, and if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God."

-- Martin Luther King, 4 April 1967
Full of energy and life, Dr. King made a forceful statement that the arrogant will be punished by God. I immediately thought how odd it was to see Dr. King quoted on Reptile Wisdom. Shoveldog usually uses religious teaching to point out the weakness of religion. In fact, another shoveldog post does just that by mocking Psalms. Now he was using it to make a point?!

Shoveldog had chosen to use the Dr. King quote to comment on the arrogance of the United States. Especially, I would assume, as it relates to the current administration. (Update, Shoveldog later responded that, yes, it was his intent to comment on the arrogance of the current administration. VARepublicMan.) But is his use of the quote "appropriate?"

My problem is this. The quote has one sentence on arrogance (arrogance concerning our action in Vietnam) and the rest of the quote deals with the divine punishment for such arrogance. I believe that it was Dr. King’s intent to state that God will be final arbiter on what punishment flows from such evil arrogance. Since shoveldog does not believe in that concept (divine punishment for evil acts), what was his purpose in using the quote? I really consider shoveldog’s use of the quote as inconsistent with other statements he has made in the past. Regardless, I enjoy seeing him use the possibility of a divine punishment to comment on arrogance.

Then over at Brain Shavings Puddle Pirate was blogging about a discussion on CNN between Justices Breyer and Scalia. Justice Scalia made the point that other Supreme Court Justices have a predilection for quoting foreign law when it suits them but avoiding it when it doesn't. Puddle Pirate gave a great example using abortion law.

...take our abortion jurisprudence, we are one of only six countries in the world that allows abortion on demand at any time prior to viability. Should we change that because other countries feel differently? Or, maybe a more pertinent question: Why haven't we changed that, if indeed the court thinks we should use foreign law? Or do we just use foreign law selectively? When it agrees with what, you know, what the justice would like the case to say, you use the foreign law, and when it doesn't agree you don't use it. Thus, you know, we cited it in Lawrence, the case on homosexual sodomy, we cited foreign law -- not all foreign law, just the foreign law of countries that agreed with the disposition of the case. But we said not a whisper about foreign law in the series of abortion cases.

-- Justice Scalia, 13 January 2005; Breyer/Scalia at AU Washington College of Law
Scalia cites this example as being inconsistent. If you read the entire transcript (and you really should read it!), Scalia makes the point that we have to be very careful about examples cited when trying to argue a point in a rational discussion. That simply citing similar situations is often misleading because one cannot understand the full implications of the quote if one does not fully understand the situation surrounding the quote. Breyer agrees saying that one must always understand the situation but that quoting other rational thinkers is useful. He emphasizes that he (Breyer) never relies on foreign law as governing, only as guiding. Scalia counters that once a cite is used, it colors the decision regardless of how carefully the citation is used.

I tend to agree with Scalia. Shoveldog used a quote that spoke about arrogance, a point that he has made in the past, but he overlooked the full meaning of the quote. Breyer tried to say quoting dissimilar law is okay if one is careful in it’s use, essentially saying that using just a portion of it's meaning is okay if one is careful. I say that both shoveldog and Breyer have the same problem; quoting what suits them and ignoring the rest.

So how far will some go to make a point? Sometimes very far.