Saturday, January 24, 2009

35 Words of Nothing

As any longtime reader of this blog would know, I love to ruminate about hypothetical scenarios, and the more unlikely the scenario the more likely I will devote mental energy to thinking about it. Years before Chuck Klosterman posed the question about whether a genetically-engineered "super gorilla" would be allowed to play in the NFL, I grilled my poor father about whether he would hire a gorilla to fix cars in his transmission repair shop (even going into areas such as human/gorilla relations, asking questions about how he would solve problems that might arise between the gorilla and his human employees). I have also given some thought to whether a gorilla that engages in guerrilla warfare would be called a gorilla guerrilla or a guerrilla gorilla.

But anyway, this week afforded me the opportunity to think more about another hypothetical scenario. I was predictably fascinated by the "oath flub" that occurred between John Roberts and Barack Obama, and even more fascinated by the idea that these two men, presumably quite busy, would feel the need to re-convene and re-do it. The oath, most of us have learned this week, is required by the Constitution. But what if, for whatever reason, a president chose not to take it?

I could foresee a scenario where a president, following a strict interpretation of The Bible, would choose to forgo the oath for religious reasons. Perhaps hypothetical candidate would choose not to discuss the matter during the course of the campaign, but after being elected, inform the inaugural committee, "Oh yeah, about that oath I'm supposed to take..." I suppose it's for this reason that the Constitution actually provides for the possibility of substituting the word "affirm" for the word "swear," and Franklin Pierce apparently availed himself of this option. But let's say that our hypothetical president-elect doesn't want any part of affirming or swearing. What then?

Well, technically, according to the Constitution, he or she can't be president. But I doubt that would be the end of it. We'd probably see a series of legal challenges which would most likely end long after the president has left office. Some of the president's enemies would perhaps seize upon the issue as a pretext, but I doubt that anyone would be too concerned that the president is secretly intent on not faithfully executing the office of the presidency.

So this is all a long way of saying what we probably already knew, that the practice of taking a presidential oath, though technically a legal mandate, carries no weight of substance. To say the promises made while taking the oath are vague would be an understatement. What does it mean to "faithfully execute" the presidency? What does it mean to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution, when we have an entire branch of government devoted to figuring out what the Constitution means?

Some may point to the importance of maintaining continuity through administrations. They might say that there is something comforting in the admission that each new president promises to play by the same set of rules as each of the previous 40-some and counting executives. But given that the rules do in fact change, that the Constitution that Barack Obama just promised to defend is a decidedly different one than the one that George Washington swore to defend, how valid is this?

Others may argue that there is something to be said for making public pronouncements, that vows made in a solemn and formal occasion are more likely to be fulfilled than vows made informally. This is probably why we have wedding vows. To that, I say, "O.K.!" But let's be consistent. In contrast to the vagueness of a presidential oath, wedding vows are usually quite explicit; everybody knows what is being promised. And it is becoming a more acceptable practice to write one's own wedding vows. As the 44th President himself said moments after taking the oath, "It is time to put away childish things." Let's dispense with an oath that means nothing, and allow each presidential candidate to write their own oath of office, which would be made public during the course of a campaign.

What are the advantages of this? We'd be able to better judge how serious candidates are about their campaign promises, based on their willingness to include it in their presidential oath. After they leave office we would be able to judge how well they did their job by assessing how well they fulfilled their oath. The only disadvantage? Taxpayers would have to pay for a teleprompter for John Roberts.

Now I need to go think about what an oath of office would look like for a gorilla...


Blogger zen ironman said...

I doubt that, during the span of our lifetimes, human/lesser-primate relations would escalate to a level that would necessitate oath-taking, at least on a governmental or nuptial level.

Barring that, and assuming that any language barriers have been addressed, we still are faced with a creature that will almost definitely have a decidedly different value structure than ours. What would the gorilla swear on, for example, as our bible would hold no particular importance to it, the gorilla, nor would any literature of simian theology/mythology hold weight in our homo-sapien-centric existence.

Positing a world in which gorillas and humans exist in harmony with one another socially (a large stretch, for even in fictional imaginings, one species must dominate and subjugate the other), means that you are also positing a world in which the rules that govern humankind (gorillakind as well) are drastically different from those that we are familiar with. Perhaps oaths are gauche in this Brave New World, and everyone is taken at face value? Or perhaps no one trusts anyone, and it's a more sectarian, monastic society because They "...blew it up! Damn you all to hell!"

4:05 PM  

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