An American Editor

March 11, 2010

On Words: Filibuster

I’m in frustrated-angry mode. My local power utility (read monopoly) has raised its rates twice in 12 months, and has applied for a third rate increase. My Internet/TV/telephone package rate has gone up because they added cable channels that I’m not interested in ever watching (truth be told, I don’t ever watch TV and have the cable TV only because my wife insists).

But the final blow came in the mail from my health insurance company: our rates are going up 25%. The excuses given include higher New York State taxes (mine have gone up significantly, too), increased use of health care services by others, federal expansion of COBRA, a large number of H1N1 flu cases, and federal expansion of “large group” mental health and substance abuse coverage (we are a small group).

Then I read the latest on healthcare reform in Washington, DC — the movement that appears to be going nowhere fast — and how a filibuster is threatened should a bill come to the floor of the Senate. Setting aside my frustration with politicians who think first about lining their pockets and last about their constituents, I wondered about the origins of the word filibuster. There is a certain Kafkaesqueness, a certain Alice-in-Wonderland-ness about the word that intrigues me.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines filibuster as “1a. The use of obstructionist tactics…for the purpose of delaying legislation.…2. An adventurer who engages in a private military action in a foreign country” The first definition is what we commonly understand, but the second is closer to the word’s roots.

In early American English, the spellings were fillibustier and flibustier. Sometime in the 1850s the spelling changed to the current filibuster. An early English spelling (16th century and earlier) was flibutor, which was borrowed from the Dutch word for freebooter (vrijbuiter); an earlier version of flibutor was fribustier, confusing its origins.

Filibuster is French in origin, coming from flibustier, referring to pirates who pillaged the Spanish West Indies during the 1700s. In the 1800s, the word’s origins shifted from French to the Spanish usage and meaning. Filibustero, the Spanish version, which also meant freebooter or common rover (as opposed to a buccaneer; buccaneers were French settlers who were hired as hunters by the Spanish. When they were later driven out, the buccaneers turned to plundering, thus morphing buccaneer‘s meaning from hunter to pirate), was used to describe Americans, primarily Texans, who incited insurrection against Spain in Latin America.

Probably the best-known filibusteros were those who joined Narcisso Lopez’s Cuban insurrection in 1850-1851, and those who followed William Walker’s insurrection against Sonora, Mexico (1853-54) and against Nicaragua (1855-58). As reported by the Lawrence (KS) Republican, June 2, 1857, “Walker, the filibuster, has been forced to capitulate.”

This sense of filibuster (freebooter, revolutionist, insurrectionist) remained in use for decades and was used to describe other persons whose tactics were similar to those of the American filibusters. For example, an article in Knowledge (1887) said: “What were the Normans…but filibusters? What were the Pilgrim Fathers but filibusters?” Columbus and William the Conqueror also were called filibusters. But this sense has, for the most part, faded away as the political sense has gained use, although it isn’t clear to me that this original sense isn’t an apt description of today’s filibusters.

One of the earliest uses of filibuster in the sense we think of it today, that is, as a tactic by a member of the legislative minority to impede action by the majority, was by the Portland Oregonian (February 5, 1853): “Filibustero principles do not appear to meet with much consideration from the southern members of congress.” In 1889, the Boston Journal (January 14) noted that “The surrender of legislative functions by the majority of the House and the carrying on of business…only by a humiliating ‘trreaty’ with a single determined filibuster is something entirely anomalous in a country…governed by majority action.”

Of course, in the early days of legislative filibustering, filibusters were required to speak — Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in real life — and garnered little sympathy when they could no longer command the floor. As the New York Times (January 31, 1915) wrote: “The Senate sits…and the overwhelmed filibusters simply cannot talk.” Two weeks later, the New York Times (February 16) reported: “The Republicans will filibuster…against the cloture rule.” How little has changed in 95 years!

This action, speaking for the sole purpose of consuming time, was the required method prior to the Senate becoming a gentlemen’s club at taxpayer and citizen expense. Now the excuse is that Senators have other important business to attend (e.g., fundraising, violating ethics, lobbying against the interests of their constituents); so why waste time listening to endless speech making? The Congressional Record of February 11, 1890, noted that “A filibuster was indulged in which lasted…for nine continuous calendar days.” Just think — 9 days of legislative peace!

But there was a spark of humor in the annals of senatorial filibustering. Consider this Chicago Times (July 22, 1947) report of a filibuster: “You’re filibustering against the wrong bill, Senator–the resolution before the Senate is for adjournment.” Now if only the American voter could filibuster, perhaps we could put an end to Washington gridlock.

One final note: I am intrigued that both the act and the actor are called filibuster. Why is the actor not called filibusterer?

February 10, 2010

On Words: Mugwump

The political partisan divide gets deeper daily. The electorate can’t be counted on to vote in accord with their party registration. Politicians are increasingly nervous that if they do not tilt further to the left or right, they will not be electable. Interestingly, in today’s partisan politics being a centrist seems to ensure that one will not get elected to political office. Makes me wonder if we voters simply want to elect someone we can complain about.

But that aside, the issue today is one of mugwumpery. Can we fickle voters who have registered our loyalty as Republican or Democrat but then desert the anointed party candidate stake a claim to being mugwumps? The bumper sticker possibilities seem endless:

  • Make mugwumpery a daily rite!
  • When the impossible needs doing call a mugwump!
  • Mugwumps brew their own tea!
  • Mugwumps don’t like tea parties!
  • I’m more than a partyer, I’m a mugwumpian!

The sound alone makes me want to proclaim: Mugwumpery — today, tomorrow, forever!

Mugwump (n.) originally referred to an Algonquin chief (mugquomp); John Eliot used the word in his 1663 Indian Bible. Consequently, mugwump became associated with “an important person.” Over the years, however, it became transformed from serious to ironical. For example, in 1835, it was used as follows: “This village, I beg leave to introduce to the reader, under the significant appellation of Mugwump, . . . used at the present day vulgarly and masonically, as synonymous with greatness and strength.”

But it was the presidential election of 1884 between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland that gave mugwump its political meaning. Blaine, the Republican candidate, was disliked by a group of influential Republicans who announced their support for the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The New York Evening Post (June 20, 1884) wrote: “We have yet to see a Blaine organ which speaks of the Independent Republicans otherwise than as Pharisees, hypocrites, dudes, mugwumps, transcendentalists, or something of that sort.” Time (January 12, 1948), speaking of Truman’s election, wrote: “The Mugwumps of 1884, for much the same reason deserted James G. Blaine and helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland.”

But mugwump wasn’t reserved solely for those who deserted Blaine for Cleveland. There were also Democrat mugwumps, Democrats who deserted Cleveland for Blaine. The Boston Journal (January 21, 1885) reported: “There is a row . . . between a Democrat and a mugwumpian Democrat.”  The Nation (April 14, 1887), gave mugwump a nonpartisan life: “The municipal election in Jacksonville, Fla., last week was another victory for nonpartisanship, and showed that Mugwumpism is growing in the South as well as in the West.”

Even the New York Times was called mugwumpian. The Voice (September 1, 1887), wrote: “Our esteemed Mugwumpian contemporary, the New York Times, is very solicitous for the Republicans to make concessions to the Prohibitionists.”

So mugwump, politically speaking, was first a disaffected Republican, became an Independent Republican, and ultimately moved to total independence. The definition became “a person who withdraws his support from any group or organization; an independent; a chronic complainer who doesn’t take sides.”

Seems to me that we need another political movement in America and I suggest we call it The Mugwump Party of America. So, my fellow, Mugwumpians, shall we gather at Independence Hall on July 4?

January 4, 2010

Louis Brandeis: A Life

I am currently reading the biography of one of our greatest U.S. Supreme Court justices and lawyers, Louis Brandeis. Melvin Urofsky’s Louis Brandeis: A Life is available in both print and ebook form. This is the biography to read if you want to discover what a lawyer should be.

Brandeis didn’t grow up poor, so this isn’t a rags-to-riches story like the story of current justice Clarence Thomas. But it is the story of a man of principle, a lawyer who was often the lawyer of the situation rather than of the person. It is also the story of a man whose introduction to law occurred as how to learn law was on the cusp of changing, and of a man who introduced a different form of advocacy — a form that lawyers today do not practice, that is, being lawyer to the situation — which if they did, would enhance our society greatly.

Brandeis was a man of great intellect with a burning desire to understand both sides fully, something that we cannot always claim for our current justices. It was not that Brandeis didn’t have blind spots, but that he had a sense of society and a person’s role in it. For example, he was opposed to monopolies not because they were monopolies but because they were big, which he believed lead to inefficiency and thus societal harm. Brandeis combined great intellect, a devotion to detail, and a sense of social good in his law practice and when sitting as a justice. Brandeis wanted and needed to understand relationships in depth, not just the surface understanding that is so common today.

If you read but two biographies in your lifetime, this should be one of them (the other should be Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame). Brandeis lived in a time of dynamic change, the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and was a great contributor to the life subsequent generations enjoyed. His efforts and his approach to law practice made him unique among Americans, especially at a time of economic upheavel. Urofsky’s well-written biography makes Brandeis approachable by readers; no knowledge of law required.

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