Linguists call it a “semantic gap” when a language has no way of expressing a thing or event, when a word is so affixed to an idea that translating it cleaves the two irreparably. Think: coup. English can’t concisely capture a seizure of state, so it borrows from French, leaving the original sense intact.
The Capitol riot-insurrection-coup-attempt-uprising exposed a wide semantic gap and the limits of a whole genre of political givens. While it was unfolding, no one could agree on what it was or what to call it. With time, the Jan. 6 “blank” has become an amorphous “it,” somewhere between coup and carnival. Not knowing what it was is a misspelling away from not knowing that it was.
Words with precise legal meanings, like “insurrection,” have their own ambiguity — the kind the state can act on within the realm of precedent, for example, by invoking the Insurrection Act or Title 32 of the United States Code. “Uprising” implies something unjust and actual to rise against, “riot” implies something spontaneous and “coup attempt” implies an institutional unraveling. “Debauch” gets closer to the futureless nihilism motivating some January 6-ers, but it fails to account for the serious plot to kill beneath the Bacchic trashing. “Putsch” is probably most accurate — again, a word on loan, this time from Germany, where many were tried in the beginning of the 20th century.
America has no word for what happened on Jan. 6, because no one had conceived of it happening the way it did. The country’s immunity to revolt was an early assumption of American exceptionalism. In 1784, responding to characterizations of the Philadelphia Mutiny in the British press, Jefferson wrote, “Where is there any country of equal extent with the U.S. in which fewer disturbances have happened in the same space of time?” His answer: nowhere. Uncritical trust in American institutions based on their longevity blinds us to weaknesses within. Defending institutions means more than believing in them. It means understanding how they might degenerate.
Once the Senate reconvened on the night of the attack, many senators went looking for analogies to prove the sack of the building was an aberration — mostly, John Adams’ peaceful surrender of power in 1800 and the burning of the Capitol in the War of 1812, the only other time the building had been breached. Most speeches aimed to define what was at stake and landed on familiar themes: “liberty,” “freedom” and “democracy.” Former Vice President Mike Pence opened the proceedings, saying, “Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house.” Trump’s erstwhile sycophants were all of a sudden statesmen.
Another semantic gap revealed itself in these paeans to freedom. No matter how jarring the Republicans’ change in tone was — from agitating for a “commission” to install Trump as dictator in perpetuum to sobbing about the ebbing of the democratic way — there was another problem with the Senate’s attempts at elegy. No one explained what freedom means. Getting into the weeds of a four-century-old political tradition isn’t the best material for a three-second-long soundbite. That’s precisely the point: The spirit of this vast political enterprise has become a cliché.
Orwell argued in “Politics and the English Language” that the word “freedom” suggests too much to ever be coherent. The problem now is that it suggests too little — or nothing at all. That’s partly why the people who stormed the Capitol and brutalized the officers defending it were screaming pieces of the Declaration of Independence. Theirs wasn’t a different version of freedom — it was no freedom at all, only the usual rhetoric of grievance recited out of habit or hatred.
What, then, is freedom in America? Freedom began as the condition made possible by Lockean contract theory — rights yielded and protected by the state with the consent of the governed — and the balance of power among institutions. Those rights were made more full with the hard-won broadening of the franchise and more equal application of the law.
For all of American history, those rights, even as they’ve expanded, have been stabbed at from every angle, in a way reminiscent of Shakespeare’s staging of the conspiracy to kill Caesar. Brutus tells his accomplice before the act: “Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius, / To cut the head off and then hack the limbs, / Like wrath in death and envy afterwards.” Nothing has been too bloody, in the last two centuries, and the limbs have never been off-limits once the head’s been severed.
In the aftermath of the afternoon putsch, it’s worth reconsidering the new challenges to freedom that threaten to turn a semantic gap into a political chasm. Enlightenment political rights have gone hand in hand with a particular kind of economic freedom — one that once revolved around property and commerce, and now capital and integrated markets. That economic freedom, so-called, has cannibalized political freedom, its former sibling. One unheeded attempt, in the last century, to remake this cannibalistic economy was FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, which redefined economic rights as material guaranteed — a house, a livable wage, leisure, health care, assets — not the threat of material taken — debt, eviction, foreclosure, joblessness. Today, there’s an urgent need for a second Second Bill of Rights, leaving no semantic gaps, defining its terms and delivering a “new birth of freedom” without the ambiguity we live by now. Otherwise, worse will fill the void.
ZACHARY GROZ is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.