A quick addendum to Wednesday’s column about language and the law of the sea. We err if we place too much faith in the power of written documents such as constitutions, laws, and international covenants of various types. Putting the right words on the page constitutes part of the challenge. That’s what lawmakers and diplomats do. But succeeding generations of human beings are what puts meaning into — or allows it to be drained from — those words.
A written compact can lose force if posterity comes to doubt its legitimacy, if it falls out of step with the times (in dear old Rhode Island, for instance, it’s apparently illegal to bite off someone else’s leg), or if its opponents deliberately undermine it. Those hostile to a pact, in part or in whole, can reinterpret its plain meaning — reshaping or subverting it altogether over time.