June 11, 2003
What Is Contiguity?

Last week Max Sawicky wrote something that's been bugging me ever since:

DOUBLE ENTENDRE. "Israel has got responsibilities," Mr. Bush said. "Israel must deal with the settlements. Israel must make sure there's a continuous territory that Palestinians call home." (The White House, which late in the day produced a transcript of Mr. Bush's remarks, put the word "contiguous" in parentheses after "continuous," to indicate that "contiguous" was what Mr. Bush had meant.) Shades of Arafat saying one thing in Arabic and another in English.

Interesting the difference one little letter makes, or is taken to make. Dictionary.Com says "contiguous" means "sharing an edge or boundary; touching; neighboring, adjacent." Of course, any Palestinian entity, down to a sandpit in the desert, would satisfy this definition. So the nature of the "state" is left completely to the imagination, as far as the corrected statement is concerned, allowing for Palestine as Bantustan -- a territory criss-crossed with Israeli-controlled roads, checkpoints, and settlements.

Sawicky's argument is simply false, in fact the opposite of the truth. Bush's language is clearly designed to exclude the possibility of a dismembered Palestine, divided into separate pieces like some American Indian reservations or the 'Bantustans' the apartheid government of South Africa once planned. The word 'contiguous' is a crucial part of Bush's meaning. The change from 'continuous' clarifies the meaning by excluding the intention that Sawicky falsely imputes to Bush.

Dictionaries, especially web-dictionaries, are treacherous things. In this case, as in so many, they give a wide range of meanings, and it is necessary to ask which one Bush was using. In this context, there is only one pertinent meaning of 'contiguous', the one that is used when borders are being redrawn. Carving out a country with entirely new boundaries is a rare occurrence: unlike Palestine, Slovenia and Croatia (to take two recent examples) were provinces before they became countries. However, the borders of legislative districts are redrawn every ten years in the U.S., and a Google search on "reapportionment + contiguous" gives 2,780 hits. A glance at any half a dozen of these will give the reader a very clear idea of what the word means when it refers to boundary-drawing. I haven't found one yet that defines 'contiguous', but the meaning is usually quite clear from the context, especially if you read more than one.

When a state law or constitution requires (as some do) "contiguous and compact" legislative districts, it means that the districts must be one-piece (contiguous) and not too weirdly shaped (compact). Whichever party controls the legislature cannot, for instance, combine two or three counties in widely-separated parts of the state and call them a district: it would not be contiguous. Nor can it make a district a hundred miles long and half a mile wide: it would not be compact. A proper redistricting results in districts that are roundish, squarish, blockish, ovalish, wedge-shaped (but not too narrowly so), or trapezoidoid (I've always wanted to write that word).

To take specific examples, a district that combined the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles would make a lot of sense ethnographically and electorally, but it would be grossly noncontiguous. A plan to slice California up like a hunk of bologna, with each and every district running all the way from Oregon to Mexico and none of them more than a mile or two wide, would blatantly violate the compactness rule.

Digression 1:

Districts for the U.S. House of Representatives appear to be exempt from the compactness rule, at least in some states: here is North Carolina's 12th district after a recent (and legally-challenged) reapportionment:

and here is Louisana's 4th:

(These pictures are from a page called FraudFactor: Gerrymandering and Redistricting Fraud, which is, as it says, "suitable for both individual and classroom use". I hope they don't mind that I've parked copies here so as not to hog their bandwidth.) As you can see, whoever designed these two districts took great care to make them contiguous, while leaving them spectacularly uncompact.

Digression 2:

Obligatory classical content: The etymology of 'contiguous' is firmly established. It comes from the Latin adjective contiguus, with much the same meaning, which is compounded from CON = 'together', TIG = 'touching', with the adjectival ending UUS. (Despite the differences in spelling, TIG is related to English 'tangible', 'tangent', 'tactile', and 'contact', all of which refer to touching.)

- - - - - - - - - - (end digressions)

Turning back to Bush's statement, we need to ask why it was thought necessary to edit it and change 'continuous' to 'contiguous'. I see no reason (except Sawicky's unthinking and ill-grounded contempt for the man) to suppose that Bush was waffling -- quite the reverse: the change clarifies the statement. It is clear that 'contiguous' is the correct form of what he said, and 'continuous' wrong. For one thing, 'continuous' is ambiguous, since it could also refer to time, and is well worth avoiding. For another, readers and copyists often substitute common words for rarer words that resemble them in shape, particularly if they have vaguely similar meanings, as these two do. (Get a Ph.D. in Classics, and you'll find out all about this in your Palaeography classes. Practice the arcane art of textual criticism, and you can even use this knowledge to edit and emend ancient texts.)

One of two things must have happened. Either Bush actually said 'contiguous' and the transcriber substituted the similar, but much commoner, 'continuous', or Bush's prepared text (perhaps written for him by his staff) said 'contiguous' and he stumbled and turned it into 'continuous', substituting the more familiar word himself, only to have it corrected afterwards. It doesn't matter much, though Bush-haters will obviously prefer the latter. The point is that Bush has officially promised the Palestinians a contiguous state: not an archipelago of separate enclaves divided by Israeli-owned and -controlled roads, but an actual single state with all its parts connected together.

Of course, Bush didn't mention compactness, which leaves open the possibility that such a state could have quite sinuous borders. These would likely be necessary in any case to separate two peoples as intertwined as the Israelis and Palestinians. Let's just hope that a hypothetical independent Palestine doesn't end up looking like some American congressional districts.

To sum up in proper Sawickian style: Max tried, but his aim was wide. He tries to be snide, but the facts are not on his side. He can't hide: his brain has been fried by his rage to deride. It may hurt his pride to see me chide, but I won't let it slide. We report, you decide.

Don't like my rhymes? They're not much crappier than Sawicky's constantly repeated, stupid, and dishonest "Bush lied, people died".

Update: (12:30 PM)

I have struck out a word in the last sentence to answer Sawicky's objection in the third comment. That was not rhetorical exaggeration on my part but sloppy writing: the quoted words are in fact repeated by Sawicky, constantly repeated on the left fringe of the Blogosphere (38 hits on Google so far, including Pandagon, Daily Kos, and Yglesias), but not constantly repeated by Sawicky -- at least not yet. They are also both stupid and dishonest, as I wrote, since they imply that no one would have died in Iraq if Bush had never invaded, or more precisely, if he had never mentioned WMDs as a justification for invasion. Less than two weeks ago Sawicky wrote about the mass graves turning up in Iraq, and argued that we should not have invaded because "The people are already dead" (his italics). On Monday we learned that over 150 people were murdered at Salman Pak on April 4th. They were not "already dead". Perhaps if we had ignored the U.N. and invaded in September instead of March they would still be alive today. Since that was the toll for one day in one place, it seems likely that thousands or tens of thousands of other Iraqis were murdered while Max and his friends delayed the war. Iraq last fall was not, like Gorbachev's Soviet Union, a place in which horrible massacres had occurred in the past and gone unpunished, but were for the most part no longer happening. It was, like Stalin's Soviet Union, a place in which massacres, and ingenious tortures, and government-ordered gang-rapes, and other horrors, continued, until the U.S., U.K., Australia, and other allies put a stop to them.

By the way, I wonder why Sawicky feels entitled to post a comment here when he banned me from his site long ago: it seems more than a little rude. If I were to publicly tell an acquaintance, even for the best of reasons, that he would never be allowed in my house again, I would be ashamed to go over to his house, walk in, sit down, and put my feet up, even if he hadn't locked the door. Of course, one reason I didn't ban Sawicky when he banned me was that I was curious whether he would be arrogant enough to do this. Looks like I guessed right.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 11, 2003 01:02 AM