Published at the Pragmatic Progressive http://thepragmaticprogressive.org/wp/2011/02/09/the-power-of-words-2/ and several other online places such as OpedNews.
It’s been said that the eyes are the window to soul. I doubt it.
I don’t doubt for a moment, however, that the words we speak or write convey the inner workings of our minds and hearts. There is no better way to know a person than to listen to that person speak, to know what they read or whom they admire: if you know these few things, you know everything that is truly important to know about that person.
Words, spoken and written, not only indicate whether a person is educated, cultured, kind or venal, they also demonstrate if thoughts are ordered and cognition is intact or impaired. The choice of words and their arrangement are used by physicians and other health experts to evaluate emotional as well as organic pathologies.
Throughout history words have had as much power as the sword. Words shape ideas and give them form; our ideas shape our deeds and give them meaning. Over two hundred years ago Edmund Burke wrote that words are an expression of our passions and have more power than any other art form. He believed words are the most powerful force on earth because they communicate ideas more effectively than any other form of expression.
Words have always been the kindling and the continued energy that fuel our actions. Revolutions have begun with words, men have been stirred to battle by words, and dictators have manipulated whole countries by words, creating the vilest justifications for the annihilation of millions. Words give testimony and sway juries and send people to their deaths.
We understand what it means to “give our word” and pledge on our honor (maybe our very souls) to speak the truth. We use words to convey our patriotism to our country and, of course, we worship our God with words, whether spoken publicly or whispered in our hearts. Words convey love and build trust. They also shape character and tender hearts; certainly we know our words shape our children and if we are wise we choose them carefully. We know our words offend and that is why we sometimes bite our tongues. We choose them well when we interview for jobs. People have been soothed and comforted by words and cautioned to exercise the angels of their better natures. Words have the power to mend and heal.
Words are so powerful that the US Supreme Court has even weighed in on their restriction — perhaps nowhere as famously as in the case of Schenck v. US when Chief Justice Holmes emphatically stated that no one has a right to cry fire in a crowded theatre and cause panic.
Words are the most valued commodity of our species, the hallmark of our humanity, the singularly most distinct difference between man and animals. It is absolutely indisputable that words possess immeasurable power to shape individuals as well as history.
And now the very people who have used words to ridicule, distort, misguide, discredit, and defame — the very people who have openly and gleefully demonized others, spoken freely about assassination as a political tool, even attacked the children of this country’s public servants and suggested that they be destroyed to end a tainted lineage, now speciously claim that words are harmless, they have no consequence.
Words, these arrogant and shameful people (and their pathetic followers) claim, are meaningless. It is with great indignation that they purport there is absolutely no possible nexus between the deeds of others and their own spoken words. They ask us to abandon the proofs of history, the dictates of civil societies, and even the wisdom of our own grandparents and believe instead that we should not hold them accountable or call them to task.
Indeed. How curious. How convenient. How utterly cowardly.
How I am so not surprised….
Their disclaimers beg the obvious question – if words mean nothing, if words do not influence people, then why do these people speak to us at all? Why do they have rallies and radio and television shows if not to influence people?
If words mean nothing, then why the hell are they always talking or writing articles and books?
Yes, indeed: why?
I love words; words intrigue me. They make me laugh and they move me to tears. They helped to educate me, and still do so. I am well aware that God has given me a talent for the written word, and to some extent the spoken one as well. I understand how to manipulate words to convey ideas and I absolutely understand the extent of my power over others because of this skill. I can paint many things many different hues. As a person trained in history I can shape perception, alter truth, and pass on falsehood under the guise of my credentials. If I choose, I can character assassinate someone and manipulate the gullible. And I can do so in such a way that it will all be very interesting to read, maybe even highly entertaining, and sound terribly credible.
Let me assure you that those people I call out today are at least as talented as I am and most likely far more so. They know exactly what they’ve done with their facility for language; make no mistake about it. All of us who have a mastery for language know this is absolutely so. We know it just as a surgeon knows the truths about another surgeon or a lawyer understands what the other lawyer is all about; we know it like cops understand cops and teachers know the power of their tools to teach. I understand the people who use language as a tool of their stock and trade and these public figures are no exception; they know just as well as I do the power the possess. Sarah Palin, for God’s sakes, actually claims to have a college degree in communications or a related field.
Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Phil Gramm and a painfully long list of others have profited commercially and politically by playing to the lowest common denominator in our national culture. Given the high road, they have chosen the low road. Given the truth, they have chosen distortion and deceit. Given an ability to calm and reassure, they have chosen to agitate and arouse. Given the merest hint of a political or other advantage, they have not been gracious in victory but savage in pursuing total annihilation.
This venality has been going on for a long time; let’s be clear about that. Here are but three of many quotes said during the Clinton presidency when two United States politicians and one the media’s most influential pundits declared it was open hunting season on a United States president and American citizens who happened to be Democrats and liberals:
“Get rid of the guy. Impeach him, censure him, assassinate him.” Representative James Hansen, Republican from Utah, referring to President Clinton
“We’re going to keep building the party until we’re hunting Democrats with dogs.” Senator Phil Gramm, Republican from Texas, Mother Jones, 08-95
“I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus – living fossils – so we will never forget what these people stood for.” Rush Limbaugh, Denver Post, 12-29-95
The following excerpt, taken from an article in the National Review written by John Derbyshire (02-15-01), probably has no equal in United States history, at least not in mainline journalism. Derbyshire’s outrageous rant — which was published as legitimate journalism — mirrors in sickening measure the anti-Semitic tirades of Adolph Hitler and his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Most striking, however, is that it also resurrects the flawed science of eugenics upon which the Nazis built their organic vision of the state. In this passage Derbyshire is not advocating for the extermination of a group but rather the child of a United States president, Chelsea Clinton. After a long deranged tirade against Bill and Hillary Clinton, Derbyshire proudly states, “I hate Chelsea Clinton.” Incredibly, he admits it is not “easy to justify” his loathing and acknowledges it is not very rational. Nonetheless, he blithely continues to spew his hate, as follows:
"Chelsea is a Clinton. She bears the taint; and though not prosecutable in law, in custom and nature the taint cannot be ignored. All the great despotisms of the past – I’m not arguing for despotism as a principle, but they sure knew how to deal with potential trouble – recognized that the families of objectionable citizens were a continuing threat. In Stalin’s penal code it was a crime to be the wife or child of an ‘enemy of the people.’ The Nazis used the same principle, which they called Sippenhaft, ‘clan liability.’ In Imperial China, enemies of the state were punished ‘to the ninth degree’: that is, everyone in the offender’s own generation would be killed and everyone related via four generations up, to the great-great-grandparents, and four generations down, to the great-great-grandchildren, would also be killed.”
The National Review identifies itself as “America’s most widely read and influential magazine and web site for conservative commentary, and opinion” and that is true. So, please understand: this disgusting rant was published in a mainline publication and this is what goes for journalism in conservative circles. At the time this article was published, Chelsea Clinton was not quite twenty-one and still a college student.
Derbyshire was fifty-six.
Now go back a read it again. Then ask yourself how safe any of us are in an environment that could allow such a thing to be published in a nationally read magazine. We’re talking about a young white woman, a citizen, and the daughter of two of the most powerful people in the world.
How safe are you?
Let’s roll out from under the rocks a few more astonishing examples of right wing Republican rhetoric:
“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” Ann Coulter, New York Observer, 08-26-02
“We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.” Ann Coulter, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, 02-26-02
In a remark that is truly ironic, Limbaugh drew a comparison between President Obama and Adolph Hitler: “Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook … Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate.” Rush Limbaugh, Aug. 6, 2009
And of course there’s the Mother of All Mouths, the right’s cultural icon of modern American motherhood, the one who likes to compare herself to animals instead of humans. (We should apologize to the animals.) Palin’s favorite metaphors are about hunting and putting people between the cross-hairs. Gabrielle Giffords, a duly elected Congresswoman married to a naval aviator and astronaut, was one of the people Palin offered up for target practice. You really have to ask yourself what the hell Palin or her handlers were thinking when they drew a map suggestive of guns, scopes, cross-hairs — yes, a well understood cultural image representing assassination.
Did Palin shoot the gun that maimed and killed in Tucson this past Saturday? Did Beck or Limbaugh or Derbyshire? Did Coulter or Gramm or the others?
But does that really mean we can draw no connection to that very sad event?
Before you decide, think about this:
There is not one scintilla of physical evidence linking Hitler or Goebbels to the actual murder of anyone.
Neither man ever shot a Jew in cold blood or shoved one into a boxcar or shower. I don’t think either one of them ever visited Buchenwald or Dachau or the Warsaw ghetto. I can’t find any historical proof that either man was ever present when a homosexual, Communist, gypsy or political dissenter was tortured or killed. They weren’t riding in jeeps or Panzers when Germany invaded another country either.
No, they were just somewhere else talking about it.
Would you argue that there was absolutely no connection between their words and the deeds of millions of German citizens?