We watched the State of the Union address last night. We watch those speeches no matter who occupies the White House, and though the words rarely move the needle for change, there is still a sense of watching history unfold.
Whether we’re standing in ovation or scowling in our seats (like some of our celebrated representatives in Congress), we never expect to hear a speech that will make us richer or wiser. Politicians are not in the business of giving information we can use. They know we don’t like to be bothered with details. We just want them to make us feel good.
But feeling good has become a zero sum equation in America. If one group of partisans feels good, it’s necessary for their opposite to feel bad. As the republicans applauded President Trump’s statement about unemployment among African Americans being at an historic low, the cameras panned to a group of black representatives and democrats sitting in stony silence.
Like many of you reading this today, they probably knew that official unemployment numbers are meaningless when calculated independently of labor force participation, which is also near historic lows. Democrats only recognize that fact when republicans are in power, and vice versa.
Some of us want to believe that words are important, but in modern times the economy of words suffers inflation like the economy of money. Words and dollars are both cheaper by the dozen, and the vastly inflated money supply is matched by the volume of words circling the globe.
In recent years the weeping angels of western civilization have attempted to revalue certain words with bigger denominations. We have “trigger” words now, and we have to be careful that our inclusive and gender neutral words are understood within the proper context of identity and privilege. And culture. And religion. And political affiliation.
It’s confusing. We don’t like being offended, but we spend an inordinate amount of time taking offense from words, and trying to ferret out any hidden meaning or subtle offense hidden between the lines. We draw word boundaries around ourselves and dare people to offend us.
It is unfortunate for our feelings as well as our bank accounts that we have become so hypersensitive, almost allergic, to words. Some of us are so busy being “triggered” that we have trouble understanding what people say, and we are oblivious to what they actually do. Mr. Trump, for example, has kept the echo chamber so occupied with being outraged and signalling virtue that few are noticing the long lasting changes, for good or for ill, that he is bringing to the judicial landscape and the administrative state.
Many of us have become poorer during all these years of wordy distraction. If our goal is to be offended (and poor) we don’t need to do anything differently, but if we want to be better informed, we need to learn to assign proper value to words, especially where our great leaders are concerned. We need to pay much less attention to what they say, and much more to what they do.
How can we learn the true value of words when so much of the business of politics and broadcasting is dependent on keeping us offended? Perhaps a small shock to the system will broaden our perspective. The following are quotes from people honored by history and popular culture. All have been praised for what they did, and some for what they said. Try to guess who made the statement before we tell you at the end of the quote, and remember, no one can offend you without your permission. In their own words:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Abraham Lincoln.
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” Theodore Roosevelt said that.
“Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race.” This quote is from birth control activist, Margaret Sanger.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Candidate Donald Trump
“…we have to send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.” Hillary Clinton speaking about her book, “Hard Choices.”
Finally, to quote someone who appears in pixel land as another political savior on the horizon, “I said this for apartheid South Africa, I said this for my own community in the South — there are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.” Oprah Winfrey said that.
Should we judge these people by what they said, or by what they accomplished? Do we understand the context of their statements? In considering their careers and the body of work they produced, do we accept into evidence only those words that are misguided and impolitic, or do we give equal value to what is uplifting and constructive?
Did any of these random quotes reveal a flaw in someone we once venerated? Do we now see evil intent behind everything they said and did, or do we try to rationalize their mistakes? Do we rationalize only for the people we like? Going forward, if someone we don’t like does something good, can we recognize it? Or will we fail to recognize bad actions camouflaged by words that make us feel good?
Yes, words are important, but like our fiat currency they only have the value we give them. In politics, and especially in the nation’s capital, words are almost meaningless. The only thing that counts there is action, and distracted by words, we are increasingly blind to it.