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The Power in Words

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“I have a dream today.” Martin Luther King spoke and a nation listened, began its slow march to change. His words spoke not of new ideals, new ways to approach life, or anything of the sort. His words merely echoed those that had already been put to paper, in the Constitution of this nation, in such a way that they would be more easily understood, and could absolutely not be denied. The purpose for Dr. King’s speeches could be easily summed up in the words of Thomas Jefferson, speaking to the purpose of the Constitution: “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…”

These are two men separated by nearly one-hundred fifty years, and yet they both understood that words had the power to change the world. One crafted the birth of a nation that would go on to be the greatest power in the world, the other charted a course for the liberty of an entire people. Both commanded the attention they needed to achieve their goals through their words.

Robert F. Kennedy was set to give a campaign speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Instead, it fell to him to announce the tragedy to the gathered crowd. He did, at great personal risk to himself, and went on to speak eloquently about the need for understanding in the United States, the need for everyone to make a greater effort. As riots raged and fires burned throughout most of the major cities of the US that night, as all across the country frustration and bitterness swept up into the dangerous realm of hate, Indianapolis was quiet. The power of Kennedy’s words, beautiful and wise beyond what the moment should have allowed, brought some measure of solace to the aggrieved, and hate could not stand against it.

When Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the world listened, and later a wall that had for so long divided fell. The power in his words, their strength along with the unquestionable right in them, changed the world. And yet, when Reagan spoke at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, of the tragedy of all the lost life there, the words of another penetrated his otherwise impervious demeanor. As the Republican president read the words of Anne Frank, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart,” his voice faltered, overcome by the profound meaning in the words of a young girl: faced with even the worst hatred, which destroyed millions of lives, hope still lived on. And those simple words moved a man who would dare to topple a great symbol of oppression.

The hatred that claimed the life of Anne Frank and millions of others whose only crime was to exist, was born in the twisted mind of Adolf Hitler. Today, only the most marginalized sections of society would openly embrace Hitler’s doctrine, but in the first half of the twentieth century he’d built an empire that took a great alliance of nations to defeat. He did not do this by hiding his beliefs, by hiding the awful truth of what he wanted to achieve. Instead, he used his great power for words to convince others, a great many others, that their neighbors were inferior to them, and that their very proximity was a threat. The heartless executions of nearly twenty million men, women, and children could never have been carried out by one man alone, no matter the depths of his evil. Instead, powerful words of hatred shaped the hearts and minds of a great many people to believe there was some noble purpose in the most heinous acts.

Words have forever changed the course of the world, for good and ill. They have moved nations toward progress as well as ruin, moved people toward freedom as well as destruction, moved individuals to stand as beacons of hope for order in the world, or as agents of its demise.

It is with this knowledge that I have to question why, in the wake of our latest national tragedy, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of several innocent bystanders, those who spread the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness have been given a pass. There is absolutely no way a person can say anyone’s words inspired Jared Loughner to do the horrible thing he did, but for any and all criticism of hateful rhetoric to be shoved aside, for the media to allow such criticism to be branded as nothing more than political attacks just as hateful in their own right, is a travesty. It is acceptance for corporate-sponsored hate speech.

Today, political pundits are available to audiences twenty-four hours a day. They appear on cable news around the clock, they harp on talk radio for several hours a day, and they blog online. They are more readily accessible to the public than our leaders, and their words travel farther, faster. They must be held to the same standard for the consequences of those words as the men and women they decry on a daily basis. If confronted with accusations of bias, any pundit will fall back on the defense that they are not newspeople, and thus are not held to the same standard. As such, they should not be granted the same freedom of the press.

Some would say this is an issue of free speech, rather than press, but I don’t think it applies here. A man is allowed to say whatever he chooses to say, so long as it doesn’t endanger anyone. Nobody is allowed to shout “fire” in a movie theater, because it puts people at risk in a panicked situation. Too, while a man certainly is allowed to voice his beliefs, no matter how twisted and hateful they may be, the first amendment does not grant him corporate-sponsored means to spread his hatred.

When, following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Rush Limbaugh said the Democratic Party “… openly wishes for such disaster in order to profit from it,” he made a conscious decision to forego benevolence in favor of belligerence, to continue his ongoing message of divisiveness, the “us versus them” mentality that RFK so eloquently decried as wasteful and beneath us. And the outcry against his message never came.

Glenn Beck has called the President of the United States a fascist, a communist, a socialist, and said that the beginning of his presidency was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler. He’s said that Democrats and liberals want to come into your home and take your guns away from you. He’s said that people have to stand up and resist these efforts. It’s not hard to see how, subjected to these messages five days a week, for the several hours a day Beck is on radio and TV, someone who is even only a little unbalanced could be moved to believe there would be cause for them to do something terrible. And yet, any mention of this in the public discourse is immediately shouted down as politically motivated.

Sarah Palin wrote in an e-mail to Beck, “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.” Those words are not a condemnation of dirty politics or hateful rhetoric, not a call for people to join together for greater understanding. They’re a political defense. Six people lie dead but she did not call for reason in the political debate, dared not admit that some tactics in the political realm go way over the line and that it may help some already disturbed people justify awful actions. Instead, she looked out for her own political image and future, because that’s how we pay respect to the dead in today’s world of politics.

Words have always had great power, and always will. We must hold ourselves responsible for the consequences of our own words, and too I think, we must hold public figures responsible for theirs, because they will clearly not shine that divining light upon themselves.

I choose not to accept words of hatred, not to allow them into my heart. And, because of that, I choose to end with another passage from Anne Frank’s diary.

“I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder which will destroy us, too. I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet if I looked up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Eight months later, Anne Frank was killed, but in her words lies the dormant hope in us all, waiting to be awakened, that things can be made better, that good can win out over evil, and that understanding can overcome hatred. From words, hopeful or hateful, unifying or divisive, action is born.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Think, Don’t Feel

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“Today is a very sad day. The commandant of the United States Marine Corps says when your life hangs on the line, you don’t want anything distracting.” Words spoken by John McCain, in response to the repeal of the US Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward homosexuals.

I’m sad to say I once respected John McCain.

He continued, “There will be high-fives over all the liberal bastions of America.” And from there, he ranted as though all the most recent polls suggested the American people were opposed to a repeal (they weren’t), or that the studies into the effects of a repeal brought back bad news (they didn’t).

McCain’s opposition is based on the idea that some soldiers will have problems with known homosexuals in their ranks. And some of them will, no question about it. Mostly, I imagine, the same ones that have problems with women in their ranks, or think there’s no problem feeling them up every now and again, no matter their protests.

It is this type of soldier that sort of thinking wants to protect. The bigoted, the hateful, the intolerant. I choose to believe those soldiers aren’t nearly as prevalent in our fighting forces as McCain and his ilk would like us to believe. And if they are, I don’t want to hear our armed forces referred to as “the best and the brightest” ever again, because slaves to any form of bigotry are not the best and brightest anything.

During the Bush years, Democrats were branded as not only opposed to our military, but it was suggested they might actually hate our fighting men and women. Of course, I don’t believe that. But McCain’s statements, and all those who agree with him, show that a wing of the Republican party certainly thinks very little of the moral worth of those same soldiers, and puts the lie to any claim of their own personal morality.

To suggest a man must keep his true self a secret in order to have the privilege to die for his country is to spit in the face of everything our country has accomplished, including its birth.

This nation was originally populated by men and women that didn’t want to hide their religious beliefs in the face of an intolerant ruler. America was born of people that could not pretend they were something they were not. We fought a war to earn that right, and again we fought so that men of any color would forever be men all the same. Women fought their own battle to be considered equals, and while the fronts of sex and race still have their struggles, we’ve come a long way. But, both battles had to begin on a shaky first step.

This is that shaky step for yet another front in a war that must be won, a war of equality for everyone, no matter their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, or their religious beliefs.

Agents of intolerance (a term McCain used for the likes of Falwell and his ilk, before running for president and pandering to them) would have us believe a soldier’s ability to fight will somehow be compromised by his inherent bigotry toward his own brother-in-arms, as if a man can’t trust another man in the heat of battle because he’ll suddenly be worried about whether or not that man is checking out his ass. Or what? That there will be distractions during non-combat times? And who will those distractions come from? From the homosexual who just wants to be comfortable being himself? Or from an intolerant soldier who wants to bring some sort of harm to him?

We don’t ban women from wearing alluring clothes to protect the despicable rapists that might not be able to control themselves. We don’t ban black men and women from white, southern neighborhoods to spare the few racists there the sight of their skin. We don’t ban people from opening stores because it might tempt a thief. Why then, in this case, should we legislate based on the possible actions of the lowest common denominator?

The answer is simple: because the Republican party has resisted every first step toward progress for minorities of every make and model. It’s built into them, the need to protect the intolerant from the ones they hate, rather than the other way around.

Homosexuals are one of the the last bastions of mostly acceptable hatred. Bigots that don’t want to be tabbed bigots aren’t allowed to openly hate women or blacks anymore, but gays have been mostly alright to hate. They can talk about the legalization of gay marriage leading to the destruction of heterosexual marriage with absolutely no evidence of such, and say it would lead to people marrying animals and children, and somehow they don’t become completely marginalized when they say these things. Jerry Falwell can blame the events of 9-11 on gays, among others, and be invited to the White House to council then-President Bush. That is an open acceptance of hate-speech, courtesy of the most powerful Republican in the world at the time.

A person doesn’t have to wrap an arm around his neighbor and sing “We Are the World”, doesn’t have to like any other person at all, doesn’t even have to expunge from their mind all their ridiculous prejudices. But, a person is absolutely never justified to bring pain, be it from actions or words, into the life of another whose only crime is to be true to themselves.

But on this issue, an issue that holds human beings to a higher moral standard, something the conservative movement claims to be in favor of, a man like John McCain mindlessly regurgitates the usual rhetoric about liberals, and deigns to protect those with closed minds and fists. Instead of striving to eliminate open acts of intolerance, John McCain and those opposed to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, would rather protect those stuck in the past from being brought into the future. Well done.


Words from men who didn’t live in the past, but dreamed of a brighter future:

Written by oobiedoo

December 28, 2010 at 1:19 am