September 28th, 2015
Over the summer, I wrote “Words Really Do Matter” – a cautionary missive for those of us who earn our livelihoods with our words. Much of this was targeted to fellow members of the National Speakers Association – some of whom seemed to object to being challenged by those whose narratives included political mandates. My rebuttal: Our charge must be to engage with a seriousness of purpose and not simply entertain. En passant, I called for some greater self-discipline in political discourse.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if that had an impact, but in fact, the character of public discourse has only deteriorated since then. [Don’t misunderstand, I have no illusion that any of the principals have ever heard of me, let alone read my writings.] What concerns me these days is that the level of honesty in that discourse has sunk to despicable new lows; that some are now arguing that what our Declaration of Independence and Constitution consider inalienable rights should be decided by popular vote; that private religious belief and practice, guaranteed by our constitution, should be imposed on the public at the whim of individual believers; that no-nothingness – as in anti-vax and anti-climate change – should be given equal weight in education as scientific consensus; that public insults about size, looks, and pretty much anything else can be offered with impunity; that victims should shoulder the blame as well as bear the burden of their own victimhood…
Each one by itself represents a violation of civility. Taken together they represent a profound erosion of a commitment to civil society seen only in totalitarian regimes. It is scary out there.
I know that reasoned exchange is never as catchy as simplistic extremism; that societal anomie and anger is easier to manipulate for political gain than offering real solutions; that a changed and dangerous world is disruptive and unsettling for too many; that social injustices and economic disparities are glaring threats to stability and play into the hands of demagogues. We are paying the price for elected officials who reject governing; for long term underinvestment in education for our most at-risk populations; for a misguided understanding of American exceptionalism, the same hubris that has dismantled every previous empire in world history; and for being far too slow to root out the deepest hatreds of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and its latest manifestation, anti-Islamism [I don’t like Islamophobia since the word means fear, when we should be calling it what it is, a form of hatred.]
A version of this post was about to be published just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to the USA. If the affect and feeling of the previous paragraphs suggest a sense of deep despair, that would be a correct reading. But in the immediate aftermath of that extraordinary visit to Washington, New York City and Philadelphia, it seems appropriate to revisit those feelings. What was extraordinary to observe over the several days was Pope Francis’ unwavering demonstration of caring and effective leadership. Unafraid to challenge the deepest self-destructive impulses in the USA and the bureaucratic obstructionism in the UN, he quietly, powerfully, effectively called for values of compassion and caring over self-aggrandizement and radical autonomy. He did so with no troops, no great dramatic gestures, and no real political power. But he did model the power of soft-spoken authentic conviction, small symbolic yet humbly authentic acts, a palpable sense of transcendent presence and the courage to address the most existential challenges of our time.
A story I told on Facebook just after it happened: I attended a large interfaith gathering outside of the UN to express support for the signing of the important revised Sustainability Goals. When it ended I walked the 30 blocks to our home. There was little choice since traffic was simply at a standstill, but pedestrians were able to move – until I got to 64th Street. There the sidewalks and streets were fully blocked and many hundreds of us were held in place by the police barricades. If you know New Yorkers, that would not be welcomed cheerfully. However, two minutes later, the Papal motorcade drove by and I saw something rare: all of these hundreds and hundreds of cynical and world-weary New Yorkers who just happened to be at that intersection erupted in a spontaneous cheer and applause. Every cell phones snapped away and when I continued on my way, all I could hear around me was person after person telling someone of their remarkable serendipitous experience. No it was not the same as happening upon a political leader, or even a well-known sports star or celebrity. This was something so universal, and genuine in these responses. That is leadership, and, as we have seen, that is how one uses words and actions to enable change worth making.
It remains to be seen if this visit was simply a flickering light in a political world gone far too dark or the dawn of a sunrise that can purify the soul and cleanse the spirit. The early evidence is mixed – there are those who wasted no time in distancing themselves from the message and, with one notable exception, there has been little reason to see a diminution in the nonsensical and divisive rhetoric from too many aspiring politicians. Will a nation, of all faiths or none in thrall to this insist that this behavior and these words unacceptable for those wishing to be leaders? As Pope Francis has returned to the Vatican, we have been shown a better way to lead… and to speak. As we have said, words really do matter.