Friday, January 22, 2010

Words Matter

In “The Wordy Shipmates,” Sarah Vowell writes about the beautiful words of the Puritans who founded Boston. It was John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts who compared America to a “city on a hill.” The idealistic and lovely words of the Puritans were at odds with many of their actions. Winthrop proposed a society based on biblical principles, where each person would take care of the other, a religious welfare state. (As Vowell points out, if you want to see such a society, go to Canada.) Winthrop, the eloquent preacher, punished a man who spoke against religion by cutting off his ears. Winthrop banished Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and condoned the massacre of seven hundred Pequot Indians, including women and children. His talk was pretty, though.

Words do matter. I recently attended a large Protestant church in the area with a friend of mine. During the sermon, the pastor gave an illustration that involved Jewish refugees. His comment was not anti-Semitic--- if it had been, I would have left the service—but it was insensitive. This pastor believed that Christianity was superior to Judaism, a chauvinism I do not share. I would have a hard time going back to that church, even though the music is excellent. I don’t believe that one religion is better than another, or that one country is the greatest country on earth. That is tribal prejudice.

The same week, the owner/manager of a charity where I had been volunteering yelled at me like I was an incompetent three year old. Now, I was a volunteer there. I had been for almost a year, and she had never thanked me. She yelled at me. I haven’t been back. I don’t like to be the kind of hypersensitive guy that bristles every time someone looks cross-wise at me. But words matter.

It’s been a week of disappointment for liberal and patriots. A Republican took Ted Kennedy’s seat in the senate. The Supreme Court decided that corporations should have the free speech right to contribute unlimited amounts to political candidates. It’s easy to believe there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. At least Dems say the right words, even when they don’t deliver. Words matter.

I’m a descendant of Puritans. My ancestor, Exercise Conant (there’s a catchy name!) came to America in 1623 on the ship Anne. He and his brother, Lot, built the first house in Salem. By the time of the War of 1812, my forebears had discarded their religion. But, like most Americans, I nonetheless share the Puritan legacy. Sarah Vowell writes of Reagan’s interpretation of John Winthrop’s speech. Reagan changed the words slightly, and spoke of the “shining city on a hill.” Reagan said some lovely words, but his actions were perverse. Reagan slashed the budget of H.U.D. (Housing and Urban Development) from $32 billion in 1981 down to $7.5 billion in 1988. It was during Reagan’s presidency that we began to have the epidemic of homelessness. Reagan had the gall to say, in 1984, that people were “homeless, you might say, by choice.” No. They were homeless because Reagan slashed H.U.D. funding.

Actions matter. Eliminating school lunch programs, increasing Pentagon spending, slashing social services--- those are inexcusable actions. Saying that the homeless live on the streets by choice is both stupid and cruel. Words matter. Calling America a “city on a hill,” a light to the nations, when you slaughter Indians and import African slaves is a sham. In her autobiography for her children, medieval Jewish mystic Gluckel of Hameln wrote, “God forbid that you should give out to people that you are one thing, but in your heart you are another.” Hypocrisy is when our words don’t match our actions. God knows I’ve said and done my share of stupid and cruel things, and for that, I am sorry. Words matter, and actions matter. When a country or institution lies, or is hypocritical, it’s sad. Calling America the “city on a hill” or “shining city on a hill” is problematic when that country tortures, ignores the Magna Carta and Constitution, and engages in unlimited war. It’s odd to claim superiority for one religion when that same religion has a bloody history.

We’ve got to pay attention to our words, and make sure they match our actions. God forbid we give out to people we are one thing, when in our heart we are another. Saying pretty words doesn’t undo the crimes of history. If our words are lies, maybe we should just keep our mouths closed for a few decades till we can get out house in order.

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