16 September 2009

Of "Liar!" (and other blunt words)

For some time now, I've enjoyed a bitter running quarrel with today's political words. You know, those polite words that make up our ever-so-globally-enlightened modern public discourse. Nor am I in the least picky about which ones I don't like. They may be words Republican or Democrat; Tory or Labour; conservative or liberal - or libertarian. They may even be words whose message is radically individualist or collectivist. (I notice it is the radical varieties of these last two persuasions that seem to have the most Devil in the details).

Frankly, most of the time they all make me just a little sick - or at least a bit queasy. And I suppose that is because, for the most part, when I read today's public words, I seldom if ever get the sense that there's a decent human being behind them, such as tries to fear God and love her neighbor. And who allows, moreover, that occasionally even she may be mistaken.

I'll admit our modern words seem sharp and penetrating enough, until you try to use them to shed some real, living Light upon any living creature. It is then you discover that most of them are mostly worthless for the conveyance of any sentiment beyond rage, contempt and self-congratulation. Now this in itself need not be any reason for discouragement, much less journalistic despair. What it rather means, I hope, is that there's no telling what extraordinary things our commentators might discover, and write about - if for once they could step out of their ordinary verbal comfort zones. Imagine if any one of them tried to care half as much for real persons, places and things as for their own glorious ideas about them. Think what your own agenda for a particular country might look like, if for once you considered that - very likely - that place, and its people, have had a rich and busy existence well before even the birth of your agenda.

My own biggest issue with our modern public words is, I think, a very simple one. Somehow they never seem to go down deep enough. Seriously. Have you ever lived through a time, like these past 15 years or so, when political words made such a busy to-do of blustering and thundering about on the surface of life? When was the last time you read words that even scratched the surface of, say, Richard B Cheney? Or Michael Moore? Or William Jefferson Clinton? And not because any of these fellows is especially good or bad, or right or wrong, or politically correct or incorrect - but because they are all big, and troubled, and troubling human beings. Perhaps even men of Shakespearean dimensions. Not the sort of men whom Shakespeare necessarily would have much liked or admired, but ones he'd surely have found a great deal to write about. And about whom he would have chosen his words, and his thoughts, most carefully.

But how can we even think adequately about any subject, if we lack words human enough - and humanly encompassing, and compassionate, enough - to begin a civil conversation about it?

That is why, today more than ever, I believe we need big, excavating words - words that open up the things we are looking at, so that we may not only look, but descend, way down deep into the substance, and the mystery, of them. And here I mean the substance of . . . whatever it is we are talking about. Whatever thing, or person, or place. And I do mean human places here, as much as the human beings who inhabit them. Notice, however, I've said nothing about abstractions like ethnicity, or ideology, or religion, or civilization. Even a tiny, out-of-the-way, seemingly insignificant place is worth more than any of these big global things, because a place is where human beings don't just text and send, but live and die. It is, after all, the ground by which they came from God, and shall return to God. (And even the poorest human clay God saw fit to make is worth immeasurably more than the most infallible human ideology, or the most impregnable human civilization.) Above all, a place remains that setting where people can be most freely what God made them to be, most freely and abundantly human - in addition to all those later things (religion, ideology, technology, etc) they may try or want to make themselves. A place is the One Thing which demands that you learn to behave decently towards - and to think decently about - not just some virtuous like-minded person, halfway round the globe, with whom you sovereignly choose to connect, but also that possibly quite different person on the bus who just happens to be sitting next to you. Only in real space is there some reasonable hope of of there coming out of you all the Everything God first put in. Which is, in the final count, the only Way we shall ever be equipped to deal kindly with the people in front of us who fall contemptibly beneath our self-made expectations, and ideologies, and agendas. Yet once again, for that blessed result we will need not just any old mean, hard, kickass words, but the right ones.

But our public words aren't just too meager, and stripping, and bone-dry. They're much too severing - and binding. They chop here, they slice there, they tie and package everywhere. They do, in short, everything they can to get the specimen under examination most tightly crammed into the box of our preconceptions. Or worse still, of our ideological and - God help us all - organizational agendas.

Take two not-so-random examples from our recent political past: Adolf Hitler and H G Wells. Was the visionary, apocalyptic, futuristic Hitler only a man of the Left? or of the Right? Was he nothing more than a hyper-efficient racist, whose own personal Ku Klux Klan happened to seize the machinery of state? Or was he just a singularly single-minded patriot driven mad by the iniquities of the Versailles Treaty? And what of the supremely organization-minded, pro-business, anti-labor Wells? Was he merely a socialist? or a fascist? Or was he simply a frustrated liberal humanist, who could hardly be blamed if Man's Best Future had long ago outgrown and discarded capitalism and democracy? I doubt if any - or all - of these categories can even pretend to fathom the spiritual, the human complexity that was Hitler or Wells. Oh, I'm sure our clipped, tight, dismissive sentences can easily package and mail them both, and in less than a paragraph. But can they even begin to cut the strings - much less open the boxes - of who these two men were? Or of their real effects and influences, and legacies - and upon all of us?

So I repeat: Today more than ever the need is desperate for big, generous, embracing words and sentences. Words hearty enough to do something like justice, and mercy, to the real amplitude of human nature - its unsearchable, unexcavatable variety - and that often in just one human creature! Else I see no hope of our being able to understand and prepare for the things that are coming: both the things that can help us, and the things that threaten us. And here I want to include even the ugliest of human threats. Our present grudging, labeling, pigeonholing words will never do more than a rough justice, either to the vast, richly mysterious evil that was Hitler or Stalin - or to the yet more richly unfathomable good of which, in the right Hands, both might have been capable.

Let us work and pray, then, that our best words may also be searchlights: not only throwing into sharpest relief what buried or residual goodness may yet peep out of a human monster's soul, but isolating and exposing all the worst our monsters have made of themselves and our world. And by "the worst" I mean the entire infection of evil, from tiniest root to tip of outermost leaf. I mean everything that prevents our "worst" men and women - and the not-so-much-better rest of us! - from living, and finding pleasure in, the inconceivable Purpose for which you and I were first made. It's a daunting project - but as with everything we can always start out small, and humble. At the very least, it will require words rather more attentively quiet - and quietly discerning - than those with which lately we've become accustomed to wage our loud, denunciatory wars of Light against Darkness. Words which know how to listen as well as speak, and that speak so much the better for having listened. After all, even the purest evil has been known to assume, on occasion, all the quietness and subtlety of a serpent.

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