Politics is about power. Political rhetoric is about control over people’s thinking, decisions and behavior. Sometimes power comes from votes, sometimes from violence. No matter how power and control are won, the struggle begins with words and images.
Politicians use words to create images to persuade and cajole voters, to rouse and unify people, to uplift and praise or to condemn and vilify, to propose a vision or to besmirch. But the struggle for power and control always starts with words and images.
The Power Of Negative Speech
Representative Maxine Waters, an award-winning icon of Leftist political and emotional rhetoric, speaks openly of “knocking off” President Trump, words that have several meanings. Mrs. Waters says she does not encourage violence. Instead, she opts repeatedly for impeachment.
Ex-VP Joseph Biden, a life-long political fixture, refers to a minority of Trump followers as “dregs of society.” Hillary Clinton famously spoke of Trump followers as “a basket of deplorables.”
President Trump himself aggravates this contentious climate with his tart, often reckless, tweets, his tasteless name-calling and his cringe-worthy commentaries. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump is the focus of astonishing, often puerile, rage which psychologists call the Trump Derangement Syndrome.
And there’s more, much more … but you get the point.
Character assassination, the “borking” of opponents and deliberate, coordinated, fact-less destruction of others – this is mean stuff. Harsh words and crude images are not new to American history, but today’s public vitriol sets records for its intensity, and for the extent and frequency of its coverage.
The Longer View
Perhaps it is rash to take all this bitter political speech too seriously. Perhaps it is unfair to draw too many conclusions from these frothy political diatribes. Then, again, perhaps not.
Perhaps, on the other hand, we are really incautious by minimizing the impact of these exaggerations. Perhaps we are gravely remiss by shrugging off vicious words and images as unavoidable facts of life in our contentious culture.
Perhaps we err grievously by failing to recognize what these discrediting words and dissociative images are actually doing to America. Perhaps we should be deeply concerned about the long-term historical effect which destructive words and images of our political cults have already had upon our country. Perhaps we should be far more aware of what grimly righteous people have historically done to the “dregs” and the “deplorables” -- as well as to whole nations and peoples.
Perhaps we should be far more concerned about the sort of societies and governments which emerge from the polarizing discourse, the identity politics and the politically correct dogmas which we now seem, passively and detrimentally, to take for granted.
Perhaps, too, we are gravely remiss not to recognize the murderous parallels which history and common sense offer us.
Or have we Americans abandoned our regard for truth and accepted the virus of relativism as our national standard. In short, what sort of people are we Americans becoming?
History Is Clear
If we take history seriously and if we study the social and moral impact of vicious political rhetoric, a clear theme emerges.
Continued use of derogatory words and demeaning images slowly but surely constructs a piety of political demagoguery and moral destruction, characterized by centralized power and punitive controls. The inevitable consequences are widespread loss of moral rights and brutal dehumanization regulated by atheistic leadership.
Polarization by definition creates a “We-They” dichotomy. “We” become encapsulated in our womb of righteousness, numb to the humanity of the “Other.” The “Other” becomes an inhumane villain bringing havoc and suffering to “Us.”
The Hard Questions
“We” deepen our legitimacy by repetition which deadens our moral acuity. Character assassination, defamation, calumny and detraction, distortion, half-truths and lies becomes our norms. Truth and reality are re-defined according to our power needs. We pound away with words and images which demonize the opposition as “deplorables” and “dregs,” worthy of being “knocked off.” “They” want to put us all in chains, we are told.
BUT --- when “We-They” polarities are sanctioned by elected leaders and media, what outcomes can we logically expect from such deliberately divisive language? What kind of society emerges from aggressive rants, endless accusations and morally numbing rhetoric? What happens to people in this scenario? What happened to Robert Bork? What happened at Nuremburg in 1934?
History offers us ample answers – but the battering rhetoric continues especially from Progressive political persons. Even to this day we see the excessive, distorted Progressive abuse of words and the desecration of truth in service to callous power. We see violent ideological character assassination eclipse evidence, facts, decency, simple honesty and basic morality.
The Dreadful Facts
I have seen -- first-hand -- the outcomes of ideological power and its handmaiden, divisive, condemnatory rhetoric. The two major examples in our lifetimes are Marxist Socialism (Communism) and National Socialism (Nazism). In recent history, these socialist systems started with polarizing words and dehumanizing images which eventually resulted in persecution, slavery and death to uncounted hundreds of millions of innocent human beings.
Both Communism and National Socialism were (and still are) fueled by atheistic zeal, codified by state control of every aspect of society: business and industry, production and distribution, education and leisure, marriage and family. Even abortion becomes politically mandated as human dignity becomes expendable.
Marxist Communism in Daily Life
In 1989 I was invited to present a paper at a conference in Warsaw, Poland. Communism was still iron-firm in Poland. On arrival in Warsaw, foreigners’ passports were closely examined as secret police stood close by.
The skyline of Warsaw was dominated by the Palace of Culture, a ghastly structure built by the occupying Soviets. But the side streets still held the intriguing ambiance of centuries-old culture and glorious architecture, a reminder of Poland’s position at the crossroads of Europe.
Later, as I looked up at newer apartment buildings, I noticed many broken windows. Replacement glass was unavailable; the industrial base of Poland had been looted, stripped of machinery, shipped to the Soviet Union.
I could not walk a city block without seeing construction sites unfinished for lack of materials. Abandoned autos littered every street; no spare parts were available. Drivers simply walked away when their cars stalled and would not start again.
I saw block-long lines of unemployed men, dozens of depressed men -- isolated by their futility, sitting silently on the curbs, feet in the gutter, heads in their hands, wreathed in the reeking smoke of impossibly strong Soviet cigarettes -- without a word being said, without a single exchange of support or a glance of friendship.
But the most poignant moment of my Warsaw stay occurred as I was checking out of my small hotel. As the front desk clerk, a young woman of perhaps 23, returned my passport, she quietly said to me, "America must be a wonderful place." I said yes, it is … and I asked why she thought so. She looked around furtively, eyeing a sour, darkly-dressed man across the lobby, then whispered to me, "In America you do not have to be afraid."
Auschwitz: National Socialism In Action
I then flew to Krakow, a stunningly beautiful city whose ancient appeal and beauty were marred by thick bus fumes and auto smog which swirled around my knees like sticky fog. One day, strolling the city center, I noticed a long line outside a department store. The store shelves were completely empty. The people were not shopping for clothes; they waited to buy toilet paper (two-roll maximum). The toilet paper had the texture of sandpaper.
A few days later, I traveled to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp which opened in 1940. You have probably seen photos of the main gate to the entrance of the administration area. Over the gate, in large German lettering, the infamously cynical words, "Arbeit macht frei" (“work will make you free”) still hover.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau cluster of camps are vast. I spent days walking the gravel paths of Auschwitz. It is an eerie place, silent, exuding sadness and madness and unholy despair. As I realized that almost two million persons were slaughtered here, instinctively I removed my hat -- and I whispered.
At one point, I came across a family gathered silently around an aged woman who had fallen to the ground. She was an elderly Jewish grandmother, weeping helplessly in the dust where she had fallen, so drained was she by her grief that she could not stand. She had once been a prisoner in this wretched place. Now, she was visiting the prison of her confinement half-a-century earlier.
Despite the years, she was still in deep mourning … as she had been all her adult life; still mourning her family who had been murdered here .. but for some unknown reason, she lived. Now, her sobs were swallowed by her grief, stifled by her overwhelming sorrow. She could only rock back and forth, back and forth, heaving in the dust. No sound could break free of her, so thoroughly entwined was she by her grieving.
Her relatives knelt helplessly at her side, attempting to hold her, to embrace her, to somehow comfort her as she mourned the long-ago loss of her loved ones, as grievous to her heart now as then … but she was held fast by her sorrow, by her sorrow so deep that nothing -- not time nor fading memory nor the helpless, futile consolations of those around her -- could possibly ease or lessen it.
Never have I seen such profound sorrow without end.
Later, I saw the workshops of Dr. Josef Mengele. He experimented on children and supervised a series of unbelievable experiments on Jews and war prisoners. Some of his victims lingered in agony for months. I saw some of Mengele’s hand-written records (the Nazi genocidal temperament was much given to detailing atrocities) and photos of his work -- the horror of which cannot adequately put into words.
In the same building, Mengele oversaw torture rooms in the basement. The wooden cell doors were four inches thick. Some doors still bore ridges clawed into the wood by the fingernails of those in torment. One particularly horrible practice was to jam people (some upside down) into a cell the size of a refrigerator, then leave them to suffocate. And I saw the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who voluntarily substituted himself for another prisoner -- and was poisoned in his stead.
I saw the wooden pillars in the yard to which three prisoners were tied at one time. The first was shot in the head with the intention of the bullet killing all three. The idea was to save ammunition, a perverse, revolting frugality.
In the camp offices I saw walls covered with photos of wide-eyed, terrified Jewish children, some as young as eight, dressed in striped prisoner’s uniforms, their tiny heads shaved to the skull. Beneath each child’s photo was printed the "crime" of which these children were guilty: “Enemy of the State.”
Nearby, floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted rooms were filled with gold teeth and hair and reading glasses and suitcases still unopened, shoes piled to the ceiling; on and on … timeless remnants of so many human beings who had died here so cruelly, so namelessly. I could but wonder and wonder, over and over: who were these persons? Who were they? Could it have been me and my loved ones? Let me not forget…ever.
I saw what remains of the Auschwitz crematoria, the ovens into which countless bodies of people were thrown after being killed in gas chambers nearby; ovens which eventually broke down because of over-use.
Auschwitz is hallowed ground --- and yet it remains a place as close to Hell as one can imagine on this earth. But history tells us that it was -- is -- only one of countless such institutions – the concentration camps and the gulags -- built by Marxism and National Socialism … and by those whose moral identity is defined only by power and ego.
And For Us … What?
Inhumane ideologies and destructive words and deceptive images flourish today, even in our midst. Their outcomes stand as reminders, often unheeded, of what we humans are capable of doing to one another when our harsh words and damning images and mindless assent eventually lead to God-less insensitivity and a chic politics of brutality for power’s sake.
If -- as is happening in America and the West -- we worship only ourselves and everything is relative to only our own whims …..
… and if we continue to embrace the atheistic dogmas of Progressivism and the identity politics of the politically correct Marxist mind …
… and if we accept the dehumanizing principles of the Left and thereby dismiss the reality of our common fallen nature …
… we will again pay a dreadful, toxic price.
History is clear. If we continue to disregard the limits of our created nature and refuse to revere God in humble reality …
… and if we ignore the commandment to love God and our neighbor and refuse to honor life, rather than degrade it …
… and if we ignore divine laws which (whether we like it or not) are intended to govern all our human affairs …
… then we will, once again, create places where misery overcomes all else (except, perhaps, a sense of waning hope).
Evil is a reality. So is Goodness -- but Goodness has many enemies.
Goodness starts with each one of us. Goodness is a choice. Goodness needs us if it is to thrive over evil … for it is we who will eventually choose one -- or the other.
As John Steinbeck wrote, there is only one question at life’s end: Was mine a life of goodness?