Of all the powers in which I have placed my faith, my deepest and most lasting allegiance is to the power of speech. I eat, breathe, and sleep words. When I am lucky enough to happen on it, the delicious taste of le mot juste fills my mouth like melting chocolate. If words had volume, mine would surely have raised a mountain by now. If I were paid by the word (as I occasionally am), I would feel rich.
So I was really interested when, during Yom Kippur services at a politically progressive congregation, the rabbi spoke of some activists’ disappointment with President Obama. “It’s not about expecting him to get all kinds of progressive legislation passed,” he said, “that’s not entirely up to him. But people want to hear him say the things that need saying. Even if he can’t get the right laws passed, they want him to reflect social justice values back to the country.” They want him to use the “bully pulpit” to express those values.
And so do I. Before the 2008 election, it was candidate Obama’s words that excited me. I started blogging in favor of his election a year before he took office, before many people considered him a viable candidate. When I glance over the increasingly impassioned essays I posted in the run-up to the election and inauguration, I understand that what reached me is precisely what the rabbi meant. Candidate Obama’s way of addressing deep cultural issues stood out from other politicians. He seemed to be expressing his own thoughts and feelings; his face shone with intelligence; he conveyed an impression of wholeness, of full dimensionality, that seemed unique in a field of prefab politicians.
Because I value words so much, I have a little collection of quotations warning me to beware getting carried away with my passion. From Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day (“I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions”) to Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (“We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions”), we are cautioned to pay attention to whether people practice what they preach.
So I recognize that words can deceive, but also, that if we listen closely enough, there is something in us that usually knows when we are being fooled. The great James Baldwin said this in a 1984 interview: “I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.”
Nowadays, the President mostly repeats the conventional phrases typical of the politicians he ran against. I recognize that there is legitimate debate to be had—a dialectic, if you will—between the people who praise him for having pushed through some type of healthcare reform, some type of financial reform, however imperfect, and those disappointed that he has not taken on urgent progressive commitments, such as addressing the unemployment epidemic through public sector job creation.
But while that debate is going on, I really wish President Obama would raise his voice to criticize what Paul Krugman has called “the rage of the rich,” before it results it an extension of Bush-era tax cuts that trigger further cuts in necessary social spending down the line. (See this well-researched piece by Anthony DiMaggio to understand exactly how it would help to let the tax cuts expire on schedule.)
Here’s a little something President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to say on the subject in 1936:
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
President Obama has already urged letting the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year. But I want to hear the words that cut through the cant like a knife, and I don’t think I’m the only one.
Whether or not it is right to judge by deeds alone, words matter. How many broken hearts first cracked over a partner’s unwillingness or inability to utter the words “I love you?” How many family dramas turn on a scene like the following? Mom comforts a weeping child, saying, “Daddy is so proud of you, honey. He just has a hard time saying it.” Can words precipitate deeds? You bet. How much good would it do for the President to speak forthrightly and passionately of the role of the angry rich in our current national logjam? Think back to the words that got you elected, President Obama. Just say it, and let us all find out.
I’ve been revisiting the late, great Mississippi blues musician Skip James. Though not one of his best-loved songs, the one that has been calling me lately is “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues,” a musical thank-you note to the medical professionals who extended care to the impoverished James (and this being the blues, a shout-out to a faithless woman who didn’t). In his otherworldly, plaintive voice, James repeats a half-dozen variations on this straightforward assertion of compassion’s root in understanding:
Yes, I was a good man
But I’m’s a po’ man
It would be good to hear the President say he understands, using words that pass Baldwin’s truth test. It wouldn’t stop any of us from pushing him to act on his words, probably harder than he wants to be pushed. But the rabbi was right: it would really, really help to hear them.