Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: End the rhetoric
Vail, CO, Colorado
In this New Year, let’s emulate statesmen rather than political hacks. Statesmen dismantle opponents’ arguments; hacks destroy enemies’ reputations. Statesmen advance cogent arguments; hacks whack away at opposition, committing character assassination. Statesmen sound civil; hacks grovel in verbal gutters cluttered with what’s snarky, sarcastic and snide.
Mixing histrionics with hilarity to score cheap points tempted some founding fathers. After Thomas Jefferson defeated him in the presidential election of 1800, John Adams retreated to his farm at Quincy, Mass., to heal political wounds. But they kept festering, even when John wielded a scythe, working alongside hired hands at harvest. He harrumphed against Alexander Hamilton and Tom Paine. Clenching the few teeth he had left, Adams cursed political enemies. Wife Abigail, who sometimes roused John’s volcanic personality, advised him to throw Jefferson in the rogues’ gallery.
Hurling harsh rhetoric against those with whom we disagree entices. Righteous rage feeds aggression. Radio talk show hosts from the far left and rigid right know that to keep an audience tuned in and roused to spout off, they must be snarky. Use weasel words to denounce. Bludgeon opponents by teasing them. Kill them with kindness that drips in sarcasm.
In my youth, I learned from the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) there’s more than one way to kill. It doesn’t take more than a tilted voice, a scorning stare, or a slouch in response to an opponent who’s a mental slacker.
The Heidelberg Catechism is a compendium of Christian belief. It frames implications of what the Bible succinctly teaches. Take the commandment, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). Is this limited to pulling a trigger so that a slug stops another’s heartbeat?
“No,” declares the Heidelberg Catechism, using a question-answer format as an effective teaching method. It explores ramifications of how we kill. Some murder with guns. Most law-abiding citizens kill with snarky looks and toxic lingo. Question 105: “What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment” (You shall not kill)?
Answer: “I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor — not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds — and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge.”
Ouch! Implications of what it means to kill indict each of us. Who hasn’t nursed a grudge, rather than making amends? Who hasn’t mocked an opponent? Who doesn’t resort to caricature, reducing opponents to stick figures, cartoonist oafs?
It’s easier to resort to sensationalism. It’s easier to write slick, vicious commentary than to wrestle with an opposing argument before dismantling it by using rigorous logic and fair reporting. It’s easier to wield words as cudgels that destroy than as scalpels that open minds. It’s easier to use the F word against an opponent. Yes, it’s easy to kill.
Mary Hulst, who is chaplain at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., admits her urge to kill as she reflects on the Heidelberger’s insights. “I kill people all the time,” confesses Hulst. “I try not to. I’ve been working at it. But then another news story airs about another slimy politician, and I find myself yelling at the TV, belittling the person, creating fresh insults, and cheering when my favorite late-night comedians stick it to ’em good” (Perspectives Magazine, November 2011, p. 16).
We’ve been there with Chaplain Hulst, haven’t we? We kill.
Some invent “facts” when their case is flimsy. Republicans who want less government co-opt Thomas Jefferson. By whose measurement was Jefferson for the primacy of the states against the encroaching power of Washington?
Measured against Alexander Hamilton, it’s true that Jefferson advocated limited government. But measured against Patrick Henry, Jefferson stood as an architect of bigger government.
Henry’s demand to reduce government so that rights to govern ourselves are preserved — with Uncle Sam deprived of power to restrict us — this roar ricochets through Tea Party rhetoric. Henry wouldn’t sign the Constitution because he believed it robbed Virginia and its citizens of cherished rights. He “smelt a rat” is the reason Henry didn’t endorse the Constitution. Compared to him, Jefferson supported enlarged government.
Press on one side of any argument, and it bulges. Then any sense of balance is knocked off kilter. It’s a way to kill.
Such a killing instinct crept into last October’s televised debate among Republican presidential contenders. This debate’s producers flashed across the Jumbotron screen, alongside candidates, an apt quotation attributed to Jefferson. It stated: “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”
This quote is fictitious, conjured up by Republicans. Such fiction kills truth. It mocks precise logic. It soils our nation’s political soul.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.