In the Strife of Truth with Falsehood

Get ready for the verbal assaults.The PAC ads. The disinformation and misinformation media campaigns funded by big money with big interests that know how powerful words are.

Words are POWERFUL! Sometimes those of us who stand in pulpits doubt that our words matter. But reading this paragraph in Timothy Egan’s NYT,Deconstructing a Demagogue,”reminds me of just how powerful words are:

Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon. It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy. That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

Today, if you listen carefully to any Gingrich takedown, you’ll usually hear words from the control memo.

And that’s just the beginning of the story of how language is used and abused for purposes of social manipulation. Gingrich knew that language is “A Key Mechanism of Control.”  Those who are well-schooled in theology and politics know that language is the primary mechanism of mind control: truth becomes falsehood and falsehood becomes truth; beauty becomes ugliness and ugliness becomes beauty; goodness becomes evil and evil becomes goodness, twisted by the language of innuendo and word association.

The cynicism that pervades the American electorate is due, in part, to this demagogic use of language. Words are precious things. Holy things. Sacred things. When they get twisted, they become vulgar and profane, one might even say ‘demonic’ in the sense in which Paul Tillich defined ‘demonic’: the twisting of the good. “The claim of something finite to infinity or to divine greatness is the characteristic of the demonic” (Paul Tillich, “Life and It’s Ambiguities,” Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 102).

Paul Tillich, “The Courage to Be”

Paul Tillich was one of the first university professors fired during the Third Reich in 1933. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he came to America where he taught at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. Tillich and his academic colleagues in theology, philosophy, and ethics (Willem Zuurdeeg, Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Elie Wiesel) left us a rich legacy of linguistic analysis of the language of demagogic use of language.They speak with authority because they each paid a price for their opposition to it.

There are those who say that Hitler won his war after all. His ingenious use of language and rhetoric is the substance of Language: a Key Mechanism of Control. Newt Gingrich is not Adolf Hitler. And we are all well-advised to be very careful with contemporary references to him, the Third Reich, or the Holocaust. Yet the language that once led a nation regarded as “the most sophisticated culture” to swallow the toxin of twisted truth is with us still. The demonic poison how rules the day in America, peddled as cure and candy by candidates bought and sold by the private corporate powers whose PAC ads control the airwaves.

Words are sacred. And those who abuse them enter into the darkness of the demonic twistings that led James Russell Lowell to write the hymn lyrics I sang as a child:

Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood…. Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet t’is truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim

unknown, Standeth God within the shadows, Keeping watch above His own. – James Russell Lowell, 1945, “Once to Every Man and Nation”

The PAC ads are coming. Plug your ears…or…better yet, listen carefully, listen critically. Then speak out “in the strife of truth with falsehood.”

14 thoughts on “In the Strife of Truth with Falsehood

  1. It is a loss to us all. Language can be such a beautiful thing, gracious and giving. Lying, twisting and distorting, on the other hand, is grievous.

    I am most familiar with the NRSV, and still find the KJV difficult to understand and read in a pleasant way. However, there are passages that are simply lovely to hear. With only a few exceptions, every translation is true. That is the difference.

    BTW, I have heard rumors of a nationwide petition to add an amendment to the constitution so that something like Citizens United will never be allowed again. Here, here!!!

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    • Now THAT’s an Amendment worthy of the Constitution! The New Revised Standard Version is my standby also. But the only translation that preserves the difference between the singular you (“thee/thou”) and the plural you (“you”) is the King James Version. I try to read the New Testament in the Greek as much as possible because only so do you catch the nuances and untranslatable words and phrases. In any other translation but the KJV, we English Bible readers can mistakenly assume, for example, that “You are the salt of the earth” means that each one is the salt, totally missing the fact that it is the community, not the person, that is the salt, the light, the city. Anyway, thanks for the comments, HMB. Let’s go for the Amendment.

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  2. Gordon, it seems I read something about the twisting of words when we were at McCormick in Dr, Boling’s class: “Justice is rebufffed and flouted whike righteousness stands aloof; truth stumbles in the market-place and honesty is kept out of court, so truth is lost to sight, and whoever shuns falsehoods is thought a madman.”(Is. 59:14,15) I seem to remember that kingdom fell – hard!

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  3. Unfortunately, you are right: the PAC ads are coming. And unfortunately, it is very rare that people listen to the words being used and pick them apart to separate fact from opinion, or to decipher half-truths. Their writings use words and contain sentences that the average reader today would have a hard time understanding. It is these very writers that we so often refer to as being ‘great’ – and what makes them great, in my opinion, is that they used brilliant concepts and spent long hours crafting their debates to include as many facts as they could to support their concepts. Today, when one politican wants to convince the populace that he/she is right, they use simple words, simple ideas, and replace facts with opinions which they back up with other opinions. How many people who refer to the ‘founding fathers’ have ever read their writings – such as the collection assembled in ‘The Federalist Papers’? In a time when opinions are so often mistaken for facts, fooling the people is easy.

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    • I have an opinion built upon a foundation of other opinions that all young people are created equally but nurtured unequally…..and those that are nurtured intellectually will make all the difference in our future. How to change the tide of having fewer and fewer of our young people who have critical thinking capabilities and practice upon practice inside their homes growing up—-and well, those who don’t have that opportunity, bless their hearts—-how will we ever build and govern a strong courageous creative healthy nation from the votes of an electorate with a high quality of mind and heart?…………..that is our challenge. Education is where we should be putting the majority of our tax money. And, sadly, we would rather pay for outrageously high cable TV bills and sit our kids in front of that box all night, instead. This may all sound discouragong until you hear Christina’s comments and then you breath a sigh of relief that, all may not be lost, afterall.

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      • Yes. There’s a humorous story that illustrates the shallowness of an entertainment culture. Former president of CBS was asked by a friend a few days before Yom Kippur whether he would be going home for the holiday. Silver asked what day Yom Kippur fell. “Wednesday,” said the friend. “WEDNESDAY?” cried Silverman, “You mean they’ve scheduled Yom Kippur opposite Charlie’s Angels!”

        Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement when one goes directly to the people one has hurt over the past year to take responsibility (repent) and to ask their forgiveness.

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      • It is so true that in this day and age, education is being left by the wayside as somehow dispendable. And it is true that a few parents still understand the value of a good education and the value of reading, and of keeping an open mind. Thank you for your tribute to them and to me. I hope that people re-discover the importance of education – there was a reason that Alexander the Great installed a library in every country he conquered.

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