The Moment to Decide

Words are POWERFUL! They shape our most important decisions.

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.

American Crossroads’ campaign ad (see yesterday’s “Campaign Ads and the Snake”) is a case in point, an illustration of Timothy Egan’s New York Times piece,Deconstructing a Demagogue“:

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.

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 philosophical theologian Paul Tillich defined ‘demonic’ as the twisting of the good.  (Paul Tillich, “Life and It’s Ambiguities,” Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 102).

Paul Tillich was one of the first university professors dismissed from his teaching position during the Third Reich. 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 careful analysis of the demagogic use of language.

Looking at America today, some observers argue that Hitler won his war after all. The Third Reich’s use of language and rhetoric is the substance of Language: a Key Mechanism of Control. The prescription that once led a nation regarded as “the most sophisticated culture” to swallow the toxin of twisted truth is with us still. The poison is peddled as cure and candy by candidates bought and sold by the private corporate powers whose Super PAC ads control our airwaves in America.

American Crossroads, led by the cunning of Karl Rove and the funding of the Koch Brothers and other wealthy Right Wing funders, is a Super PAC whose manual of operations is Gingrich’s memo, “Language: a Key Mechanism of [Social] Control,” renamed here as “Demonic Language: the Work of the Snake.” 

But the snake does not own the garden. Nor is it the author of language. Truth always has a way of peeking out from behind the bushes. And sometimes it cries out loud and clear, as it does from an old hymn I learned in childhood. It sings from the pews and in my heart in the hymn lyrics penned by James Russell Lowell I especially treasure in times when, watching a campaign ad, I need assurance that the snake has not won.

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, 1845

Click to feel the power of the music on Preston Hawes’ violin. 

8 thoughts on “The Moment to Decide

  1. I find this current phenomenon that you describe, Gordon, as very troubling. I tend to think more in terms of 1984 that Naziism, but either way, it’s a ugly thing.

    In addition to making a Lie the truth, I am simply and thoroughly annoyed by the unoriginality of some expressions:

    If one more politician mentions anything about “kicking the can down the road,” I will find them and personally Kick Their Can as hard and far as I can.



  2. It addresses a real concern of mine at this time. My few classes in journalism – the school did not even have a concentration in the subject, still left me with the need to be objective. What really annoys me, is how a story changes during the day from the more accurate (sometimes) description of an fact or event that by evening has lost key adjectives or adverbs that give indication of importance of the statement and it comes off as something more negative (usallyu) than is warranted by the ‘facts of the case’……. I see a real need in politics not to distort an issue, just because you want an easy sound bite…….When veracity is lost, all too often respect goes out the door with it.


  3. I’m with ya, Gordon: Fork-tongued devils….it’s hard not to go hammer-and-tongs on them. But the left has certainly had its share of linguistical perversion. Noam Chomsky notwithstanding, I remember well trying to keep in step with Deconstructionists, Lacanians, and other academic bubble-dwellers in the halls of the English and Humanities departments of my college, circa 1987. In their effort to demonstrate how language had been used to omit or exile–marginalize–truth from The Text, it seems to me now they conducted an orgy of cleverness that, ironically, did its own part to detach their language from corporeal, mortal, experience. That’s not so far around the wheel from the cynical facility of Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, or the sallow technician behind the neocon offensive of the last decade, Frank Luntz. Or Iago, for that matter. It’s been happening forever. I sometimes wonder if this latest lot aren’t only an epoch in the ongoing devolution from that moment, in the beginning, when there was just The Word. Right there, the fabric of the great plenitude was rent, and all the definitions commenced tumbling out. But you know, the end times have been announced in every epoch with a conviction that never seems to wane. And here we are, still chattering. You’d think that would make us happy in our warfare, at least. Time to unsheath the puns.

    Did you ever see the movie, Prick Up Your Ears? It was about the British playwright Joe Orton. His lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) says to Orton (Gary Oldman), in response to unfavorable criticism of a premiere, “Unzip the Remington [typewriter]! We shall piss on them from a great height.”


    • Hi Chris. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And the Word was “full of grace and truth,” right? Right. Until we “unzip the Remington….” What we’re experiencing knows no political boundaries. Speech as manipulation happens on the left, on the right, and wherever “true believers” confuse themselves as the Elect, the ones with reason to “piss on them from a great height.” I haven ‘t seen the move, but I recognize the sentiment in my own sorry self and am chastened by it. What to do but to shine a light on the darkness of the misuse of language, the mockery of the Word that holds all things together by an insrutable Wisdom? Sometimes after I have taken the hammer and tongs to the linguistic perversion, I sense a darkness in my self, the arrogance of thinking I write from a greater height. Thanks, Chris, as always, for your incisive, thoughtful reflection. Grace and Peace.


      • When we elevate ourselves to think of ourselves as the ‘elect’, there is a tendency to look down, and then to believe the ends justify the means. And we all can see where that leads/is leading. Then there is my tendency to ‘prick the balloon’ of what people assume is the story, not knowing the situation.
        that does not go over either. People love their own little ‘truth and understanding’ even when it is wrong. But truth, if supported by facts may win out if we do not come across as too righteous which only stiffens backs. What is the balance?


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