It’s not a Caravan

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Camel caravan

Caravan in the Jordan Valley

Does anything seem strange about ‘caravan’ as the word to describe the migrants now moving on foot toward the United States’s southern border? ‘Caravan’ is the word used everywhere without a second thought.

The etymology of the word ‘caravan’ is Persian. “From Middle French caravane, from Old French carvane, from Persian کاروان (kârvân), from Middle Persian kʾlwʾn’(kārawān), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ker- (army) (whence Old English here). The word was used to designate a group of people who were travelling by camel or horse on the Silk Road.” (Wiktionary)

Language matters. Words matter. “Language: A Mechanism of Social Control” — Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC tutorial for political candidates — knows this better than most. Words like ‘caravan’ have overtones and undertones. They allude to things that awaken hope or fear. There’s nothing like the warning of a caravan to awaken associations with Middle Easterners coming to our Southern border.

Have you ever heard of a Christian caravan? Or a Jewish caravan? Caravans in the American mind have nothing to do with the western hemisphere or western culture. Caravans belong to Persians (Iran) and the Arabs we have come to fear. No American fears a camel caravan! But we do remember the Crusades. We remember the waging of religious war between Christians and Muslims. We call to mind Al Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS).

The linguistic manipulators of language use such emotive allusions as weapons in election campaigns and underscore the words by sending U.S. Army troops to the border — to keep us safe – to beat back the barbarian Middle Eastern terrorists from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador now walking slowly several hundred miles from the border in hopes of a better life. They know fear works. They know that threats to our freedom and national security will take our imaginations back in time to Arabian desert nomads whose camels carried them — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents — from here to there without settling anywhere. They know we will think of a caravan as an army, not a caravan of nomads.

Language matters. Words matter. Don’t let the dispatch of troops to the Mexican border and the language of social control make fools of those who have never met a camel or walked on bandaged feet with bloodied hands pushing broken baby-strollers in hopes for as terror-less life. It’s not a caravan!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 5, 2018.

 

Friendly fire and Fratricide

“There is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved,” said a U.S. military official yesterday of the five American soldiers’ deaths in southern Afghanistan, according to news reports like this one from NBC News. The sentence came over my car radio yesterday. I’ve been pondering it ever since.

Interesting choice of words: “fratricide”, the killing of a brother, meaning, in this case, one of our guys, not one of their guys.

The Genesis story of Cain and Abel is the archetypal fratricide in Western culture. Cain turns to violence. Abel, his biological brother, is dead. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain retorts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer is “Yes, Cain, you are.” Fratricide is out of order.

So is friendly fire. But what about killing the Taliban? Is that “unfriendly fire”? Is that not fratricide because the Taliban are not my brothers?

My ears are attuned to fratricide and to the use of language that brings theology and humaneness into stories like yesterday’s tragedy in Afghanistan and many wartime public relations press releases. The implication is clear. One of our guys may have killed one of his own guys.

In a subsequent statement, another military official said that, in the daylong fight preceding the apparent friendly fire airstrike, the joint U.S.-Afghan security forces operation had killed “lots of them” (i.e., Taliban, the enemy, the non-brothers). The case is being investigated.

Every death of a human being at the hands of another human being, on the ground or from the air, is an act of fratricide.

William Blake painting of "Cain fleeing from the wrath of God "as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

 

Sermon: The Spirit’s Language

Redistribution of Wealth in America

Mitt Romney’s haughty remark insulting the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income taxes is in the news. The issue of wealth distribution is philosophical and moral.  Isn’t it time folks concerned about the redistribution of wealth to the top stop being bullied and take back the language?. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) published this piece in 2010.

“Fear ‘redistribution of wealth’? Don’t look now”

by Gordon C. Stewart

December 14, 2010

Those who own the language rule the world. Words can ignite the spark of hope; they can also light the fires of fear.

Take, for instance, the phrases “redistribution of wealth” and “class warfare.”  The visceral response in the American psyche is fear — fear of communism.  And those who cry the loudest are those who have already waged class warfare, albeit quietly.

Wealth in America already has been redistributed.  The only question is whether to let that redistribution continue, or to “re-redistribute” the upward distribution that has already taken place.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is a rare voice of clarity.  “Mr. President,” he said in last week’s Senate debate on extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, “in the year 2007, the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made twenty-three and a half percent of all income … more than the entire bottom 50 percent.” Polifact.com checked Sanders’ claims and rated them “true.”

Redistribution of wealth has already happened in America, but no one calls it that. It has been in the making for decades. How and why did it happen? How did the 99 percent allow it to happen?

It was a quiet class war that appealed to the middle class belief that one day we, too, could be rich.  It was a war of words that sparked the fear that a far-off dream would be taken away.  It was a class war in which no one fought back. It was waged and won not by force of arms  but by the use of code words  like “redistribution of wealth” that hinted a sinister communist or socialist agenda. The result was the slow decimation of the progressive tax structure that once ensured the nation’s fiscal health and that sought some measure of fairness and well-being for all people in America.

One of Minneapolis’ wealthiest people invites me to lunch at her club. The club itself is a place of power and privilege, but I have learned to expect the unexpected there. My host has a conscience. She does great things with her accumulated wealth, but she is clearly troubled today. She wants to talk with her pastor about the drift of things in our state and across America, about her income taxes, and about her faith.

“It’s not right,” she says. “I should be paying more. I’m not alone in feeling that way.  More should be expected from those who have so much. We’re not carrying our fair share of the burden.  I want to pay a higher rate. I don’t need a tax break!”

Like others who have signed on with Wealth for the Common Good and Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, she knows that she did not produce her wealth. Middle class and lower class wage earners did.

The 2008 election offered hope that finally the people of America had awakened to the redistribution of wealth and power. In 2010 that hope is all but gone, held hostage by a Congress and a president who claim that, for the sake of extending middle class tax cuts and unemployment insurance for the unemployed, they must also continue the tax breaks for the wealthy, the growing deficit notwithstanding. The redistribution of the redistribution cannot garner the votes to pass in Congress.

The Democratic Party went down to resounding defeat in the 2010 election in no small part because it had lost its vision and courage. It lost because it rocked back on its heels at the charge that health care and financial reforms were acts of “class warfare” and “redistribution of wealth.” It lost the war of words. No one fought back to reframe the discussion until Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist senator, spoke the truth of the terrible, growing disparity of wealth in America. He dared to speak truth: The question before the Congress is not whether wealth will be redistributed. The only question is how. Will the current redistribution continue? Or will there be a re-redistribution?

Words matter. Language matters. Ideas matter.  So long as the American people remain easily manipulated by code words and slogans that distort reality like a funhouse mirror, and so long as elected officials and candidates recoil defensively instead of leading, the re-redistribution won’t stand a chance. It will be stillborn. The war of words will continue to be lost. Those who own the language run the world.

Is there a preacher in the White House who will finally dare to use his “bully pulpit” to put the issue squarely before the American people?  If the word were to come from the Oval Office that the real crossroads is not a redistribution of wealth but the re-distribution of the redistribution that has already taken place, would it reignite the spark of hope in the American soul?

The facts are already there.  What we need is a word from the bully pulpit.

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. 

The Bus Tour

See the Windy City!

Learn About America!

Two Hours by Bus–Hop On & Off!

The Tour Bus

….

The tour guide obsequiously spoke

into his mike to the polyglot group

aboard  the double-decker bus that took

them slowly winding through Chicago’s Loop

He thanked each one who put a buck into

the duct-taped peanut jar on their way out,

but few responded generously to/ his hints.

He had a tendency to pout.

He kept repeating “Stay in your seats when

the bus is moving!”  But the kids would run

the aisles and up and down the stairs.  He then

would yell, “Sit down!” –but did not spoil their fun:

He was forceful in his use of language,

but few foreign visitors spoke English…

– Steve Shoemaker, host of “Keepin’ the Faith.” Archive programs, including two with Gordon C. Stewart, can be heard anytimee @ www.will.illinois.edu/keepinthefaith.

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.”

“Say the word ‘freedom'”

When the political campaigns speak of ‘freedom,’ listen with care

Gordon C. Stewart, published By MPR, aired on “All Things Considered”, August 31, 2011 Click LISTEN to hear the commentary on Minnesota Publc Radio.

My hearing continues to get worse. In the sound-proof booth of the hearing test, the audiologist asks me to repeat the words I hear…

“Say the word ‘good’.”

“Wood.”

“Say the word ‘cold’.”

“Hold.”

“Say the word ‘gold’.”

“Goal.”

It’s not easy inheriting my mother’s hearing loss. Getting the words wrong often separates me from normal conversation.

But it also has its advantages. I listen more carefully, and the world of silence brings me to a deeper reflection about the words we hear every day.

I’ve begun to listen more carefully when the word “freedom” is used.

“Say the word ‘free.'”

“Free,” we say. And something deep within us hears the national anthem: Land of the free, and the home of the brave.

We Americans love freedom.

Future anthropologists will likely observe that freedom was the most treasured word in the American vocabulary. It is the most powerful word in our language.

No one understands this better than the handlers of political candidates. They know that the word evokes an unspoken reverence, and that perceived threats to freedom alarm us and cause us to get back in the ranks of freedom’s faithful. They know the nature of language and of word association.

“Say the word ‘freedom’,” they say.

“Democracy.”

“Say the word ‘regulation’.”

“Socialist.”

“Say the word ‘socialist’.”

“Un-American.”

“Say the word ‘government’.”

“Enemy.”

“Say the word ‘American’.”

“Free.”

Freedom stands alone in the American pantheon.

Ironically, in the hands of the unscrupulous, the word we associate with individual liberty can cause a collective stampede. It calls us from grazing freely in the pasture to joining a mindless herd.

We don’t like heresy; we’re afraid of being heretics.

My hearing will continue to get worse. It will take me into a world of increasing silence. In a way, I wish the same for the rest of my countrymen. We could all use some time away from the word-association games.

When we hear the word “freedom,” we should be free to listen carefully and understand it for ourselves.

Deadly Political Rhetoric

When Political Rhetoric Brings Out the Worst in Us

by Gordon C. Stewart, March 29, 2010

Click the title for full commentary published by Minnesota Public Radio) Here are some Excerpts (Opening and closing paragraphs):

Our nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle. How else does one explain the sending of a used condom to a Minnesota congresswoman, or the phone message left on  Rep. Keith Ellison’s answering machine: “Timothy McVeigh said dead government workers are good government workers.  Goodbye, Sambo”? And that’s just here in Minnesota….

 

 Where are the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh now? We need them again.