“We have nothing to fear but, fear itself.”
“I have a dream.”
“We do these things because they are hard.”
One of the more terrible losses in our contemporary age is the loss of soaring rhetoric, with allusions to classical Western literature (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek and Roman texts, the Bible, etc.), appeals to the common good, and an unwavering belief that Americans, together, can just “do” things.This contemporary loss due to three things:
- Americans no longer share a common language around problems because of the fracturing of the media environment, with a million tiny voices crowding out one large voice. There is no longer a single voice of authority, such as a Cronkite, a Vidal, or a Buckley. Instead there are multiple voices whose sources believe they are competing for authority, but in reality they are competing for attention.
- Americans are no longer commonly educated in the writings of the past, partially because the Western literature canon has fallen to the wiles of multiculturalism, social engineering, and the desire to see education as a technical good, rather than as a way to link current generations to past meaning. In our efforts to replace the technical efficiency that used to be valued when we were a manufacturing country, we have moved to making education serve technology rather than wisdom.
- Americans have blown up the tendency that we always had, toward being independent individualists (“get in your Conestoga Wagon and go West”), and have fetishized it to a degree never before attained by a population in human history. Since the Myth of the West has collapsed, we see this tendency most visibly in the retreat to individualized, mobile experiences, the popularity of streaming shows on Netflix, complaints about Academy Award film selections, and the overwhelming silence from populations in the center of the country who are never questioned except once every four years during elections.
The reason I’m bringing all of this up today, on Martin Luther King day, is that from Franklin Roosevelt (and earlier) all the way through Ronald Reagan, presidents, statesmen, politicians, and social leaders at least shared a common education, language, and a tendency toward a collective sense of commonality with the American people they were looking to persuade. They used that sense to make appeals to a higher good, all the while acknowledging that not everybody, including them, would make it to the end, but the journey would be glorious anyway.
This is not to say that there wasn’t separation, there wasn’t strife, and that there weren’t two views of America. If you think that the current age of fracturing is new, then take a look at newspaper headlines, political advertisements and rhetoric from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. There was far blunter commentary, outright conflict, and rhetorical viciousness than would be allowed today in our tamped down rhetorical climate.
What is new is the lack of common language and the results of that lack have served to create deeper political, social, and cultural fault lines, all the while, playing on the natural American tendency toward liberation, freedom, and autonomy.
Appeals of “We’re gonna’ go get ‘em,” or “Hope and change,” or whatever the catch phrase was of the eight years of the Clinton Administration (“I did not have sex with that woman…Ms. Lewinsky”) don’t ring out quite as commonly. They don’t appeal to the better nature of our common American experiences. They are not as fluid, nor will they be remembered by history when certain proscriptive policies and efforts fail (or succeed), except as punchlines in YouTube videos, with a trail of bitter comments in the threads below the video.
On this day, I wonder what Martin Luther King, Jr., a preacher who read Greek, studied the Bible closely, and who knew all about the moving power of common rhetoric designed to unite people (both white and black), would think about the current restless mire America is in?
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: firstname.lastname@example.org