Words are still important

I have had the joy to inhabit a world of words. I learned to read at an early age and soon found great joy in trips to the library and summers of reading books. As I moved to college, I adjusted to a new world of reading, increasing the volume of words and pages I covered. Research became a joy for me. For a while, I read very little poetry or fiction, focusing on my academic subjects and pursuing my own interests as well. If you are reading this, you probably are also someone whose world is one of words. Even though the origins of the Internet lie in the desire to exchange information in the form of words, it has moved on. Audio and video now make up the bulk of the bandwidth of the Internet. Computers are used less and less for reading words and more and more for watching videos.

In the midst of this dramatic change in culture, some of us continue to dwell in a world of words. We have a deep sense of how essential words and writing are connected with values that we hold near and dear to our hearts. It is more than mere coincidence that the rise of modern democracies occurred in conjunction with the rise of printing. Written language has the capacity to reach a larger audience than oral language. Even with the use of modern media the ability to reach a huge crowd is limited. Consider the huge parade in Philadelphia that celebrated the Eagles’ victory in the Super Bowl. Officials estimated that nearly two million people gathered - not bad for a city of 1.56 million.Crowds flooded the streets, filled the parks and literally hung from the light poles. Other than a general theme of celebration of a sports victory, however, participants didn’t share a common ideology or go away with new thoughts. In the early days of the founding of the country, those who wanted to influence the directions taken by its government quickly learned the limits of gathering large crowds. A speaker could reach only so many people. An effective pamphleteer could carry ideas much farther and much faster than could be done by gathering crowds. Philadelphia became the center of the ideology of democracy not because of the ability to draw crowds, but by the ability to share common ideas across many different smaller communities and gatherings.

There are, however, many human ideas and concepts that cannot be conveyed in sound bytes and video clips. While those media are effective at reaching masses far beyond the audience of any well-crafted essay, they don’t carry the weight of transformational ideas. Simple slogans don’t solve complex problems. For years it has been popular to criticize the enterprise of government. Politicians have won elections by claiming that politicians are stupid or government is corrupt and then used their election victories to prove the truth of those slogans by being stupid and corrupt themselves. There is more to actually solving problems than to come up with a catchy sound byte. There is a value to professional experience, governing skill, effective diplomacy and carefully crafted legislation.

It is easy to see the effects of governing by slogan rather than governing by complex ideas and concepts. Our federal legislatures are filled with people who were elected on slogans of fiscal conservatism. Belt tightening, less government, jobs for working people and other slogans propelled successful campaigns. Now in power, however, those same politicians have produced governmental action that does not resemble their slogans. The federal government is on track to borrow roughly double what it borrowed last year, driven by an enormous plutocratic tax cut and a two-year budget deal that hikes spending in almost every category. I don’t remember any of those who were elected having used a slogan of “less income, more spending!” but that is exactly what they have voted to do. It takes more than slogans and soundbytes to govern effectively.

In these times it is helpful to read some words from our history. We have a great heritage of leaders who were willing to tackle extremely complex problems with very big ideas. The constitution itself is a wonderfully well-crafted testament to the power of written language. The speeches of former leaders speak of “the intelligence of public debate,” the “integrity of public officials,” courage, compassion and devotion to country.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve ben reading Tony Lukas’ book, “Big Trouble,” as a recreational adventure. I turn to it at the end of the day when I’m tired and pick it up from time to time when I get a break in the activity. It is kind of fun to have a book that after having read 400 pages the bookmark is still in the first half of the volume. It is a masterful examination of the history and culture of the turn of the 20th century through the an event that took place in Caldwell, Idaho. The volume carefully draws connections to the big issues of the day, eventually demonstrating connections to Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes and even baseball as it explores the politics and passions of the time.

It is helpful to have some perspective as we live in tumultuous times. The turn of the previous century was no less dramatic and no less troubled. Capital and labor were at odds in a raw class war. Neither side was innocent. It is reassuring to read that our nation has faced major troubles before. We’ve been divided in ideology and politics. We’ve had some less than noble ideas dominate our thinking. And, more than merely surviving, we have recovered a sense of common good, of higher ideals and of the call to serve others.

Those of us who dwell in a world of many words may not be at the height of popularity. We may be dependent on those who are able to transform some of our words in to the art of video. But the words remain important and continue to propel human endeavors to a higher plane.

I have no intention of ceasing to read or to write. I may decrease my viewing of YouTube, however.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!