In his 1882 autobiography British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote, "With words we govern men." This was written before radio, TV and 30 second sound-bites; so as you might imagine, only the educated - a small number - could read. Disraeli thought the educated were governable by using debate and reason.
Those were gentler times. In the 21st century, given the coarsening of our culture; the speed that news gets out, and the instant social media, it is more accurate to say, "With words we manipulate men." And on TV our President has that down to an art form.
Until President Barack Obama entered the national scene as our leader, most of his recent predecessors were not exactly performance artists. When addressing the nation, or at press interviews, they tried to maintain a presidential bearing - whether Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 etc. They all presented themselves with the formal demeanor of a president. Even their campaign speeches weren't incendiary. When Mitt Romney - who wasn't even president - uttered his famous "47 percent," seized upon by the media - which was uttered at a private fundraiser - he sounded almost wimpy compared with our President's "Punish your enemies" and "fat cats" speeches.
Obama was the first modern president to inject rancor and divisiveness into his rhetoric when speaking as President - a reflection undoubtedly of his background as a militant community organizer steeped in the rhetoric of Marxian class struggle. His constant reference to "Fat cats" is reminiscent of Adolph Hitler's speeches railing against the Jewish "parasites." The fat cats replaced the Jews. It works every time with the undereducated. They respond more positively to "red meat," not reason.
It is a mistake to not understand that Obama's first and enduring passion was his career as a community organizer. The strategy of attack politics was a natural transferable skill to his presidency from his first love at age 23, when working as an organizer in a public housing project.
In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, Michelle Obama candidly revealed that "his work as a community organizer was a defining moment in his life, not just his career. ..." That was an enormously significant statement. Think about it. In other words being a community organizer transcended his career as a politician and president. This explains his strategy of attack politics. He is a leader who was regarded by his peers as a "master of agitation." His mentor Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organizing, instructed: "First rub raw the resentments of the people." He does that well. He is not a community healer. Obama is the polar opposite of Martin Luther King.
The problem with embittered populism is the divisiveness which follows incites the faithful - often the majority - to be scornful or contemptuous of others. Insult and disparagement becomes the order of the day - not debate.
It is inherently polarizing to pit group against group - sometimes subtly such as references to the "less fortunate," "fair share," children of illegal immigrants are "Americans at heart," "You didn't build that," protecting the "poor, middle class and seniors," "If I had a son he'd look like Trayvon," and his not so subtle accusations of racism against states that want immigration and voter ID laws of being racist. There are endless examples.
It's tragic that it's come to this. It is all about leadership. It always is. The commander sets the tone. It is the leader who can either unite or create divisiveness; the latter bring a natural outcome for a president who practices identity and hate politics in a country of 6 races and 196 nationalities. He teaches his followers well. Recall the invectives hurled against Governor Scott Walker when the teacher's unions stormed and surrounded the Wisconsin state Capitol building and shut down the legislature. (A tactic not exactly sanctioned in civilized debate format.)
The other unfortunate but inevitable outcome is that Obama set the tone for Democratic legislators. This brings to mind Congressman Alan Grayson's disparaging remark before Congress that the Republican health care plan is for Americans to "die quickly," if they get sick. Grayson was an untutored freshman legislator who had too many "teaching moments" from his boss.
Words mean something. If spoken words, then demeanor and body language add a critical dimension to the words. It is amazing how the relevancy of words survives throughout the millennia. This column focuses on how divisive leaders promote the politics of disparagement.
It is more than coincidental that both the words "divisive" and "disparage" date from Late Latin, formed during the period when the Roman Empire was in decline as it was assimilating legions of non-Latin immigrants from around the outer edges of their empire - somewhat similar to the story of America (There's an object lesson here.) A not so elegant Latin evolved to allow everyone to communicate with each other. Identity and hate politics were probably born during this contentious assimilation process and words were necessary to allow people to describe this phenomenon. Corrosive populism was inevitable - a precursor to the Obama era.
Will Durant, the great historian and prolific writer, observed, "The history of man runs in a dreary circle."
Somehow, I can imagine President Barack Obama dressed in a Roman Toga - back in those days - creating dissension while campaigning as a Roman senator in front of a crowd of Roman citizens - jabbing a finger in the air.
John Reiniers is a retired attorney and regular contributor who lives in Spring Hill