Defend Truth

Opinionista

Words matter, especially the words of a US president

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Judith February is a lawyer and author of ‘Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of South Africa’s Democracy’ (PanMacmillan)

With what voice do we speak when the unspeakable happens? What language do we use?

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
– TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Last week the world watched as an angry mob occupied the US Capitol, the place President-elect Joe Biden later called “the citadel of liberty”.

For its many faults and failures, the US remains a unique democratic experiment. Anyone who is committed to democracy and the rule of law would have felt deeply saddened by the events of 6 January. Where was “the country of laws”’ as the mob occupied Speaker Pelosi’s office? Where were the guardrails of the US Constitution as the same angry mob overwhelmed Capitol police and placed a “MAGA” cap on the head of George Washington’s statue?

If it could happen in the US, it could happen anywhere, after all. The world is still trying to find the language for the past four years of the Trump presidency; for its venality, its constitutional vandalism and its naked racism. Words matter and the words of a US president matter even more.

As Donald Trump cosied up to dictators, he gave every other tyrant the licence to follow his unaccountable lead. Early on, his hollow presidency was repeatedly shown up for the great con it was always going to be. The reasons for Trump’s ascent to power are varied and complex and will no doubt be studied for a long while yet. Yet, every leader has their enablers and the Republican Party and those like Mitch McConnell bear equal culpability for the assault on democracy.

What Trump has left behind is a Republican Party captured by the cult of personality, a nation divided, the enemy deep within.

The point, of course, is whether, as has been asked so many times over the past 10 days, 6 January was a tragic, violent denouement or the beginning of something more sinister. It’s too early to tell, but as Trump was impeached for the second time on Wednesday, the National Guard occupied the Capitol building simply because the safety of the elected representatives inside could not be guaranteed. Indeed, Biden’s inauguration, meant to be a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, has already been marred by violence and possible further violence across the country ahead of 20 January. That alone tells us that this new stain on US democracy will not easily be erased.

Time will deliver the inexorable verdict on this moment in history, but the further question is whether the US stands at a place of historical rupture. What are the choices – a commitment to the rule of law and the founding documents and therefore truth, or a commitment to a Trumpian post-truth world in which facts are abandoned in favour of lies and fantasy?

For, at any moment there seem to be two alternative narratives. The one is the truth; that which is immutable and fact-based. The other (held within the lie that the election was “stolen”) is what Garry Kasparov calls “modern propaganda” or in plain language, lies. Kasparov goes on to say, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

And everyone is exhausted by Trump, his lying minions and their annihilation of truth. In her fine book, Leadership in Turbulent Times: Lessons from the Presidents, US historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that as Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency, he bore a “quiet sense of responsibility. His spoken and written words were… more measured, more cautious, centred, more determined.” Trump has no such restraint, his only impulse being the recklessness which goes along with the pathology of malignant narcissism.

Biden has described himself and his pending presidency as a bridge to the future. Time will tell whether it will be a bridge to a more dangerous moment in history or indeed to the place of “a more perfect union” that the US Constitution speaks of. What is clear is that this moment calls for leadership of an extraordinary kind.

In his latest book, Lincoln On the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, Ted Widmer details the 13-day train trip Lincoln took from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, DC, to be sworn in as president. Then, Lincoln faced a country deeply divided on the issue of slavery. The train journey was used by Lincoln as a means to reach out to citizens. By the time Lincoln reached New Jersey having survived the harrowing journey, which included two assassination attempts, he was increasingly emboldened.

Washington, DC, was on a knife’s edge as Lincoln arrived. Widmer writes that while Lincoln preferred reconciliation, he also said, “I fear we will have to put the foot down firmly”. When he arrived in Philadelphia he went on to say that he would be “one of the happiest men in the world” if the country could be saved with its great idea intact. He would “rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it”.

As Barack Obama said in his farewell address in January 2017: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.”

That turned out to be prescient. Later, Lincoln was warned of an armed mob waiting for him in Baltimore. He survived that phase of the journey too and days later delivered his “better angels of our nature” inauguration speech.

In the speech, Lincoln says, “A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.” Lincoln mentions the “peculiar difficulty” the country faced at the time.

Last week, history bore an eerie echo to the events described by Widmer, except of course that Trump is no Lincoln. He has neither the maturity of thought nor the interest in the US experiment to appeal to that which is larger than himself.

Soon after Lincoln’s “better angels” inauguration speech, the Civil War began, on 12 April 1861. There are lessons to be learnt from that moment of rupture in American history. These lessons from the United States apply equally to democracies around the world, not least of all our own in South Africa.

We understand only too well the nature of violent rhetoric, the way in which language is weaponised to whip up popular sentiment. Julius Malema’s own brand of dangerous populism is ever-present, after all. 

In many ways, we have strayed far away from Nelson Mandela’s appeal to the better angels of our nature. Who can forget Mandela’s televised address when Chris Hani was assassinated in April 1993? Then, South Africa was on the brink of civil war. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back. And we remember, too, Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of IFP-ANC violent clashes, when he said: “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.”

He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election. Our “better angels” triumphed then to deliver our own democratic experiment.

As our country becomes more divided by deep levels of socioeconomic inequality, adherence to constitutional norms and values will become even more complex. Add to that a global pandemic and almost endemic corruption, and South Africa becomes a rich and fertile cocktail for violence.

For every democracy, as in the US right now, the question remains, “If the Constitution is under threat, who will march in its defence?” As we celebrate 25 years of the adoption of our Constitution this year, we would do well to remember what we intended when we made the decision to become a constitutional democracy. That decision was deliberate, after all.

As Barack Obama said in his farewell address in January 2017: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.”

Those sentiments will be sorely tested in the US in the next months and indeed elsewhere in the world where democracies are under pressure from deepening economic and health crises and the populists who would exploit grievances. No democracy is immune to degradation. That much can be gleaned from the destruction Trump wrought and which ended in the bloody insurrection. DM

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  • We live in dangerous times, as right wing forces across the world push for the crimping of democracy and the promotion of white supremacist nationalism.
    In SA, perhaps we need a return to a united front of civil society, especially since the corrupt politicians seem to be squirming out of being held accountable and pushing back.

    • Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Iran, are not “right wing forces” more precisely…..As for “white supremacist nationalism”, I assume you are not ‘wayt’…otherwise you are already “privileged”, eh?

  • As brilliant column as usual….”Those sentiments will be sorely tested in the US in the next months and indeed elsewhere in the world where democracies are under pressure from deepening economic and health crises and the populists who would exploit grievances. No democracy is immune to degradation”……
    I am sure Ms February is aware of the mayhem, chaos, destruction and violence caused by the radical left mobs led as BlackLivesMatter and Antifas, condoned and supported by the new President and his co-pilot Harris. To be fair, no calls for “immediate impeachment” or its similar were issued at that time last year.
    The new government is not going to be instated with the most auspicious circumstances and is surrounded by serious suspicions of turning the US as a “single Party demockracy”: “You are free to elect me ‘democratically’, if you oppose me I will chase you until death”…..

      • So, it is justified…..The mayhem and destruction of the DemockRat supporters and inciters to violence is acceptable and desirable……Who is the African Tramp to blame for their “single party ‘democracy'”governments, I wonder??

  • A searing and eloquent analysis of challenges facing societies across the globe. The part of the heading “Words matter…. ” is becoming banal when seen in the context of Trumps ‘mastery’ of the coded and loaded words. That is what makes it difficult for the ‘law’ to catch up with him. Psychopathic autocrats like him have mastered the means of creating cults. In it, their followers understand the ‘double’ meanings of their leader, but in legal discourse cannot be proven. His multiple enablers like Barr, McConnell, Graham, Cruz and now Hawley et al continue the ‘brightbart’ concept of white and male hegemony, accompanied by their fragility. Remarkable how it took a courageous woman like Cheney to break that masculine rampart. If the example of Gallard as the first female Australian prime minister is anything to go by, Cheney will no doubt ‘pay a price’. That is the kind of thing Barack meant by .. ” the people give it meaning”.