Moving Forward Together. With an official announcement this week, Andrew Yang, Christine Todd Whitman, and David Jolly have presented the latest episode in a political life buried under meaningless words.
Sound bites chosen to avoid controversy rarely deliver results. If some words have "public electricity," others are just D.O.A.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie diagnosed the problem, the Forward Party "doesn't speak to anything that matters." The problem with the framing of the party is the problem with the slogan. Honest policymaking requires us to use words that aim to make a difference.
In her 1993 speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison reflected on what she called "word-work" and starts her remarks with a story. Two children challenge a supposedly clairvoyant blind woman claiming to hold a bird in one of their hands. They want her to tell them whether the bird is alive or dead. The rest of the speech does nothing to resolve that question. We learn nothing about the bird's vital signs or even if it exists.
Instead, Morrison uses the bird to share everything she knows about how language works. The words we use engage a language that can either be dead and paralyzed or vital and generative. The decision is in our hands and our choice makes a difference.
We die. That might be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
The paralyzing uses of language are "censored and censoring." We select these words to protect exclusivity and dominance for ourselves. This moribund use of language:
Actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, and suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it can not form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.
Morrison goes on to describe "tongue-suicide," explaining that oppressive language does violence because it both represents "the limits of knowledge and limits knowledge." This is language directed toward "the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind."
We can instead participate in the "vitality of language" with words that arc "toward the place where meaning may lie." This aligns with Morrison's description of word-work as sublime "because it is generative; it makes meaning." She then wields the words to prove her point:
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge not its destruction.
If Morrison reads like poetry, Frank Luntz is pure political pragmatism. Language that carries energy and empowers us to work together will require both.
In his book Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, Luntz explains why euphemisms, sound bites and other abstractions have little effect:
The most effective language clarifies rather than obscures. It makes ideas clearer rather than clouding them. The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is — and therefore the more credible it will be.
We all have a responsibility to use language that generates meaning, aims to reflect our purposes, and makes an honest attempt to earn credibility.
That might not be the lesson the Forward Party wanted to bring to our political discourse. They seem to have misread the moment in many ways. Bouie describes another problem with their value proposition:
Its leaders seem to think that you can take the conflict out of politics... No, we can't. When an issue becomes live — when it becomes salient, as political scientists put it — people disagree. The question is how to handle and structure that disagreement within the political system. Will it fuel the process of government, or will it paralyze it?
The word-work we all need to do around our disagreements is complicated and difficult. We need to choose our words carefully — not to avoid controversy but to decide between power and paralysis.
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For Your Reading List
The story carried in the headlines about the Inflation Reduction Act this week all focused on a Democratic surprise and how the Republicans might punish them for it. Without time to chase the story during the week, I found little information about the actual substance of the legislation.
I'm not interested in the political hardball of the moment. I am more concerned about right-sizing my expectations, so I want to know:
Is this a big win for addressing climate change? Does it suggest that the votes might be there on other critical issues?
- It's all in there— taxes, climate spending, and healthcare.
Vox offers a brief look at what the bill includes and what has to happen next. How Democrats plan to overhaul taxes, climate spending, and health care before the midterms by Li Zhou
Brad Plumer and Lisa Friedman take a closer look at the details of the $369 billion package and the question of what the concessions to Senator Manchin may have cost the effort. Democrats Got a Climate Bill. Joe Manchin Got Drilling, and More.
- The agreement reflects hard work more than clever political maneuvering
To get to this moment, Senator Schumer and others had to take the concern of increasing inflation seriously. Writing for The Washington Post, Tony Romm and Jeff Stein describe "the steady mix of public pressure, private pleading, and persistent negotiation." The two-week scramble that saved Democrats' climate agenda
Jonathan Chait put the recent agreement in context with last year's discussion of inflation and frustration with Larry Summers, who warned everyone of "overheating the economy." Chait reflects on what this moment can teach all of us about achieving a political breakthrough like this one:
Assumptions about motives are often wrong. Once you assume every position you hold is obviously correct and good, it is easy to believe that everybody who disagrees is evil or corrupt. Summers was not trying to sabotage Biden— he was trying to steer the administration away from what he genuinely believed was a risky policy choice.
Read "The Lessons of Last Years Larry Summers Hatefest" in New York Magazine
- The proposed economic policies are a game-changer for climate reform efforts
This Scientific American headline might say it all: How the Senate Climate Bill Could Slash Emissions by 40 Percent
This 40% number appeared in the statement provided by Senators Schumer and Manchin this week too. Here's the surprise that got my attention:
For the first time, the tax code is going to reward emissions reductions, and encourage the development of new clean energy technologies as soon as they come online. No longer will Congress need to legislate technology by technology, making it easier to bring new technologies to market."
— Statement from Senator Ron Wyden, who leads the Senate Finance Committee
The Washington Post asks what these developments mean for ordinary consumers like you and me. The article written by Jeff Stein, Maxine Joselow, and Rachel Roubein has all the math on spending, tax breaks, and revenue.How the Schumer-Manchin climate bill might impact you and change the U.S.
On this one, the subtitle tells the story, "The package, if smaller than Democrats' initial ambitions, would transform huge sectors of the U.S. economy and affect millions of Americans."
For Believing in Democracy: Telling the Stories that Test Our Assumptions
Today, word-work is a digital proposition. Two projects are making great use of today's tools— podcasts and YouTube— to take a second look at what we know about our history.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. has a new podcast venture. In the trailer for History is Us, he explains:
Today, Americans stand at a crossroads. And in so many ways, we are still fighting old battles; still trapped in categories and assumptions that arrest our imaginations."
The project aims to help its audience revisit the nation's difficult history, hoping to help them see how past questions about race still shape events today. The documentary podcast is a six-episode series that you can find on Apple Podcasts here or on Spotify here. Or, of course, on whatever app you use.
"Missing Chapter" by Vox won awards for their digital storytelling. In 2020, the Online Journalism Awards described the project as one that "sheds light on overlooked historical events, so often shared by marginalized communities, that have resulted in wounds carried across generations."
This May, the Missing Chapter team published the story of Plains Indian Sign Language, The hidden history of "Hand Talk'. These symbols and hand gestures formed a universal language that made it possible to communicate across tribes that didn't share a common spoken language. Vox explains that this language "has been written out of history."
While there was an active effort to stop the use of hand-talk, the video makes it easy to see just how much it influenced American Sign Language.