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Thomas Sowell / March 3, 2009

Is Talk Cheap?

They say talk is cheap. But in fact it can be devastatingly expensive. Among the generation of Germans who were enthralled by Hitler’s eloquence, millions paid with their lives and their children’s lives for empowering this demagogue to lead them to ruin and infamy.

Germany before Hitler was one of the more tolerant nations in Europe. That was what attracted so many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe– tragically, to their doom.

German immigrants who settled around the world have been among the more tolerant peoples– not angels, a standard that only intellectuals could use, but comparing favorably with most others.

Do not for one moment think that we are either intellectually or morally superior to those Germans who put Hitler in power. We have been saved by our institutions and our traditions– the very institutions and traditions that so many are so busy eroding or dismantling, whether in classrooms or court rooms or in the halls of Congress and the White House.

Talk matters for good reasons as well as bad. Anyone familiar with the desperate predicament of Britain in 1940, when it stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut that had smashed whole nations in weeks or even days, knows how crucial Winston Churchill’s command of the English language was to sustaining the national will, which was the margin between survival and annihilation.

Unfortunately, people on the make seem to have a keener appreciation of the power of words, as the magic road to other power, than do people defending values that seem to them too obvious to require words.

The expression, “It goes without saying…” is a fatal trap. Few things go without saying. Some of the most valuable things in life may go away without saying– whether loved ones in one’s personal life or the freedom or survival of a nation.

Barack Obama is today’s most prominent example of the power of words. Conversely, the understated patrician style of country club Republicans is no small part of their many problems.

It is no accident that by far the most successful Republican politician of our lifetime– Ronald Reagan– was a man who did not come from that country club background but someone who was born among the people and who knew how to communicate with the people.

Words can shield the most blatant reality. Legislation to take away workers’ rights to a secret ballot, when deciding whether or not they want to be represented by a labor union, is called the “Employees’ Freedom of Choice Act.”

The merits or demerits of this legislation have seldom been debated. Who could be against “freedom of choice”?

The Obama administration’s new budget, with deficits that make previous irresponsible deficits look like child’s play, has a cover that says “A New Era of Responsibility.”

You want responsibility? He’ll give you the word “responsibility.” Why not? It costs nothing.

Some observers are contrasting last week’s highly successful speech by President Obama to Congress with the lackluster Republican response afterwards by Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

People familiar with Governor Jindal have a high regard for him and many think he would make a good president. But Republicans have always had more people who would make good presidents than people who would make good presidential candidates. So long as we have a democracy, that distinction is crucial.

Governor Jindal made a typical Republican mistake when he began with a “me too” celebration of Obama’s “historic” election. With a very limited time to address some complex issues, he needed to get right to the point and sober up such members of the audience as were capable of being sobered up.

He was, in a sense, defensive, as if he had to establish that he was a good guy. General Douglas MacArthur gave a one-word definition of defensive warfare: defeat.

There can be too many words, as well as too few. Governor Sarah Palin is doing herself no good by discussing her disastrous interview with Katie Couric. That does not look presidential, or even senatorial. A quarterback has to forget the interception he threw last time, and just make a better throw next time.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC. 

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