Bull-Ish on America
Powerful things, words. In the still-gaping wounds from the immediate aftermath of the most horrific event to ever touch me personally, I have been reminded that, while bullets took and shattered precious lives, the crossfire of words can be almost as destructive—and unifying. Words, the constituent parts of language, are ever-sprouting from the culture to affect how we interact. Sometimes benign and playful, sometimes less so, we see language evolve to reflect the boundless blue sky of possibilities where dreams and nightmares intersect with reality.
One such word was newly popularized during the era of W: “Ish.” In some circles it became a rap-infused anagram for excrement—rhymes with “spit.” In other circles, it became a popular suffix that meant an approximation, a source of noncommittal equivocation: “I’ll be there nine-ish,” and “That shirt is cute-ish,” soon begat a standalone entry into the lexicon. Following up a sentence with “ish” became the centrist’s non-comedic equivalent of Borat’s mildly comedic “Not!”
Although I may have stopped agreeing with Rush Limbaugh around the time Pulse was being built, one of his catch phrases still resonates: “Words have meaning.” As someone who has produced nothing but words in his career, he can attest to their power. We must admit, like our own president implicitly does, that he is right.
If memory serves, this new(ish) word became fully pervasive, at least politically relevant, during the presidential run of John McCain. To many of us Republicans, he was conservative-ish enough, but with a long history as an effective legislator, too prone to compromise on our core values.
Oh, but for the good ol’ days. Ish.
Running against an eloquent law professor for whom there was no room between words and their precise meaning, McCain’s ish-ness was too reminiscent of the Clintons’ just-left-of-Centrism which doomed Hillary’s 2008 primary run. 2008 was, it seemed, the zenith and death of the radical-ish idea that a common sense middle could lead this country of rabid partisans. John Huntsman in 2012 and John Kasich in 2016, moderate executives, seemed to be the last gasps of this short-lived phenomenon.
The nation seemed too divided among enemies for two of the nation’s great religions: Islam and Christianity to thrive side by side. Apologists dug in their feet and sharpened their tongues. Even as enemies of the other isolated, as representative, the words and activities of those small numbers—Westboro and ISIL—who were at best Islamish and Christianish, the President knew and implicitly asserted that they are false prophets and perverters of their respective faiths (and of his own):
"We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
And, in a statement of self-immolation, “...On Easter, I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian, I am supposed to love. I have to say that sometimes when I listen to less than loving expressions by Christians I get concerned…”
As a governing reality, Obama’s rhetoric may not have always matched his actions—constrained by an uncooperative Congress and the stark realities necessitating pragmatic management of the economic and diplomatic business of government—but he has always chosen his words carefully: professorially.
Today, in light of the Pulse massacre—at least for those of us whose friends’ homes were hovered over by helicopters on June 12—we would like for those bullets sprayed from a hate-infused terrorist’s weapons to have been only deadly-ish; for 49 souls that was not the case. As we have watched a city—a worldwide community—coalesce around the tragedy, we have also seen battles play out with the words that could describe the event.
Was it terrorism? Was it hate?
POTUS, true to form, argued unapologetically that it was both, “We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate. As Americans we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”
In so doing, he reaffirmed his command of language. In nuance, he understands, we find the strength of language. He could have chosen an “ish” and lessened the wrath of the politicos on both sides whose posturing required the singularity of the hard c at the end of “Islamic” or the hard t that punctuates “hate.” He made the calculated decision to acknowledge both in his hard wrought statement—in his choice of words. Brilliantly, even before the Pulse massacre, at a National Prayer breakfast, he asserted, “And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.”
On the other end of the communication spectrum, Trump demanded he blame “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” that he speak words designed to alienate and divide along imaginary lines.
Obama resisted the bait.
And so, true to form in the throes of the 21st Century version of the Culture Wars, one group blames Christians while the other blames Muslims. Presidentially, Obama blamed neither. Instead, he framed a debate that fully empowered both defensive positions. Here, he proved his overwhelming optimism in the American people while concurrently failing to lead any single subset of us.
“Wait, did he just say that?” You may be re-reading that last sentence.
Let’s be clear. Obama’s words were not “ishy.” To the contrary, they proclaimed the stark and unequivocal equality of two whole reasons: hatred AND terrorism. He didn’t chose one, one hundred percent. He didn’t choose both, as fifty percent each. He confirmed his legacy of fuzzy math through division. He affirmed both reads of the attacks on Pulse with equality: Two singular one-hundred percents.
With his words, he tells us that he believes that America is big enough and strong enough to maintain two fully correct—yet fully antithetical—assertions at the same time. He opened the floor to debate in the collegiate seminar that is the national discourse; he presented two wholly rational positions and implicitly said, “Here you go, America, have at it.” He led neither side, but rather stood in a lonely canyon with his hands—and words—outstretched and echoing.
In a singular statement, he affirmed the internal beauty of a living Constitution: tension between our individual freedoms needn’t undermine our collective freedom. Speech and religion and protection exist because of each other, not despite each other.
What did his potential heirs to the Oval Office have to say? In the shadow of President Obama’s optimistic, two-hundred percented eloquence, Trump pandered to his forty-two (and dwindling) percent, dwelling in the first standard deviation:
“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind—you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”
Can we even call this logical-ish? Certainly ineloquent, clearly misinformed, and at best cover-worthy of the only first-amendment-protected, supermarket-checkout-littering media outlet willing to endorse his drivel.
The other presumptive nominee took a slightly more diplomatic approach, drawing upon her decades of politicking and upon her tenure as Obama’s Secretary of State. In light of Trump’s statements, her middle-ground reflects Obama’s approach, but does not capture it. She falls upon the established tropes of her-until-now-second-placeness. She slices the issue down the left-of-middle:
“I have clearly said we -- whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I'm happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing."
And here’s the difference between being Barack Obama and being Hillary Clinton in 2016. One knows words like a pro and one uses them like a pro. One, the current POTUS, exudes optimism in his words: we are great enough to debate and still live side by side. The other, the next POTUS, reflects conciliation: we are similar in our shared Americanness and should drive toward the middle ground. One, Barack Obama, celebrates an America that overflows its bounds, two hundred percent. The other, Clinton, celebrates an America that exerts its current potential for progress, one hundred percent down the middle, 52-48.
I have little doubt that Hillary, when president, will finally be able to stop campaigning and start growing the discourse like her predecessor. I also believe she will help, with the friends Obama has not been so eloquent about, grow us fiscally to match that rhetorical two-hundred percent worth of stifled American economic potential.
Divided, but whole, one divides us with a chasm, the other with a dotted line.
And thus, we find ourselves faced with a linguistic challenge in November. Playing out right now, with our own backyard as the backdrop, do we choose the forty two or the one hundred? Who has the best chance of filling out our full potential—of growing and nurturing us? Who has the best chance of fostering a generation of divisive bullies? It seems like a no-brainer (because of the twenty-second amendment and, perhaps, because we can’t survive another four years of academic leadership instead of administration).
Islamic or Islamish? It’s all, at the end of the season, who you’re listening to and who you’re talking to.
It’s all just words, not bullets. Right?
Or maybe we’re just too mired in the bull-ishness to recognize the difference.
Maybe it’s all just bull-ish.