Yesterday we watched “…good night, and good luck.” It’s that movie about Edward R. Murrow and his decision to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy during the height of the “Red Scare.” At the end of the movie, after watching several stirring recreations of “See it now” broadcasts, I was struck with one overriding thought. There are few that write like that any more, and even fewer that talk like that in public. The strength of Murrow’s delivery lay not just in the physical aspect: the strength of his voice or the timing of his speech, but in the choice of his words… which lent his message a degree of authority, thoughtfulness, and conviction that has grown more lacking in today’s speech.
This brings to mind some instruction I received in writing, at some point during my education. I recall being told that if I had a choice of words I should choose the simpler, more common of the two – to make my point clearer. The clear implication was that simpler language was better. Now I wonder when we, as a people, decided that “simpler” equals “better?” I do not, and never will, imply that my writing is great… or even particularly good… but how many of the great writers or orators in history were characterized by their simple language? At Gettysburg, Lincoln could have said, “Eighty-seven years ago some folks made up a new set of rules, for a new kind of country.” My guess is it would have long since been forgotten, or at best been relegated to the small print of our history texts – remembered only for the historical significance of the event – and not, as it is now – for the words he used.
Anyone who knows me knows I am not one to praise the “good old days” – and I would never yearn for their return. What’s so good about dying at fifty, hacking and wheezing in smoke-clogged public spaces, flammable waterways, getting Polio/Small Pox (or any number of diseases since vaccinated against), finding half the population useful only as a means of propagating the species, ruthless segregation forced on anything (and everything) society finds the least bit different… I could go on and on. The answer is no, I don’t want to go back to the fifties. However, I do wish our leaders would (or could) stop talking down to us. I wish they would (or could) inspire us to greatness with their words, rather than bring us all down to the lowest common denominator.