Choosing the better angels of our nature

Mbabane, Swaziland | 1 October 2014
Bill Snaddon

The trouble with political jargon is that the more certain words are used, the less they mean. Political speech of any nature, for that matter, should always be viewed with caution. It should be heard with open and questioning ears.

If we agree that politicians — elected by the people in a free and fair manner or installed by other means — are paid with taxpayer money (your money), then they are employed by you.

When politicians or unelected public officials talk and act, they talk and act in your name; they are empowered to talk and make decisions because they are in a job paid by you. They are using your money.

If someone is using your money, you like to know what they are doing with that money. And taxpayer money is exactly the same as money from, say, the sale of a hotel owned by the government. The proceeds of that sale is your money; literally, the people’s money.

If I give my brother money to go to the shops to buy a packet of biltong and he comes home empty handed, I am forced to ask him some tough questions.

“What the hell did you do with my money, mate?”

It doesn’t matter that he is older and “wiser” than me — he wasted my hard earned money.

To use another example, if I give my brother a lot of money to go to the hospital to buy life-saving medicine so that I will continue living, and he comes home in a new fancy car wearing an Italian suit — and without the medicine — then I won’t even get the chance to ask questions because I will be dead. No life-saving medicine makes Billy a very dead Billy.

I would hope that others might kick up a fuss in my honour, but I wouldn’t hold my breath — if I had any breath left.

If I was alive to hear his explanation I would be interested to know how he rationalised his decision to not save my life.

If he used “political language at its worst” he would make excuses and try to shift the blame.

As the English writer George Orwell said in 1946, political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

If my brother, on the other hand, used “political language at its best” he would take honest responsibility for his life-ending mistake and face the consequences like a real man.

And it goes without saying that it is not just politicians who use political language. If we look in the mirror, we are all guilty from time to time.

At its worst, political language is used to conceal, to hide, to keep from view.

At its best, political language is used to enlighten, to shine a light on uncomfortable truths, to encourage and inspire.

That giant of history, Abraham Lincoln, who gave his life in the struggle to abolish slavery and American president from 1861 until he was assassinated in 1865, is remembered through his good deeds and his memorable political speeches.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” he said.

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 1 October 2014

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