Teaching my final class at the University of Maine, in 1983, I told about 30 journalism students that their career could put them in the driver’s seat because they were becoming masters of words, and words were coming to be more important than actions.
I claim no prescience, but I may have got that one right. Not only do people today seem to pay more attention to words than to actions, but words are so influential that power is widening its advantages by playing us with words rather than actions.
If actions spoke louder than words, would we have chosen “Yes, we can” over 25 years in the Navy (5.5 of them as a prisoner of war) and 25 years in Congress? If actions spoke louder than words, would we have chosen “Build the wall” over eight years in the White House, eight years in the Senate and four years as secretary of state?
Or were we just being played?
When football players began using the 82 seconds that it usually takes to play the National Anthem to make a statement about the treatment of black folks in the United States, power smelled an opportunity to play us. And it did.
The president told a rally — Alabama counts as a home game for Trump — that NFL owners should fire players who sat or took a knee during the National Anthem. None of them, after all, has the excuse of a “bone spur” to keep them from doing their duty.
Trump is one of many political leaders who use words to distract us from what they are really doing. He was in Alabama, taking a break from his golf club in New Jersey, two days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. It was already clear that Maria had crippled an island full of Americans and that the feds were not responding well.
Maybe Trump isn’t aware of Americans’ basic rights. The First Amendment may be the most important — some of us would say sacred — 45 words in the Constitution. The rights to speak (including by action) and to assemble are clear. I might have made my protest in some other way, but if you want to make a point, TV on a Sunday afternoon broadcast from a stadium is a good way to reach a lot of people.
Trump undoubtedly was fully aware that 68 percent of NFL players are black. That’s way below the proportion of folks at a Trump rally who are not black. George Washington Plunkett of Tammany Hall famously said, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” Trump saw opportunities and in taking them, he took us. We wuz played.
Much as we might dislike Trump playing us, it is far more serious when he is played, as he is constantly. Every host on his recent trip (China, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan) knew how to flatter the ego of a four-year-old. Roll out the red carpet and schedule a military parade so he can play soldier. Trump wuz played.
Trump said Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, had assured him that Russia didn’t interfere in our 2016 presidential campaign. Trump said he believed Putin was sincere.
John Brennan, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, replied, “By not . . . acknowledging to Putin that we know you’re responsible for this, I think he’s giving Putin a pass. It demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint.” Brennan’s conclusion is scary: “Putin is committed to undermining our . . . democracy. To try to paint it in any other way is . . . astounding, and . . . poses a peril to this country.” Trump wuz played.
Trump is not alone in trying to play us. Look no farther than the Blaine House for a homegrown version. When the state auditor reported that Maine had misused federal money intended for poor children, the guv’s response was to challenge the auditor’s motives. That’s an old ploy known as ad hominem, or attacking the person making an argument rather than answering the argument. It’s also known as playing us.
LePage has worried publicly about the overuse of opioids. But until recently, he offered no plan for dealing with a crisis that is killing a Mainer a day. Instead, he attacked the guys who bring that junk into the state. “The traffickers . . . these are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty, these types of guys. They come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, and they go back home,” LePage said. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.”
That stirred the pot enough that no one asked him what he planned to do about it. Folks just asked him if his remarks were racist. Of course they were. But he didn’t care. He diverted attention, which is probably what he wanted to do. We wuz played.
You don’t have to look to government to find folks in power who want to play you.
A reader took exception to a column, in which I noted that I am a Christian. A non-believer, the reader does believe that people who use that word are some sort of evil. She wrote, “I read into it the arrogance of the ‘Christians’ I see all around me, smug, excluding others (except for the necessary contact to attempt to convert them), minimizing the religion of those of other faiths or of no faith.”
I told her she was blinded by a strain of religionists who appropriate to themselves the authority to speak for all Christians. She did not reply. She wuz played.
Nowadays when a news article stirs my blood a bit, I ask myself, “Am I being played?” If it looks like I am, I try to look beyond the article to figure out what is really going on. All I know for sure is that someone is trying to play us. In the long run, maybe sooner, this will work to our detriment as a nation.
Bob Neal believes the people in power have more important things to do than to play us.