The lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But more remarkable than its dizzying height and more astonishing than its immense walls was the memorial left by the architect.
On the granite base of the tower, beneath the waves, the architect wrote his name in bold letters, covering it with a thin layer of limestone. Over the centuries, the soft limestone washed away, and passers-by who looked down into the water saw his name through the dark, rolling waves.
Few men have their names inscribed on public monuments. Here in Bangor, the honor is reserved for Hannibal Hamlin, a former vice president who is memorialized by a statue not far from the center of town.
Men who say something worthy of being written in stone are rarer still. Of these, we may mention President Abraham Lincoln, whose philosophy of governance is summarized as “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.”
The healing words Lincoln spoke, which a nation carved in granite as a guidepost for future generations, were soft words drawn from the well-spring of a pure and gentle heart. But a heart roiled, polluted and embittered by anger, lust or envy yields hard and vicious words. When written online, the sun may not set before the words bubble away into the electronic ether. The words are less than ephemeral, not lasting a single day. Still, there is ample time for the words to find and wound their reader.
If spoken by a man in authority, like President Donald Trump, the harm is magnified in two ways. First, his words reach millions of eyes and ears, including the eyes and ears of the wise and understanding, as well the eyes and ears of those of feeble understanding, those who are reckless, and those who are impulsive. Second, the president, whom all citizens are taught from childhood to emulate, validates each remark by means of his great authority and prestige, making the remark all the more persuasive.
Character guides a man in making prudential decisions; and given the power of the presidency, these decisions are of the greatest possible moment — either for good or for evil. These momentous decisions aside, it is always the duty of the president to model good conduct by his example, thereby suppressing bad behavior among his subordinates and among his citizens.
To do this, a president must be heard above the voice of the masses. But the clamor rising up from America like a whirlwind is the sound of contention, punctuated with crudity and cursing. Now and then, this smoldering spirit of contention erupts like a prairie fire, fueled by the anger of the people.
How odd it is to hear a president say that the best way to communicate with the public is by one-line snippets of mockery and invective. Would a Lincoln or a Hamlin, if they stepped down from their pedestals of granite and strolled along the Kenduskeag, go unheard? Would Lincoln’s “ Second Inaugural Address” — the greatest short prose in the English language — be enough to distract a citizen from his or her iPhone? If not, then the wisest of men might as well preach to a Wal-Mart mannequin. No words of wisdom will ever penetrate hearts as hard as stone and ears as deaf as wood.
Such is the experience of a father speaking to squabbling children. In his childish anger, little brother does not hear big sister. An insult is quickly repaid with mocking and further provocation. Little brother makes a face, and then a slap, a push, a pinch or a punch is not far away. Deep in their hearts, both await a word from father that will restore order, peace and tranquility.
But the right word is never spoken. For dad is worse than not interested. He is egging the children on.
Fritz Spencer of Old Town is the former editor of the Christian Civic League RECORD.