Monday, October 19, 2015

Thoughts and prayers

“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” — President Barack Obama

OKAY, it's not just me then. This from The New York Times with an assist from Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian.

Do Politicians’ ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Mean Anything?

By Mark Leibovich
October 13, 2015

‘‘There’s been another mass shooting in America,’’ President Obama said from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. ‘‘This time in a community college in Oregon.’’ His weary delivery suggested an irksome familiarity with the whole routine. As he spoke, the details of the latest rampage, this one at Umpqua Community College, which took 10 lives (including the gunman’s), were still slow to emerge. But that didn’t stop the go-to refrain from spraying out immediately via statement, news release, Facebook post or however else politicians broadcast how saddened, heartbroken and deeply troubled they are. 

‘‘My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families of this terrible tragedy,’’ Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a tweet, part of a thoughts-­and-­prayers parade from presidential candidates that began within minutes of the first Breaking News alerts. Gov. John Kasich relayed ‘‘the thoughts and prayers of Ohioans.’’ ‘‘My thoughts and prayers are with families who lost folks today,’’ echoed Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a statement that kept echoing and echoing from our click-­ready condolence machines.

For a few disgusted moments, Obama removed himself from the numbed role he was in the midst of playing — the solemn president — in order to predict and diminish the tired script everyone was about to read from. ‘‘Our thoughts and prayers are not enough’’ the president said of the expression he himself has used hundreds of times during his presidency. He was not critiquing the sentiment so much as he was verbally rolling his eyes.

Obama’s was a rare presidential salvo against the clichéd nothingness of our political conversation in the aftermath of such palpable horrors. People die in the most senseless of ways on a college campus, and politicians offer the platitude equivalent of ‘‘stuff happens’’ (or the actual words in the case of Jeb Bush). Obama was invoking ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ as a proxy for the choice of action versus inaction. 




He was differentiating the preventable tragedies of gun violence from the acts of God (hurricanes, cancer diagnoses) that occasion the same choruses of ‘‘thoughts and prayers.’’ These empty-­calorie bits of sympathy were ‘‘not enough’’ compared with concrete action — in this case the toughened gun laws Obama favors. Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland and a Democratic candidate for president, took it a step further: ‘‘Tweets won’t stop this,’’ he tweeted. ‘‘Thoughts and prayers won’t, either.’’

This wasn’t the first time the expression was scrutinized. After a shooting rampage last year took four lives, including the gunman’s, at Fort Hood, Tex., Representative Pete Olson tweeted that ‘‘Texans need our prayers more than ever.’’ A fast rejoinder argued otherwise. ‘‘We don’t need prayers,’’ contested someone with the handle @BlueDuPage. ‘‘We need cowardly congressmen to stand up to the gun industry’s @NRA & pass sensible gun laws.’’ Olson wasn’t convinced. He took his rebuttal to the radio and said he felt ‘‘deep anger’’ over the response from this ‘‘cold, heartless liberal,’’ who he suggested should ‘‘get the heck out of America.’’ Presumably no minds were changed.

Still, ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ represents the lazy fallback. It is, at the very least, safe and perfectly in line with the ‘‘do no harm’’ caution that politicians subscribe to, even in the rawest of circumstances. No one will accuse these politicians of ‘‘politicizing’’ a tragedy. That’s the main goal of drafting a response, said Kevin Madden, a Republican media strategist. ‘‘It may look like a parachute out of taking a position on the bigger issues behind the tragedy,’’ Madden told me. ‘‘But you may never get to that public conversation if you don’t have the appropriate reflection at the outset.’’

It is a bit of a stretch — if not highly dubious — to suggest that sending ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ amounts to ‘‘reflection’’ of any sort, appropriate or otherwise. But as with many shared media spectacles, Twitter makes it easy. ‘‘My thoughts and prayers are with all impacted by the Oregon shooting,’’ Chelsea Clinton tweeted the day after the president’s ‘‘thoughts and prayers are not enough’’ declaration (earning a special demerit for using ‘‘impact’’ as a verb). This came two days before she would again be tweeting that her ‘‘thoughts and prayers tonight are with all in South Carolina’’ as heavy rains swamped the state. (As a general rule, early-­primary states receive a disproportionate amount of thoughts and prayers.) 

I shouldn’t pick on Clinton, though; she is very much a product of the easy-­connection ethos that was associated with — and to some degree perfected by — her father. Bill Clinton had a great knack for using his presidency as a mass empathy pulpit. He pioneered a language of cheap consolation (‘‘I feel your pain’’) that would later be supercharged by the social-­media tools that democratized the exercise of sending out thoughtful and prayerful wishes. The reflexive act is a little like flipping light switches that don’t do anything. Sometimes, for some reason, you are moved to push them up and down as you walk by. You don’t think about it, and nothing happens, but maybe you feel you’ve done something.

People were not always so generous with their thoughts and prayers. A contributor to Wordwizard, an online discussion group on language and usage, traced a building evolution of the phrase to the 19th century. There were scattered invocations of the phrase in the 1800s — including one attributed to Queen Victoria, as she addressed the Grenadier Guards before they headed off to Egypt (‘‘My thoughts and prayers go with you,’’ declared her majesty). But thoughts and prayers were not often joined in public utterance until well into the 20th century. 

‘‘My thoughts and prayers are with the delegates of my governments who are gathered in conference today,’’ King George said in a message to the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa, according to a New York Times account from 1932. ‘‘Our thoughts and prayers are with our young men who are fighting in Korea,’’ President Harry Truman said in a speech in 1950, while former President Dwight Eisenhower said ‘‘our thoughts and prayers are with them’’ after the deaths of three Apollo astronauts at Cape Canaveral in 1967. Gov. Ronald Reagan of California sent a handwritten condolence note to ‘‘Mrs. Robt. Kennedy,’’ reassuring her that ‘‘our thoughts and prayers are with you’’ after her husband was assassinated in Los Angeles.

The term’s saturation curve dates to the turn of the 21st century. Numerous ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ pronouncements followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, both in public statements and in paid advertisements. ‘‘Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with those who have suffered the devastating loss of a loved one,’’ read a display ad from Morgan Stanley that appeared in The New York Times. 

Two years later, in the midst of the battle over the life of Terri Schiavo, the Florida patient and cause célèbre, Gov. Jeb Bush declared, ‘‘My thoughts and prayers remain with Terri and those who love her.’’ After Dick Cheney accidentally shot his hunting buddy, Harry Whittington, in 2006, the vice president mostly refrained from public comment, except to state that his ‘‘thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family.’’

It’s hard to settle on why ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ is objectionable. Maybe it’s just the aggressive passivity of the phrase. I’ve seen it included on compilations of ‘‘things not to say’’ that people enduring difficult times sometimes assemble. In an article about his battle with cancer in his This Life column for The Times, the author and social commentator Bruce Feiler listed ‘‘My thoughts and prayers are with you’’ as a big no-no. ‘‘In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice,’’ Feiler wrote. ‘‘Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they’re sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ are just falling back on a mindless cliché.’’

To send ‘‘thoughts’’ would seem to be a deadened way of saying ‘‘I’ve been, or will be, thinking about you’’ (which would sound nicer), just as a generic announcement of ‘‘prayers’’ is a neutered version of ‘‘I’m praying for you.’’ After the mass shooting this summer that killed nine in a church in Charleston, S.C., Lindsey Graham gave a statement that, by enlivening the words and adding heart, made all the difference. ‘‘To the families of the victims, please know that you are being prayed for and loved by so many in the community and across the nation. I pray that God will provide you healing in the coming days.’’

When I discussed ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ with astute media consumers, it elicited smirks and sneers. ‘‘It takes a couple of traditional pieties — ‘in our thoughts’ and ‘in our prayers’ — and combines them to somehow make the underlying sentiments even emptier, along Hallmark lines,’’ said Bob Garfield, a co-host of WNYC’s ‘‘On the Media’’ and the Slate podcast about language called ‘‘Lexicon Valley.’’ ‘‘When uttered by civilians, it’s mechanical enough,’’ Garfield said. ‘‘When uttered by elected officials, it has all the emotional resonance of a Miranda warning.’’

Herewith, then, a simple, practical adaptation of Miranda: You have a right to your thoughts and prayers — and to remain silent about them.

2 comments:

  1. Well said! It bugs the daylights out of me - convinces me that they plan to do NOTHING. Go mop their floors, do their laundry, WRITE to your Congressional representatives, mow the lawn, protect all of our citizens. Do SOMETHING even if it's wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What you said: "Do something even if it's wrong!" Yes!!!!

      Delete