Recently President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said President George W. Bush of the United States was a donkey.
His comment immediately drew negative reactions. The U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said that such words did not contribute to the bettering of relations between the two nations. I heard similar comments from other people.
But a longtime supporter of Chávez surprised me when he also said that he didn’t feel Chávez should be issuing such insults. Then he explained his thinking: donkeys are very nice animals and shouldn’t be deprecated by comparing them to President Bush.
Someone listening to his comment later added, “and donkeys have never started international wars.”
I have no problem adding my own voice to those who wish President Chávez would be more cautious in the words he uses. I would say the same to spokespersons for the U.S. government who have called Chávez a “hyena” and a “pied piper” and who have compared him to Hitler. Interestingly, Ambassador Brownfield didn’t mention these appellatives as hurting relations between the two countries.
Name-calling, I learned in high school, was the lowest form of argument and should always be avoided. I agree. But I have my doubts that Chávez is going to dramatically change his rhetoric; nor do I expect the current administration in the U.S. to tone down their comments.
Searching for some enlightenment on the matter, I think back to the words of Jack London in his short story, “The White Silence.” He wrote, “those of the Northland are early taught the futility of words and the inestimable value of deeds.
Traveling throughout Venezuela during the past few weeks, I am constantly awed with the changes that I see taking place. One has to be impressed as you see mass transit systems and beautiful public housing developments popping up. I was in a clinic staffed by Venezuelan medical personnel that would compare with clinics in the most “advanced” nations of the world. Anyone can go there, including U.S. citizens, free!
More important, however, than the construction projects is the enthusiasm that I sense in the rural communities and the barrios, neglected by so many governments for so many years. To most people living in these areas, the words Chávez uses merely bring a smile. (I did encounter one person from a humble background who said he personally didn’t like Chávez because of the poor example he was giving with his language and that his family would never speak that way. But even he praised Chávez for what he had accomplished for the disadvantaged.)
My mind also flashes back to a saying that I carry with me: words don’t have meaning; people have meaning. And I think of a wonderful woman I had the privilege to know in Rock Springs, Wyoming: Jackie.
Jackie would be what we called a tomboy, a word used for girls who behaved like boys. But Jackie was no girl. She was probably in her forties when I first met her and in her eighties when she died. Jackie dressed in overalls and rode a bicycle.
Jackie’s family was Mormon, but some Catholic nuns in the parish where I was assigned treated her with respect and she responded by attending the religion classes in their school each morning. Parking her bicycle by the front door, she sat with the elementary school children for an half-hour and listened to what the “sister” was saying about God. Eventually, she joined the Catholic community.
Jackie was a very holy person. If someday I arrive in heaven, I expect to see her sitting at God’s right hand. But Jackie was also known for having a strong tongue.
Early one morning, she came to the parish offices to talk with me. Rumor had it that some of the parishioners were not happy with a decision that I had made and were circulating a petition to the bishop to have me changed to another parish. Jackie said to me (and I think I remember her words exactly), “If anyone brings that petition to me, I will cram it down their goddamn fucking throat.” Strong words from a little woman who rode a bicycle and loved animals, flowers and all that was alive (with the exception of anyone carrying that petition).
I don’t know how my spirits were before she entered my office that day, but twenty-five years later her words still give me encouragement. Someone loved me.
Words don’t have meaning; people have meaning.
I never told Jackie she should change her way of speaking. If I ever meet President Chávez, I don’t plan to tell him that either. I will thank him for the inspiration and hope that he has given to millions of Venezuelans and others throughout the world. I wish I would be able to say the same to my own president in the United States.