Context, by definition, includes surrounding words, related circumstances, and vital background information. To ignore these while quoting a few words arranged in apparent order is to move from context to pretext. The words cease to mean what the person has really said, but instead are manipulated to other ends.Sadly, people do this all the time. It is part of the relationship dynamic—micro and macro. As a clergyman, one of the things I deal with often is the theological question accompanied by a Biblical quote taken out of context. I usually remind the inquirer about the importance of looking at words—particularly in scripture—through the lens of history and grammar (the historical/grammatical method of Biblical interpretation). Otherwise, words become mere weapons.
That’s how we get propaganda.
It’s the kind of thing historian Lauro Martines wrote about in Fire in the City—Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. He suggested that ignoring context runs the risk of turning people “into monsters, whom we can then denounce for our own (frequently political) motives—an insidious game.” He added, “Censure of this sort is the work of petty moralists and propagandists, not historians.”
Of course, historians have the luxury, not to mention responsibility to take their time with a subject—not so, with journalists in the age of videos and blogs.
Anyone reading or watching the entirety of Shirley Sherrod’s remarks, delivered this past March, would have clearly understood what she was trying to say. She was describing how she learned some vital things that have helped her in life and work. It’s actually a wonderful story.
Winston Churchill had a saying, “I enjoy learning, but I have never liked being taught.” Sherrod’s remarks remind us that “teachable moments” are usually not born of a lecture, but rather happen when a light comes on in the heart.
But back to context—such things do happen all too often. There is a rush to judgment followed by tortured explanation, apology, and creative distancing. Fortunately for Shirley Sherrod—and all of us—the truth came out pretty quickly.
What happens when the real context doesn’t come out—and is eventually buried among the ruins of history?
This was the case with a former President of the United States—the 30th—Calvin Coolidge. He was speaking one day in January of 1925 to a group of newspaper editors and the only thing remembered from the speech is one sentence. But this one sentence has been the prism through which historians (of the sort Lauro Martines was writing about) have defined—at times defamed—a very good man and highly effective chief executive.
John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. (1872-1933) ascended to the presidency the moment Warren Harding expired in a San Francisco hotel in August of 1923. He was at the family home in Vermont at the time—without telephone service or even electricity. When he received the news, Coolidge prayed and then his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office just before 3:00 a.m. on August 3rd.
He was overwhelmingly elected in his own right in November of 1924—though still grieving the sudden death of his teenage son. A few months earlier, a blister had gotten infected and the boy days later of blood poisoning.
Known to us these days as “Silent Cal,” his economy of words was akin to his view on economics in general. He was thrifty, conservative, and talked a lot about character and values. One biographer later called him, somewhat cynically, a “Puritan in Babylon.” But like the actual Puritans of history (not the caricature portrayed in modern text books and media), he was man whose obvious decency was itself a rebuke to an increasingly indecent age.
If people these days remember anything Mr. Coolidge said it is usually a variant of this: “The business of America is business.” And that sound bite has become the interpretive code by which this very misunderstood man has been explained ever after.
The idea is almost chiseled in stone, thanks in no small part to agenda-driven historians such as Arthur Schlessinger and newspaper editor, William Allen White. White actually thought Coolidge to be off his rocker because he had a religious streak. But then, White thought Abraham Lincoln was not wrapped too tightly for the same reason.
So the historical fix has been in ever since. It goes something like this: The 1920s were evil because of American greed and materialism and Mr. Coolidge was the high priest of unrestrained and un-tempered capitalism. He gave way to Herbert Hoover, who was even more conservative than Coolidge, and the country plunged into the Great Depression. It took the activist wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to fix everything. (Insert canned laughter here.)
In fact, though the above synopsis is widely accepted these days, it is completely wrong. It is to history, what the Shirley Sherrod story is to current events—narrative divorced from context.
One needs only to actually read Calvin Coolidge’s speech from 1925—the very one containing that convenient sentence—to see the terrible disservice done to a great American hero. And there were no apologies—ever.
In the very same speech—for anyone bothering to read it—Coolidge warned that wealth could not “be justified as the chief end of existence” and should be “the means and not the end”—going on to describe the benefits of prosperity-driven generosity.
At any rate, his speech that day was really not about business, it was about journalism—the business comment was only in the context of the fact that wealthy people owned and ran newspapers. He warned his audience of the danger when the press becomes an appendage of any power-hungry entity: “The public press under an autocracy is necessarily a true agency of propaganda. Under a free government it must be the very reverse. Propaganda seeks to present a part of the facts, to distort their relations, and to force conclusions which could not be drawn from a complete and candid survey of all the facts.”
How’s that for the greatest buried lead from 1925?
Later that year, Mr. Coolidge had a chance to expand on his views about business and America, but there are no sound bites extant from that speech. Nope, Mr. Coolidge was a greedy, selfish, willfully blind, money-grubbing, religiously motivated nut—and he had no social vision. So goes the story.
In November of 1925, Calvin Coolidge addressed the New York State Chamber of Commerce and the speech, understandably, appropriately, not to mention contextually, was directly on point. And I’ll just bet most people didn’t know old “Silent” Cal said so much:
“Political life and industrial life flow side by side, but practically separated from each other. When we contemplate the enormous power, autocratic and uncontrolled, which could have been created by joining the authority of government with the influence of business, we can better appreciate the wisdom of the fathers in their wise dispensation which made Washington the political center of the country and left New York to develop into its business center.”
How about these gems:
“The people have been willing to work because they have had something to work for.”
“The financial strength of America has contributed to the spiritual restoration of the world.” (He talked at length in the speech about how we generously gave to restore Europe following the Great War.)
And here’s one that certainly doesn’t fit the image of the dry and dour man we have heard about all these years:
“If our people will but use those resources which have been entrusted to them, whether of command over large numbers of men or of command over large investments of capital, not selfishly, but generously, not to exploit others but to serve others, there will be no doubt of an increasing production and distribution of wealth.”
And there’s the one phrase I wish we could bring back, not only for the sake of the reputation of a great American leader, but also because it could help in the current national discussion. We are hearing much these days about the “redistribution of wealth,” which, by definition involves taking from one party to give to another (how else would it be “re”distributed?).
Calvin Coolidge said it better—let’s increase productivity and prosperity so that new wealth can be distributed in the first place.