A new term has crept into our national, colloquial lexicon. And I’m not talking about “you’re fired!” or even “insurgent.” It’s “embolden.”

Emboldening is something we are not supposed to do, because those who are emboldened are those who oppose us. It first crept into the national vernacular shortly after 9/11, as new internal security measures emerged. It was the basis for action. “If we do not act,” so went the argument, “our enemies will be emboldened.” Fair enough, we don’t want bold enemies. We want them timid, on the run.

Indeed, the word’s become a catch-all bogeyman when it comes to foreign affairs. As the nation chose its president last fall, some claimed that the wrong choice might “embolden” the enemies of freedom. (One analyst amusingly retorted that terrorists were “pretty freaking bold as it is.”) As Iraq now lurches toward elections, a letter-writer to a newspaper in Tennesee says that delay will only embolden these same enemies.

But, “emboldening” isn’t just a geopolitical worry. Many more are getting into the act. The Transportation Safety Administration is accused of being “emboldened” by a Supreme Court decision to infringe on citizens’ rights. The lure of big profits “emboldens” hackers.

What is the warning, when we say that someone is being emboldened? It is, simply, that we are worried the enemy will do what we suspect he or she has wanted to do all along, and has simply avoided doing due to cost calculations. But, were I a general, I might wish for an emboldened enemy — if yesterday they were wisely waiting to act, and today they rashly make their move simply because I’ve given them reason to be encouraged, I can strike them down all the easier.

If there is a group in America that has been emboldened by the re-election of President Bush, it is social conservatives. Everywhere you look, they are flexing their muscles, thundering about new restrictions on gay unions and getting God back into public life. The President has done his share of emboldening, sending strong signals that he is in support of this basic moral agenda. Such moves have the secular left tearing their hair out.

Surely the latest such baldness-inducing episode will be an effort by James Dobson’s group, Focus on the Family, to pick a fight with Barney, Jimmy Neutron, and SpongeBob SquarePants. If you only vaguely recollect the purple dinosaur and have no clue who the subatomic particle boy is, have no worries. They are not household names. But, SpongBob has become an icon and there are few who do not know the good-hearted sea-dweller. Mr. Dobson has targeted Mr. SquarePants becuase of his appearance in a video intended for distribution to elementary schools that promotes a “tolerance pledge.” This sort of outreach effort, if I remember my own childhood and my reaction to such adult-inspired media manipulations correctly, is destined to be a snoozer and one may wonder at the expenditure. But it’s happening nonetheless.

The complaint is that the SpongeBob video explicitly promotes tolerance of gays. But, it doesn’t. Nothing in the video or its accompanying materials discuss homosexuality. There is a reference to a pledge, available at a website, that mentions “sexual identity.” This hardly counts as gay propaganda, in a world where there are television shows predicated on the notion that gay people have better taste than straights.

But, Mr. Dobson and other social conservatives are clearly emboldened by their recent electoral victory. They feel the wind of a mandate behind them. Picking this particular cute little yellow spong as an adversary may have been a miscalculation, however. Because anyone who has watched even a bit a SpongeBob SquarePants (that is, anyone with children and many without) knows that the little guy is just a good-hearted soul trying his best to make his friends happy and do the right thing. His character is one of the bright spots of the TV landscape. He has no guile in his heart, and is steadfastly cheerful — yet not cloyingly so like Barney.

And so, in levelling its fire at Nickolodeon’s flagship sponge, Mr. Dobson’t group may well have overreached. The charges don’t make sense. Were I an adversary of Focus on the Family, I might be chortling. Were I a supporter, I might be worried.

Being neither, I watch with interest as the idea of “being emboldened” takes wing in new ways across our political landscape. In fact, only recently I saw a glowing reference to the President’s inaugural speech, saying that it would “embolden” freedom fighters across the globe. So, it’s beginning to be a good thing, now. Good, then.

Perhaps there are a few friendly words that can be said that would embolden SpongeBob to fight back against this recent attack. But, I think he is too retiring a fellow.

In Ordinary Times

This week the President mounts the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office. Upon doing so, he gives a speech. It is not a requirement that he do so — but the tradition dates to George Washington. The Inaugural Address is in a rarefied class of speeches, like the State of the Union, that is deemed important, not just a campaign stop.

Across the globe, listeners will tune in, to find out what the future holds. But I have a different question. It’s this: What are we hoping to hear?

In movies that Hollywood makes about politics, it’s always a great speech that turns the tide. The camera, as the speaker speaks, pulls in tight until her face fills the screen. Cutaway shots linger on adversaries melting a bit, nodding their heads as they agree with the power of the argument and the force of the speaker’s convictions. They are moved.

This makes for great theater. It’s understandable that those who perform for their livelihood would believe, as Jack Black puts it in another context in School of Rock, “One great rock show can change the world.” One great performance can change the world.

In extraordinary times, in times of crisis or at turning points, this may be true. On the eve of Civil War, Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” To a nation facing economic calamity, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned us of “a generation of self-seekers” with “no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.” In the bitter chill of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy urged us to “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Moving forward from these singular points, America and the world were changed.

But there are other times, ordinary times, when the political speech is just that: words. The speaker does not mount the rostrum seeking to persuade, move, or even to cajole. In ordinary times, the new leader speaks, simply, because that is what is done. The new leader speaks to mark an ascension, and to remind those listening of just who is speaking. Hebert Hoover, coming to office amidst prosperity and the expectation of more, gave a laundry list brimming with optimism, ending by telling us that he had “no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.”

This week, are we to hear the speech of crisis, or the speech of ordinary times?

Not many speeches, these days, are meant to change minds or win arguments. It’s not really how politics is done anymore. And yet, in our living rooms, we watch the inaugural speeches hoping for that very thing. We seek to be moved, led. We’re hoping for life, for once, to imitate art and for that speech-giver to grow and become, suddenly, the great orator of old, thundering his argument to the rafters and convincing us by force of will and clarity of thought. We look to the political speech to somehow let us tap into the heart of the speaker, to open a channel from us to her. We yearn to be in that cutaway shot, nodding slowly as we agree with the good ideas we’re hearing and finally applauding as we resolve to move forward together.

It is a desire that we all buy into. But, speeches these days are ghostwritten by committee. They are gone over with a fine tooth comb to make sure they don’t say too much. Absent a crisis, they grow to become litanies and to contain precious little leadership.

The Right would have us believe there is crisis upon us, that bold leadership is required. But the threats that brought us here — Iraq’s reputed vast stockpile of illegal weapons; Al Qaeda’s free rein throughout Afghanistan — now lack singularity. What can be said about the world scene and America’s role in it is that things continue to require “vigilance.” And, here at home, we are faced with the potential that in perhaps three decades our safety net for older folks may fray to breaking. Meanwhile, the Left, too, claims a crisis, only the leadership required is different. The Left (mostly) points to a nation in need of healing and trust, a crisis of “polarization.” But too often , this is merely an emphatic way of stating disaffection.

We do indeed have problems, and in spades. But we lack crisis. It is difficult to imagine to what we must be rallied.

As for me, I don’t listen for the voice of transformational leadership. I doubt I will melt, and slowly nod as the camera moves my way. It would be too much to expect.

Instead, just the fact of the speech itself gives me hope. Two acrimonious elections in a row, with vitriol and accusations flying. And yet, we change power, or affirm it, peacefully and without coup. What better message to take to heart? However we feel about he who holds the Oval Office for another term, we can beam with the knowledge that he is there without bloodshed, and he will leave without bloodshed.

What we are hoping to hear, in the end, is just such a note of hope.

In ordinary times like this, that’s more than enough.

The Bunker

One of the first times I ever spoke to a real, live reporter, I had made an appointment to see him in his offices. On arrival, I was shocked to find myself stopped and interrogated by a uniformed character in the lobby who checked a list for my name, called up to announce me, and issued me a visitor’s badge. He then pointed me toward the elevators and told me to get off on the third floor. My appointment would meet me as I debarked.

I followed all this rigmarole dutifully, like livestock getting branded. I was, after all, visiting a real, live reporter. This man’s words were published and read daily. I confess I was in awe.

Why the security? I wondered. Then I recalled that someone had once told me how dangerous it can be to be a reporter. Uncovering the Truth all the time, you might ruffle the feathers of violent souls. Best to keep one’s person safe.

Since then, I have visited many more reporters, and it’s always the same. Someone signs you in, you get a badge, and you go on in. But with repetition comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes somewhat less awe. I now see that most of the security guards who sign me in are often bored, and don’t seem to be looking too hard for evildoers. With the proper smile and bluster, I could easily infiltrate. And those visitor badges? Typically no more secure than “Hello! My name is. . .” stickers from Staples. A piece of cake to mimic. Once in the newsroom, no one gives me or my badge a second glance. It’s not like the defense firm where I used to work, where the presence of a visitor’s badge (hard plastic, not sticky paper) caused conversations to end and office doors to close.

The purpose of all the security seems not so much safety as it is to create a sense of separateness, to erect a barrier between the reporter and the reported-upon. It creates a bunker behind which journalistic work can take place. This apartness is important to the journalistic endeavor — think of how hard it would be to publish a story criticizing your neighbor, whom you greet daily. But, behind the bunker where truth is king, you can easily sally forth.

Once, in a conversation I was leading with a number of journalists (when I worked at The Harwood Institute), a man told a story about his mother. She had been accosted in a grocery store checkout line and called to account for something her son had written. The anguish on his face as he remembered how his mother had felt was there for all to see — the separateness that had allowed him to write the story in the first place had suddenly been stripped from him.

This apartness works only if it’s grounded in something that restrains the power it gives. What properly restrains the working journalist is his or her code of ethics. Some may chuckle at the thought of journalistic ethics, but it’s real. Among the professions, newsgathering has historically had what may be the strongest such code. Reporters who have worked for years on their craft betray a reverence for truth and objectivity that would cause one to goggle.

But, wafting over the bunker of late have come signs that the zealous adherence to truth is slipping. One hears about it happening here, or there, and the news organizations in question tighten the reins and create new procedures. Rick Bragg, for instance, made the New York Times rethink how it approaches datelines.

In the past few days, stories have reached the public that further erode our sense that the news profession has truth at the top of its agenda. CBS News has made public the contents of the independent report investigating the infamous “memogate” affair in which its 60 Minutes franchise aired reports based on documents with unprovable veracity — yet insisted they’d been verified by experts. To its credit, the Eye has fired four of the executives involved and a fifth, news anchor Dan Rather, is on his way to retirement anyway.

And then there’s commentator and columnist Armstrong Williams. It’s come to light that he took almost a quarter million dollars from the federal government in return for mentioning — often and in a positive context — the administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Williams, caught with hand in cookie jar, is now on a tour of talk shows where he is making contrite gestures. Throwing himself on the mercy of his audience, he says that, as an independent commentator (he doesn’t work for CNN or Fox but instead has his own show and column), it’s hard to balance both the business and reporting aspects of what he does. Maybe he crossed the ethics line, he says, but it was just a simple mistake. It’s not like he did something illegal.

There are those who, on looking at both of these affairs, want desperately to find something illegal to point to. It would be comforting to be able to say that this, or that law had been broken and so the proper sanction would be clear. But the problem is deeper than that. The problem is one of ethics. CBS and Williams both, in their own ways, had abandoned the code of journalistic ethics that is the basis of their livelihood.

There is an implicit deal struck between reporter and society. This covenant, in its essence, is: Reporter, you have the power to write and publish what you please, to go where you like in order to find out what you wish, and not divulge whom you speak to. In return, we in society ask that you do this always in the service of truth and that you keep uppermost in your mind that it falls to you to tell us the stories that we ought to know. This deal is not a law and it’s not explicit. The First Amendment guarantees one side of it, but we rely on good will to enforce the other side.

CBS News and Armstrong Williams each in their own way welched on the deal. They didn’t pursue truth. There behind the bunker, they forgot the covenant they had with us, the reported-on.

Each such incident makes it harder for all the other journalists to do their important work. Because, while the bunker makes it possible to pursue truth in the first place, it also offers a convenient screen behind which to hide. And so, each new revelation pushes us closer to a tipping point where we begin to wonder: What else does the bunker obscure?

Tiny Helpers

From The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2005

Skating over the holidays at New York’s Rockefeller Center, America’s skating rink, one can’t help noticing in the crowd of tourists and locals that everywhere someone is peering into a little screen in a gloved hand. A boy waiting in line one switchback ahead plays a Game Boy, pumping his fist after each tiny victory. Fellow tourists, armed with digital cameras, ask my group to take pictures of them with the gigantic New York City Christmas tree and the statue of Prometheus in the background.

Down on the ice, there is a dangerous clot of people obstructing traffic. Skating abandoned, they, too, are after shots of the tree. They stand shakily, arms outstretched, tiny viewscreens glowing. Skaters notice the hazard at the last moment. Some duck. Many slip, fall, or collide with other skaters.

Everybody has a tiny helper, a gadget to enhance or capture the experience. Does it help? Are people having more fun? Will they remember these times better? There’s a dad in line, trying to return a call to his office. His 20-something daughter, the local girl attending college in the city, scoffs, telling him he’s pushing more buttons than he needs to. This man with the Midwestern face evidently has some learning to do before his gadget is as helpful as it ought to be.

Prometheus, who delivered the secret of fire to man and so is the mythic father of technology, looks on.

Dodging the picture-taking, you get the sense that, for many standing there on rented blades, this is the whole point. As it has been for years among tourists, the object is to gather proof of one’s presence in certain places. The tiny screens have brought change, replacing the tourist’s universal one-eye-shut-peering-through-a-viewfinder posture.

Today’s photographic stance takes up more room. That’s not its only drawback. Pressing my face to a little lens used to seem to place me in the action. It had an intimacy, no matter how simulated. But the preferred stance for digital photography is to hold the camera at arm’s length, between oneself and one’s subject.

The tiny screen at the end of my arm shrinks my subject to roughly half the size of my thumb. Even while I’m taking the picture, it seems less real. Later, I’ll share it by e-mail, or post it to a family website. Maybe I’ll first correct the red pupils we all seem to have, or digitally delete that stranger at the edge of the frame. It may never become an actual object, living on only in laptop screens.

I have a digital camera with prodigious capabilities. Prometheus would marvel at its size (small) and number of megapixels (large). Time was when each photo took effort, so you made them count. Every click of the shutter represented a trip to the drugstore or photo studio. Today, the barriers to entry are so low that I will whip out the little screen for the most banal of scenes.

Do these increase the connection I have with my intended viewers, or do they trivialize my subject? I like to think it’s the former — I am willing, now, to capture the images of daily life, instead of posing everything. My parents, now loving grandparents, see real pictures of what it’s like to live with us and our kids, not staged dioramas.

But there is less reverence on the part of all of us. Even if my image production is meager (I’ve never been a prolific photographer), I think less of each example. I can manipulate it, share it, watch it on my TV. With a picture phone, I don’t even have to remember to bring my camera. The means of capturing images are always there, on my belt, so they don’t mean as much to me.

But what’s worse, is that with the instant ability to step out of life and record it, sometimes I’m only halfway present. Some of my favorite experiences now unfold on tiny video screens while I swivel to and fro to catch the action. Was I really there? Honestly, it’s hard to say.

(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.