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Oleander: Let's Stop Playing Word Games with the Migrant Caravan / COMMENTARY


A caravan filled with thousands of central and south American migrants has arrived at the southern border of the United States. Most are believed to be seeking asylum. President Trump has ordered thousands of soldiers to the area to secure the border and assist Border Patrol agents. Commentator William Jennings Bryan Oleander says a lot of words have been written and spoken about the caravan, but not all of them ring true.

Commentary from Williams Jennings Bryan Oleander, also known as Tom Averill, professor emeritus of English at Washburn University.  Tom is the author of 10 books, most recently the novel Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr.

Tom Averill's old website.   


Folks, I used to love word games. Not so much anymore.

When I was a boy we played the parlor game “telephone.” We’d sit in a circle, and someone would whisper into the ear of his neighbor, something like, “The rat ate cheese and sneezed.” The neighbor would repeat it to the next person, and so on. When the whispering came full circle, the last person would stand up and say something like, “My hat pleased the big cheese, so jeez, beg off.” We’d laugh and start all over again.  

Maybe we liked “telephone” because of our experiences with party lines. Someone on the shared line would eavesdrop, and soon Fred Peet’s lament that one of his cows had a hoof problem would turn into crisis: his whole herd on the verge of loss to hoof and mouth disease. Such was gossip, exaggeration, misinformation, distortion, even hysteria.  

That was then.

Now, in our current political climate, we don’t start with the rat and the cheese, or the cow’s hoof, and go somewhere wild. We start with that wild distortion and hysteria, the misinformation and the lies, and we have the opposite game to play: we have to get back to the honest source, the basic facts. We play telephone, only backward.

Take the caravan that poses such a threat to our borders that we must interrupt the lives of Kansas soldiers to help secure our nation against an angry mob of terrorists, rapists, criminals, Middle Easterners, all financed by Democrats, and all infected with diseases like smallpox, all determined to enter our country illegally.

Why, if someone in the Here, Kansas, Co-op stood up at the end of “telephone” and spouted such rhetoric, we’d laugh uproariously, and ask the first person who whispered to tell us the starting point. That person might say, “A group of 5,000 people is marching toward the United States, seeking asylum.”

Unfortunately, the “telephone” game now starts with distortions and lies, then traces rhetoric back to truth and fact. And even when the truth is revealed, many don’t hear it. Instead, many of us stick to the “party line.” And by that, I don’t mean we’re listening in. No, we’re not really listening at all.

When I was young, we indulged another rhetorical exercise. Sometime, in the middle of a hefty talk, someone would say, “How did we ever get to this point in the conversation?” and we’d trace our way back.  

Folks, I wish we were playing that game. Let’s ask how we ever arrived at a place in our political discourse where words seem to have so little meaning, where belief is not based on fact and truth, but on bias and partisanship, where the truths we hold to be self-evident are not in evidence.

Folks, I want to trust words, and I want word games to be fun again. I want to move forward, not backward.