Great cities often have nicknames. We know Paris as the City of Lights, New York as the City that Never Sleeps, Los Angeles as the City of Angels, Chicago as the Windy City (or the Second City or the City of Broad Shoulders), Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love, Detroit as the Motor City, Boston as Beantown, Rockford, Illinois as the Forrest City…and so forth and so on.
Perhaps Washington DC might become known, alongside other nicknames already in use, as the City of Words.
Roaming through DC is liking eavesdropping on a continuous conversation. Everywhere you look politicians are speaking, lobbyists are begging, lawyers are litigating, journalists are reporting, protestors are objecting, experts are lecturing, tourists are inquiring, neighbors are greeting and, often, the walls manage to talk. From the Lincoln Memorial to Luther Place Memorial Church, statements of wisdom and power and humor and dissent can be found.
This is fitting for the capital of a democratic society. Democracy, after all, relies on words. It is the attempt, as Euripides wrote, to make “the tongue mightier than the blade.” All humans share universal traits, but we are still different in important ways – and we have conflicting, even mutually-exclusive visions of the kind of society and future we want to create. Without language, without conversation, these differences threaten a descent into chaos. So it is through dialogue that we continue on together. Understanding this, our Founders devised a Constitution that forces us into conversation, and they made the freedom of speech its First Amendment. Of course, the power of words is often used for ill. Words can enslave, mislead, stereotype, and enrage. But, as human beings, language is what we have. It is our task, then, to make the best of it.