Saturday, January 14, 2012

A lack of civility is a new thing? Hardly.

Article first published as Political Discourse Hasn't Changed in 200 Years on Technorati.

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, addressing the press in New Hampshire after the primary, opined on the tea party, linking the growth of the movement to the shooting in Tuscon of Representative Gabrielle Giffords:
We need to make sure that we tone things down, particularly in light of the Tucson tragedy from a year ago, where my very good friend, Gabby Giffords--who is doing really well, by the way--The discourse in America, the discourse in Congress in particular...has really changed, I'll tell you. I hesitate to place blame, but I have noticed it take a very precipitous turn towards edginess and lack of civility with the growth of the Tea Party movement.
Really, she didn't hesitate for very long. And the general idea--that divisive political rhetoric was somehow to blame for the tragic shooting--is nothing new. In fact, the theme appeared almost immediately, following the shooting. And blame for such rhetoric was placed squarely on conservative and tea party shoulders. In particular Sarah Palin was blamed, largely because of the graphics she had used on a map for potential "targets" in upcoming elections.

These new comments by Wasserman-Schultz have ignited a wave of commentary already, with opinions largely following those previously expressed, as conservative and right-wing writers and pundits criticize her for trying to make the linkage while liberal, progressive, and left-wing writers and pundits credit her for speaking the truth.

But what's amazing about all of this, in my opinion, is the near-infinitesimal memory of those claiming that there has even been a heretofore unprecedented increase in divisive--and violent--political rhetoric and imagery. They have no concept of American history in this regard, whatsoever.

During the previous administration--that of George W. Bush--rhetoric was every bit as divisive, especially during the aftermath of the 2000 Election and during the years following the invasion of Iraq. Aside from various calls to waterboard and torture various members of the administration, there was a constant barrage of violent imagery criticizing the President. Hell, a movie was made with the theme of assassinating him.

The years under Clinton were not that much better, particularly after the Impeachment began. Can we so easily forget Alec Baldwin's call to have Henry Hyde and his family "stoned to death"? Or the rhetoric coming from people angered by the Ruby Ridge and Waco fiascoes?

The truth is, divisive discourse--flavored with violent imagery--has been standard fare in U.S. politics since the nation was founded. Some periods are worse than others, that is true, but the general tenor is omnipresent. What's amazing is how infrequently such language has spilled over into action. The most famous case of this happening is undoubtedly the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks in 1856.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it began with Sumner taking the floor of the Senate to make a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to determine--via popular vote--if they would be Slave or Free States. In the speech, he attacked Senator Andrew Butler--an author of the Act--going so far as to call his mistress an ugly harlot and to mock Butler's mannerisms and speech (Butler had recently suffered a debilitating stroke). A few days later, Brooks--nephew of Butler--beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a cane in revenge for the verbal attacks on Butler and South Carolina.

The incident reflected the the rising tide of emotions that would sweep the United States into civil war. It was seized on by both sides for its propaganda value, the North seeing it as an unjustified assault, the South as a righteous and provoked response to personal attacks.

The tragedy of Giffords' shooting notwithstanding, nothing about the current state of affairs in politics is particularly unusual or particularly divisive. Even given the sometimes revolutionary flavor of comments from tea party types--and Occupy Wall Street types--nothing suggests a looming civil war. In fact, one could argue that the consistent harping on the divisiveness of current discourse is more divisive than the discourse, itself. And Wasserman-Schultz is doing her part to keep it going.

 Cheers, all.

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