The intemperate rhetoric destroying our democracy

People used to be able to disagree about questions without wishing death upon those with whom they disagreed.

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WASHINGTON, June 30, 2017 – The level of intemperate rhetoric we are witnessing in our political life, coming from all points on the political spectrum, is a threat to democracy and to a stable society.  People used to be able to disagree about questions like how best to deliver health care or create better jobs or improve infrastructure or protect our borders without wishing death upon those with whom they disagreed.  Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case.

People used to be able to disagree about questions like how best to deliver health care or create better jobs or improve infrastructure or protect our borders without wishing death upon those with whom they disagreed.  Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case.

This no longer seems to be the case. Consider what we have heard in recent days.  Johnny Depp, star of Pirates of The Caribbean, asked a crowd at a music

Johnny Depp, star of Pirates of The Caribbean, asked a crowd at a music festival in June, “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?”


He told his audience:  “I think Trump needs help.  There are a lot of dark places he could go…When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?…It has been a while, and maybe it’s time.”

We have seen Kathy Griffin doing a photo shoot with her chopping off the head of a Donald Trump mannequin and then there are the people in New York going to see Trump as Julius Caesar being stabbed to death in a Shakespeare play.

Phil Montag, the co-chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party’s technology committee, said he wished Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was shot at a baseball practice of the Republican congressional team in June, was dead, that he was glad he was shot. And called him a “motherf—–.”

University of Delaware adjunct professor Katherine  Dettwyler said that 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was arrested in North Korea, tortured and sent home to die, was “young, white, rich and clueless” and “deserved to die.”  She declared:

“His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with anything he wanted.  Maybe in the U.S., when you’re young, white, rich, clueless.  White males routinely get away with raping women.  Not so much in North Korea.”

Warmbier’s “crime” was allegedly taking a poster off a wall as a souvenir. At his funeral, near Cincinnati. Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia, called him “one of the most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met.”  More than two thousand people attended his funeral.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s good friend, David Pecker, used his newspaper, The National Enquirer, to demonize Mr. Trump’s opponents.  It ran a questionable cover story that described Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) as a philanderer and linked Cruz’s father, an evangelical minister, to Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

When  it came to Hillary Clinton, it ran headlines such as, “SOCIOPATHIC HILLARY CLINTON’S SECRET PSYCH FILES EXPOSED.”  A 2015 piece began,

“Failing health and a deadly thirst for power are driving Hillary Clinton to an early grave, The National Enquirer has learned in a bombshell investigation.  The desperate and deteriorating 67-year-old won’t make it to the White House —because she’ll be dead in six months.”

Attacks on the media have also been intemperate. President Trump repeatedly calls journalists “the enemy of the American people.”  Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the respected writers’ group, PEN America, notes:

“His bellicose rhetoric seems to have been interpreted in some quarters as open season for violence against reporters.  Last fall a Trump supporter wore a T-shirt to a Minnesota rally bearing the slogan ‘Rope, Tree, Journalist.’  This spring the Sacramento Valley Mirror received threatening calls, and a noose was left in front of the newspaper office. Late in May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joked about shooting journalists after cutting the fee for a handgun license. ‘Greg Gianforte’s  (the successful Republican congressional candidate in Montana) attack on the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs was the first physical assault by someone elected to Congress since the Civil War era.”

A politician physically assaulting a reporter in response to a question about health care policy even found its partisan defenders.

Since Mr. Gianforte called himself a “conservative,” some other self-proclaimed conservatives rose to his defense.  Brent Bozell of the Media Research Institute declared:

“Jacobs (the reporter who was assaulted) is an obnoxious, dishonest, first-class jerk.  I’m not surprised he got smacked.”

Talk show host Laura Ingraham said:

“Politicians always need to keep their cool.  But what would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?…Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”

And what of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones,who has promoted ideas like 9/11 attack was an “inside job” carried out by our own government, and the murder of children and teachers in 2012 at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut never really happened and was part of a plot by the Obama administration to promote gun control?

Jones has been complimented by Donald Trump, who appeared on his radio program.  NBC devoted a full-hour program, with host Megyn Kelly, to Jones and his outlandish theories.

Charles Sykes, a conservative commentator and author of the forthcoming book, “How The Right Lost Its Mind.” points out that,

“At one time, the responsible gatekeepers of the conservative movement would have excommunicated Mr. Jones.”

Back in the 1960s, William F. Buckley, Jr. famously used his immense authority to cast out the John Birch Society. Had something similar happened, and Mr. Jones had been exposed as the lunatic charlatan he is, perhaps not even Donald Trump would choose to be associated with him.

Mr. Jones peddles weapons-grade nut-jobbery, but he has been promoted by the Drudge Report, one of the most heavily trafficked media websites in the country and may have played a key role in the 2016 presidential campaign.

 ‘I think Alex Jones may be the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media,’ Mr. Trump’s friend and adviser Roger Stone said in an interview last fall.”

Mr. Sykes reports that

“On the Monday after the election. Mr. Jones said that Mr. Trump called him to thank him for his support in the campaign and that the newly elected president promised he would return to his show.  Mr. Trump’s administration even granted Infowars (the Jones organization) a temporary press pass to the White House.  Since the election. President Trump has shown a persistent penchant for conspiracy-minded suggestions about his political opponents and elements of his own government. He suggested his predecessor plotted to wiretap him and has hinted at plots hidden within the ‘deep state.’

Mr. Trump’s administration even granted Infowars (the Jones organization) a temporary press pass to the White House.  Since the election. President Trump has shown a persistent penchant for conspiracy-minded suggestions about his political opponents and elements of his own government.

He suggested his predecessor plotted to wiretap him and has hinted at plots hidden within the ‘deep state.’ Where could he possibly have gotten such an idea?

For better or worse, the president sets the tone for public discourse.  Most recently he has come under harsh criticism from members of his own party for his harsh tweets about t.v. talk show hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman.

He referred to “Low IQ Crazy Mika” and recalled a time when she was “bleeding badly from a facelift.”  He referred to Scarborough as “Psycho Joe.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan said, ”

“Obviously, I don’t see that as an appropriate comment.  We’re trying to improve the tone and civility of this debate and this isn’t helping.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) declared:

 “National and local leaders should model civility, honor, and respect in our political rhetoric.  The president’s tweets…don’t help our political or national discourse and it does not provide a positive role model for our national discourse.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said,

“Stop it! The presidential platform should be used for more than bringing people down.”

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, said that the president’s tweet marked a new low in presidential history.

“We made a big deal that Harry Truman told off a newspaper critic for writing a bad review of his daughter’s music concert,” he said.  “How G-rated is that compared to what Donald Trump has done?”

Democratic societies are rare in history, and extremely fragile when they have existed.  In our multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, with men and women of many political values and points of view, civility is essential if we are to maintain our freedom.

To demonize those whom we disagree, to view compromise as surrender, to insult those on the other side of a question rather than attempt to change their minds through dialogue and discussion, is to betray the values necessary for democracy to flourish.

Extremists on both the left and the right are a threat to our future.

As Milton noted in the 17th century in his classic work Areopagitica,

“For this is not the Liberty which we can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth, that let no man in this world expect;  but when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for.”

Civility in public life is not only a virtue but not a necessity.  We must retrieve it quickly before it becomes too late to do so.

 

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.