Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civil Political Discourse

In the wake of the Arizona tragedy, many are once again crying out for a more civil form of political discourse in this country. Evidence that this tragedy had nothing in fact to do with political debate, but with an emotionally troubled individual does nothing to dampen their fervor in calling for this, so in the spirit of such civility, let's set this inconvenient fact aside.

Instead let me begin my own reasoned discussion by saying that while I applaud their sentiment, I question the means by which they hope to achieve this enlightened Erehwon. Let's accept the premise that it would be a laudable goal to see more civility in all aspects of our daily lives, something I've said in this blog more than once. Let's further accept the argument that basing debate in this country, political or otherwise, on the reasoned argument of facts rather than on shouted out ad hominems based solely on usually over-the-top appeals to emotional bias would be an admirable goal.

Even using these premises however, I have a great deal of argument with any elected member of the government or unelected member of the national bureaucracy attempting to legislate or regulate the tone of debate in this country; or to restrict in any way the right of free speech guaranteed to its citizens in the Constitution under the First Amendment.

We are told these days that no reasoned political debate in this country can take place unless both sides are willing to compromise on their closely held principles. Really? Have these people been so confused by the rush to political correctness that they are confusing the concept of finding of common ground with compromise?  Have those calling for such compromise lost touch with the concept of core principles that casting them aside in the spirit of temporary political expediency can in any way be seen as a good?  

If that were the standard of civil discourse, I'm afraid that the United States might still be part of the British Empire. Our Founding Fathers, in the spirit of such compromise, would simply have discarded the natural rights carefully laid out in the Declaration of Independence that King George failed to accede to and settled for whatever he and Parliament granted them in return. Perhaps eventually, like Canada, we would have been granted some form home rule over time; but the last 235 years of our nation's history would have been a far different thing.

Speaking of history ...

We are likewise told that never in the history of this country has political rhetoric been so acrimonious. Really? I'm afraid that this misstatement might be yet another example of the the failure of the education system in America to teach its own history. It would come as a great surprise to anyone who has actually read any part of the political history of this country, and understood that the tone and tenor of political discourse in this country has always been incendiary at best.

Early national campaigns were often filled with defamatory remarks, spurious claims, and vitriolic personal attacks; mostly written anonymously by political opponents or their sycophants (you know, like many daily newspaper editorials and most blog comments), and printed in newspapers that had yet to define a set of ethics for themselves (unlike today, when most simply ignore them). John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both scurrilously attacked by both fair means and foul during their political careers in ways that would make much of today's rhetoric seem tame by comparison.

Aaron Burr fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton over the provocative comments that Mr. Hamilton made regarding Mr. Burr's character during the New York gubernatorial election of 1804 (Hamilton was in fact killed in a defense of this point of honor). Andrew Jackson fought 13 duels (all before becoming President), mostly with men goaded into such contests by Jackson's political rivals over the rather confusing circumstances of the marital status of Rachel Donelson-Robards, who became his first lady Rachel Jackson. (It was said that Jackson carried so much lead in his body from these confrontations that he rattled when he walked.)  

 Political debate in Washington has even seen it turn from rhetoric to physical confrontation in Congress itself, when in 1856 Rep Preston Brooks literally beat Sen Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate after Sumner made remarks comparing Brooks's relative to a pimp during an anti-slavery speech.

Recent history has not in fact seen an increase of the inflammatory nature of invective, as much as an expansion of its visibility on 24-hour a day cable news networks intent on filling time with the most titillating sound-bites they can find (or can manufacture through clever editing) and the maundering of political operatives who are out of work between elections (and usually trying to promote a web site or book). This saturation effect is added to and enhanced by the ever-moving line on such news programs of the line between 'reporting' and 'editorializing'.

Where once those who called themselves journalists were greatly concerned about injecting no personal opinion into their work, one could easily make the case that their efforts are now more involved with selective presentation and slanting of the few facts that they bother to use.  Instead of true journalism, they see fit to spend the bulk of their time taking the bully pulpit to share with us their supposedly well-informed opinions and pontificate on the few scraps of fact that they see fit to pass on to us. Far from returning to objective reporting of the past that never really existed, they have instead made the difference between the positions of reporter and commentator functionally insignificant.

In looking at the process, I cannot set aside my lingering suspicions as to the real motivation behind such efforts. Having done some research and writing on previous attempts like the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation, I cannot help but observe that any such government intervention has in the past always favored incumbents over the challengers and professional politicians over political neophytes.  These attempts always seem to want to limit the money contributed to a new candidate or campaign, but do nothing to limit the accumulated war chests of incumbents.  I cannot help but foresee that any new efforts introduced would in all likelihood not only follow the same path, but could easily be used as a stepping stone for abuse by the political party in power at the time (neither of which has proven themselves worthy of such trust) for further encroachments. 

The question ultimately before us therefore is not whether the political debate in this country should be more civil, but whether such civility (which seems similarly to exist nowhere in the country) should be judged by and performed under guidelines set up by professional politicians and a sycophantic bureaucracy with the force of law to back up their notion of proper behavior.  

My answer to this is a very civil, but very loud:
No Thank You!  



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