by Mike Pyatt
With the Midterms in the rear view mirror, the clamor from the mainstream media and political pundits are focused on whether civility will ever return. Is it only a hollow noun? It’s explicit that the blame rests solely on President Trump’s shoulders. With the House in the hands of the Democrats, and the Senate held by the GOP, one would be wise to keep expectations low. Political rhetoric and rancor are off the chart, we’re told. Which archetype should we be looking to as our champion? Former Secretary of Education, conservative commentator, Bill Bennett, on a Fox News program, was asked about the nation’s harsh tone and incivility, he suggested, “Some times it takes a Mother Teresa, other times, a Dirty Harry.” Why should we insist on political civility? Have we ever had absolute civility? The genie’s out of the bottle.
Other than the obvious-one was real life-the other a figment of Hollywood producer Don Siegel’s imagination, an action crime thriller starring Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry Callahan series-the contrast between the two, couldn’t be more stark. Whether one’s an Evangelical, Roman Catholic, or agnostic, most agree with the sphere of good that was attributed to the late diminutive Albanian born nun, except when she condemned killing babies, leaving her mark of kindness on this orb. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming a symbol for a charitable, selfless life. Dirty Harry was the fictional, indefatigable crime fighter, resisting evil on the streets of San Francisco, backed by his Smith & Wesson Model 29, 44 magnum revolver. Iran, PLO, North Korea and Syria understand Harry.
When CNN, and rabid Progressives, call for civility, that’s code word for conservatives, particularly President Trump, to be a melee mouthed deferential, while turgid Jim Acosta skewered Sarah Huckabee Sanders, unshackled, with impunity, or when Maxine Waters loosed her ravenous wolves on any conservative sheep, who deigns to dine out, or pumps gas in public. Hilary Clinton insists until Democrats control the House, there’ll be no civility. Are we to believe that this lack of civility is a recent phenomena? Our historical memories are short. It didn’t start with the 2016 presidential campaign.
Washington Post liberal pundit Dana Milbank has attributed the expanding incivility to “the growing polarization of both parties” and to the “obvious reality” that the GOP “has gone particularly bonkers.” Scapegoating the GOP has worked with Progressives and the obsequiously uninformed public. In the recent past, members of the moderate GOP, like Karl Rove, blamed President Trump for his “tone that had polluted America’s political dialogue.” The blame game and finger pointing persists. The call for civility, and misguided references to so-called “golden age” of bipartisan comity and cooperation are often a scheme for shifting the focus to another person or group less belligerent than themselves.
At the heart of this issue is a basic misunderstanding of democracy that finds it’s origin in ancient Athens. This faux dislike of political rancor ignores our Founders constitutional structure and its purpose. According to Sir Kenneth J. Dover, classical British scholar, who wrote that in ancient Athens, politicians were routinely publicly insulted and humiliated, on the comic stage, delivered in the Assembly, the equivalent of our Congress in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. Their coarseness was unparalleled compared to our modern day public square discourse.
Similarly, political debate in early America seldom reached the Athenian level of perverted exchanges, but it was still brutal, reflecting a diversity of interests and religious doctrines existing in the thirteen colonies. Of particular note when political parties began to coalesce in the second term of George Washington, political rhetoric was as personal and insulting as the comments and barbs that we decry today as “uncivil and divisive.” John Adams, a Federalist suspected of scheming to concentrate power in the federal government, was called “His Rotundity” by his antifederalist rivals, mocking both his aristocratic pretensions and his ample girth. Our sanitized PC codes wouldn’t tolerate references that hinted at “fat” or “overweight” epithets. History records James Madison, calling on the class warfare rhetoric many decry today, accused Adams’ party of being “partial to the opulent,” seeking to rule by “the pageantry of rank and affluence of money and emoluments,” and seeking power so that the government is “narrowed into fewer hands, and approximated to an hereditary form.” It was ugly.
The Federalist weren’t about to be outdone, responding in kind, as one editorial writer called the Democratic-Republican clubs, “Incubators of Madisonian-Jeffersonian democracy, that horrible sink of treason, that hateful synagogue of anarchy, that odious conclave of tumult, that hellish school of rebellion.” The charge lodged against Thomas Jefferson, that he fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings, began as a political smear in the 1800 election cycle. Most are ignorant of the tumultuous decades leading up to the Civil War witnessed an explosion of vial invectives sparked by the intense conflict over slavery. In 1851, South Carolina Democrat, Representative Preston Brooks, stormed the Senate floor to cane and brutally assault Republican Senator Charles Sumner, who had characterized fellow Senator Stephen Douglas as a “noisome, squat and name-less animal.” Abraham Lincoln was labeled as the “missing link” and the “original gorilla.” A New York Times Paris reporter called for an embargo on portraits of President Lincoln because “his visage was only fit for a gallows.”
While many insist on a more demure, cordial public exchange, suitable for snowflakes, Craig Shirley, biographer of Ronald Reagan, said recently, “The last thing we need in American politics is more civility.” Civility is often the camouflage for hiding the collusion of bipartisan elites, that adumbrated this contrived revolution on “unity and nice.” As for the tone of public discourse, we shouldn’t expect our elected officials to behave better than the rough and crude discourse of ordinary citizens. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t protect merely decorous or noble speech, but as the political rhetoric of American history reveals, all manner of speech, irrespective how crude or uncivil. Our wise political ancestors understood something we’ve forgotten-that as the Athenian playwright Sophocles said, “Free men have free tongues.”
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote of the House of Representatives, “One is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly.” Though he recanted, Joe Biden threatened President Trump, “If I were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” stoked a similar response from counterpuncher, number 45. They should duke it out-for two minutes-at the nearest geriatric center in D.C., and sell tickets for charity. One shouldn’t be shocked that the level of discourse is, with some exceptions, more on par with that of the citizens. Like it or not, President Donald Trump talks like the average hard working voter-most of whom shower after work. When the “speech police” rule the discourse, like on most college campuses, the clashing passions of expression are silenced in a manner that benefit one faction at the expense of another. Being offended is a small price to pay for the flourishing of ideas. There’s a time and place for a Mother Teresa and Dirty Harry. We’ll need both. What do you think?
Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email’s firstname.lastname@example.org