American Civility: It Can't Be Over If It Never Even Started

Illustration for article titled American Civility: It Can't Be Over If It Never Even Started

Some say comparisons of Obama to Stalin or Hitler mean American discourse is going down the tubes. But according to Ann Gerhart in the Washington Post, we've always been this bad.


Gerhart pegs her story to Charisse Carney-Nunes, who uploaded a YouTube video of schoolkids singing about Obama that quickly got the attention of Fox News. Though Carney-Nunes neither wrote the song nor asked the kids to sing it, she was deluged with hateful messages from "You're a dirtbag commie propagandist trying to infect children with your failed Marxist ideology" to "your Obama chant is right out of Africa." Is the vitriol she received — and the related ire that greeted Obama's address to schoolchildren — evidence of a culture that's forgotten how to be civil? Not really — Gerhart maintains we never really knew how.

Of course, the children's songs Republicans call "indoctrination" would have been "patriotism" if they were about Bush a few years ago. But Bush obviously had plenty of haters too, who, as Gerhart points out, didn't shy away from calling him names and comparing him to Hitler. And really, American rhetoric has a long history of nastiness. Gerhart mentions that a Jefferson supporter once called Adams "a hideously hermaphroditical character," and that Alexander Hamilton called Aaron Burr "bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country," resulting in their famous duel. She even argues that the Internet may make our arguments less bloody:

If the Internet and cable TV amplify and spread vile personal assaults, they may also, paradoxically, minimize the physical danger. Duels as an acceptable way to settle a score went downhill after Burr and Hamilton. Benson notes that Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) gave a thoroughly modern explanation for shouting "You lie!" during Obama's speech: He had to get something off his chest.

Gerhart points out that because of how modern media work, many more of us than ever before have the opportunity to get something off our chests — and to become briefly famous for it. In some ways, this may be healthy. Rhetoric professor Thomas Benson tells Gerhart,

[W]e get this puzzling image of Senator Specter in my home town, and some big guy bulging out of his shirt says, 'I've read this [health-care] bill!' And he is so angry it's a declaration of his impotence as an ordinary citizen, but at the same time he's asserting his participation as a citizen, and both things are right.


It is our right as citizens to get angry, and that's a right Americans have never felt shy about exercising. The only difference is that now we have the opportunity to do it on a grander scale. This may be good in that it makes people feel as though their views do indeed matter. It may also be destructive, insomuch as the most extreme and inflammatory views are the most likely to be heard. But while Carney-Nunes's experience is disturbing, and she deserves protection from those who would malign her, what Gerhard makes clear is that bemoaning "the end of civility" is neither accurate nor useful. We'd be better off learning how to harness and interpret public anger than trying to get people to stop expressing it.

In Today's Viral World, Who Keeps A Civil Tongue? [Washington Post]
Elementary School Children Praises Obama "The Great Leader!" [YouTube]
Glenn Beck: Creepy Barack Obama School Kids Indoctrination Song Video [FOX News] [YouTube]
Indoctrination: New Jersey School Kids Instructed To Sing Praises To Barack Obama [YouTube]



At least our Founding Fathers had the kind of vocabulary which made for such good insults.

See, here's the problem: We've let our insult vocabulary get so lax that even the most dull-witted among us can understand them. That's why I'd like to re-introduce "stealth insults."

For example: "Look, don't go to a mind reader; go to a palm reader; I know you've got a palm."