Are we at an all time low for civility in public discourse?
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Dr. Leutze's commentary.]
In the recent ads demeaning John Kerry's war record, many pundits have commented that smear campaigns are as old as politics itself. While this is true, I would make three observations:
1.Long practice doesn't make it right.
2.Technology has changed the way that information travels.
3.The decline of civility in public discourse has reached a modern low.
One thing that makes smears unfair is the dilemma they pose for those smeared. Do you confront the accuser or do you ignore them, thereby implying passivity and possibly attracting more dirt? During some of the worst of Senator McCarthy's frantic search for communists in the U. S. Government, he implied that Secretary of State George Marshall was "soft" on communism. President Eisenhower famously and effectively drove a stake through that by saying, "I am not going to get down in the gutter with that guy." In this case, though, how can Kerry avoid trying to counter charges which are now familiar, according to one report, to 50% of likely voters? Aside from the fact that answering diverts him from dealing with truly important issues, it runs the risk of appearing defensive and doubtlessly extends the life of the controversy. But he probably was right in responding.
The wide-spread knowledge of the charges highlights the technology changes: 24-hour cable channels, internet chat rooms, and "talk" radio act as megaphones for scandals or presumed scandals. Sensationalism is the hallmark of some channels and some commentators, and they now can bombard continuously which Madison Avenue teaches as an effective way to sell anything, even the wackiest of ideas. When Aaron Burr slurred Alexander Hamilton, only a few people knew it, but now slurs have long legs.
Finally, there is the change in the nature and the tone of public discourse. I don't think I am particularly prudish, but I am appalled at some of the things sexual, bizarre, and simply weird that are now grist for dissection and dissemination in the media. And, it is not only the subjects, but the manner in which discourse is conducted. Often at a volume of a scream, so-called commentators attack issues and each other, largely to entertain rather than inform. You don't think Rush Limbaugh or James Carville believe all that stuff, do you?
Returning to the McCarthy era, I am reminded of the confrontation between the crude Senator and the soft-spoken attorney, Joseph Welch. After enduring McCarthy's barbs and snide insinuations for hours, Welch finally replied to an attack on the character of a young man in his employ by saying calmly, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" McCarthy wilted, as a thug met a decent man who appealed for decency. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy.
I wish I thought that an appeal for such a basic human value as decency would sink the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.