We are Losing(Have Lost) the Ability to<br/><br/> Civilly Discuss the Issues <br/><br/>

We are Losing (Have Lost)
the Ability
Civilly Discuss the Issues

© David Burton 2019


     The inability to civilly debate and discuss the issues of importance in Congress dates back at least well over a century and a half. “On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a prominent voice in the anti-slavery movement, delivered an impassioned speech denouncing the compromises that helped perpetuate slavery and led to . . . confrontations in Kansas. Sumner began by denouncing the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the concept of popular sovereignty, in which residents of new states could decide whether to make slavery legal.
     “Continuing his speech the next day, Sumner singled out three men in particular: Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a major proponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator James Mason of Virginia, and Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina.
     “Butler, who had recently been incapacitated by a stroke and was recuperating in South Carolina, was held to particular ridicule by Sumner. Sumner said that Butler had taken as his mistress ‘the harlot, slavery.’ Sumner also referred to the South as an immoral place for allowing slavery, and he mocked South Carolina.
      - - -
     “Sumner’s impassioned case for a free Kansas was met with approval by northern newspapers, but many in Washington criticized the bitter and mocking tone of his speech.
     “One southerner, Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, was particularly incensed. Not only had the fiery Sumner ridiculed his home state, but Brooks was the nephew of Andrew Butler, one of Sumner's targets.
      - - -
     “On the morning of May 21, Preston Brooks arrived at the Capitol, carrying a walking stick. He hoped to attack Sumner, but could not locate him.
     “The following day, May 22, proved fateful. After trying to find Sumner outside the Capitol, Brooks entered the building and walked into the Senate chamber. Sumner sat at his desk, writing letters.
     “Brooks hesitated before approaching Sumner, as several women were present in the Senate gallery. After the women left, Brooks walked to Sumner’s desk and reportedly said: ‘You have libeled my state and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent. And I feel it to be my duty to punish you.’
     “With that, Brooks struck the seated Sumner across the head with his heavy cane. Sumner, who was quite tall, could not get to his feet as his legs were trapped under his Senate desk, which was bolted to the floor.
     “Brooks continued raining blows with the cane upon Sumner, who tried to fend them off with his arms. Sumner finally was able to break the desk free with his thighs and staggered down the aisle of the Senate.
     “Brooks followed him, breaking the cane over Sumner’s head and continuing to strike him with pieces of the cane. The entire attack probably lasted for a full minute, and left Sumner dazed and bleeding.  . . .” (Ref. 1)

     While a similar resort to violence has, as yet, not recently taken place in our nation’s legislative chambers, the vituperative language and disrespect is there for all to see and hear. And Congress is not the only place where incivility reigns. Lack of respect and the shouting down of anyone opposed to another’s view have become commonplace in the newspapers, on the radio and television, in public gatherings and, especially, in our institutions of higher learning. America is rapidly closing its eyes and ears to any and all forms of honest disagreement and dissent.

     “Unfortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives is starting to look more and more like America's universities.
     “Freshmen show up not to learn but to teach. They think they already know it all and see it as their personal mission to set straight the faculty, university administrators and the world. [Emphasis mine]
     “So we see it with ‘The Squad,’ the now-famous far-left freshmen four in the House -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley -- who believe they have been elected to a first term in Congress to reinvent what they think is a failed America and set straight the leadership of their party and the nation.
     “Fortunately, most Americans do not share this highly vocal four's negativism about America. In a new Gallup poll, 70 percent agreed with the statement ‘If you work hard and play by the rules, you will be able to achieve the American dream in your lifetime.’ Even a significant majority -- 61 percent -- of households earning less than $40,000 agreed.
     “It goes without saying that immigration is a high-priority issue on the national agenda because millions from around the world want to come here. There is no more sought-out destination than the USA, and the reason is that no nation in the world offers more opportunity.
     “So why is this dubious group of naysayers commanding such attention?
     “The first rule on the list of Rules for Radicals, authored by {a} famed left-wing community organizer . . . is ‘Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.’
     “Our age of technology and social media adds immeasurable power to {this} advice to gain attention way beyond the support you actually have.
     “Another . . . rule, ‘Ridicule is man's most potent weapon,’ provides the ammunition. {This is a rule well-learned and often applied by our current president.}
     “These four young freshmen Democrats have no interest in a public discourse of deliberation where we soberly seek what is true and what really works. Their only interest is selling their dogma. [Emphasis mine]
     “So, following the advice of {this left-wing community organizer}, they get attention not by developing quality ideas for public policy reform and engaging in thoughtful discourse about these ideas, but through sensational hype of dogma and character assassination of those who disagree. [Emphasis mine]
     “As a result, the discussion is not about the merits of the socialism they are selling, about their big-government answers to health, housing, education and lifting up the poor, but about answering their charge that anyone who does not agree with them is a racist.
     “Attacking the messenger, rather than discussing the message, is a well-established tactic of those whose aspiration is political power rather than seeking truth.
     “Demagoguery is an age-old threat to freedom and the democratic process. There will always be those who long for power and will try to get it with heat rather than light.
     “There is only one weapon . . . to fight this: doing the hard work of informing people and getting the truth to them.
     “The opposition to socialism, and support for freedom is not about being racist.
     “It's about believing in human potential, the uniqueness of every single person, and that no system serves human potential better than freedom.
     “This is not dogma. There's tons of research and data that supports this conclusion.
     “And it is this that has made and makes the USA so great.
     “The task is particularly formidable among our youth, where so many have abandoned traditional faith, and among our poor, where the harshness of life increases susceptibility to political demagoguery.
     “It is no contradiction to say our country and its tradition of freedom is what makes us great, but to also be open and honest about how we have problems.
     “Most of these problems -- fiscal problems and social problems -- are manifest in areas where we have departed from our tradition of freedom and allowed big-government answers into our lives.
     “Don't agree? This is the discussion we will have in 2020.” (Ref. 2)

     The ongoing inability of Congress and the president to civilly address the problems of the day facing America is obvious to all but the blind. With respect to the foolishness being perpetrated in Congress these days, “. . . there has been no absence of pointless onstage preening in this ‘great and commanding theater,’ no shortage of self-serving blather and endless days taken up with matters unbearably dull. ’We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to do, and we seem to do it about every ten minutes,’ one senator, William Fulbright, commented fifty years ago.” (Ref. 3, Page 159)

     We can only hope that sanity, common sense and patriotism will ultimately prevail. The inane bickering, name calling and differences must be put aside. As in the past, what is needed is a common effort, as “has been shown again and again . . . when the leaders of different parties, representatives from differing constituencies and differing points of view, have been able, for the good of the country, to put those differences aside and work together.“ (Ref. 3, Page 164)

     “When you look at America today in the context of its history, one thing is abundantly clear: We have been here before.
     “Consider the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, a nativist political party that was primarily anti-Catholic, xenophobic and hostile to immigration. Then, of course, came the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and the Ku Klux Klan, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, the Birch Society, McCarthyism and today’s tribalism.
     “During these periods in U.S. history, at least three conditions existed: 1) a threat to national security; 2) economic insecurity; and 3) rapid social change . . .
     “These conditions play an outsize role today as well, from the 9/11 attacks to the 2008 recession, a pushback on cultural changes and the rise of President Trump.
     “Add these conditions to the following contemporary trends and it’s no wonder we find ourselves in yet another climate of incivility and polarization:

  • The corrupting role of big money in politics.
  • The prevalence of gerrymandering, leaving {some} seats no longer competitive and no compelling reason for elected officials to compromise or move to the center.
  • The loss of congressional norms that included courtesies and institutional esprit de corps.
     “But one common thread {has} emerged: the misuse, indeed the abuse, of social media.
     “. . . the spread of fear and misinformation on social media sites and talk radio has caused cognitive dissonance in many Americans. ‘Today, folks will only consume ‘news’ that simply reinforces what they believe to be true (whether or not it is true). People only surround themselves with like-minded folks. To do so, psychologically, produces a situation whereby people become rigid and more extreme in their viewpoints. With so many ‘news’ outlets available and algorithms on social media that ‘select’ what we will consume, people are increasingly becoming narrower and isolated in the consumption of real news.’
     “. . . social media . . . is a system that incentivizes outrage . . . ‘The content that gets the most retweets and shares seems always more likely to be content with strong emotion or reaction. Research from scholars in cognition and neuroscience speak to how we are drawn to this kind of content online, which certainly complicates hopes for nuanced, thoughtful discourse in the digital realm.’
     “ . . . the nation’s polarized political and social postures {has} two major causes: 1) the rise of the internet and the fall of the ‘gatekeepers’ who screened much of the vitriolic aspects of public forums that existed before the age of the web; and 2) the rise of ‘big money’ in American politics at all levels, which necessitates candidates’ moving further out on the political spectrum each election to distinguish themselves and attract contributions.
     “. . . one reason for the present decline in civility has been an intentional strategy to amplify certain views by creating think tanks that sponsor biased research results, fund so-called astroturf organizations (the opposite of grassroots groups) and use unreliable sources that call what they distribute ‘news.’ Much of it is, in fact, deliberately intended as misinformation.
     “ ‘Perhaps the most important factor was the end of the Fairness in Media regulations under President Reagan and the failure to reinstate them,’ . . . The fairness doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission, introduced in 1949, required licensed broadcasters to present issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was — in the FCC’s view — honest, equitable and balanced. It was repealed in 1987 because of the proliferation of cable channels and, among other reasons, it was thought to undermine the First Amendment.
     “ ‘This deregulation made it highly profitable to masquerade as a news outlet while ratcheting up inflammatory rhetoric that undermines healthy debate. At the same time, we’ve seen consolidation in media so that most media outlets are connected with one of a very small number of very powerful corporations, and they have considerable influence on government and public opinion alike.’
     “ More recently, some political leaders have found it expedient to cooperate with news outlets that are trying to influence public opinion while crowding out informed debate. ‘And the money that funds this strategy is now protected as a form of free speech by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. So to a great extent the current predicament has its roots in government actions that can be reversed.’
     “. . . the proliferation of news and political media platforms and the 24/7 news cycle seemed like a good thing initially. ‘Instead of waiting for the nightly news with Walter Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley, you could catch up at any time.‘
     “At the same time, when the FCC rolled back its requirement for news programmers to provide equal time to opposing views, cable news channels eventually became ‘siloed.’ As a result . . . ‘people walk around with completely different views of the world depending on their choice of a ‘news’ channel.’
     “Then came social media and blogs, where everyone could become a pundit and a self-anointed ‘journalist.’ {We} now see ‘acrid commentary’ on Facebook and other platforms. ‘Automate this in-your-face style of pseudojournalism along with ‘likes’ and commentary provided by bots and you have the formula for changing public opinion for whatever purpose you desire’ . . .
     “. . . journalists serve a critically important role in a free and democratic society. ‘But many large media corporations are making coverage decisions based on interests of sponsorship and ratings. And social media, which has become a major vehicle for news consumption, can foster incivility. [Emphasis mine] People are able to comment or post under the cloak of anonymity, some of which are not even ‘people’ but bots. Further, not all news stories on social media are vetted or fact-checked, with some that are purposely false or designed to provoke conflict.’
     “. . . {Some trace} the decline of civility to the early 1960s with the advent of call-in radio talk shows. ‘. . . people could express ideas/opinions without having to support them with solid argument, and certainly without having to own them.’
     “Then . . . a new trend began to develop on television.‘What had once only appeared in trashy newspaper tabloids sold at the back of newsstands, now appeared daily on TV. We were regularly treated to all kinds of dysfunctional exhibitions, and as the trend deepened, the more outrageous the better.  . . . With them came the erosion of propriety and, very subtly, civility.’
     “The shock jock culture gave birth to social media — ‘anonymity gone wild. It allows all manner of both well-developed opinions and pure foolish or even hateful diatribe to coexist at the same level.’
     “When you combine these technological developments with the culture of fear spawned by 9/11 and the growing trend toward more ideological defined political parties, you have a recipe for incivility writ large as the defining character of our time. [Emphasis mine] But as horrible and influential as 9/11 was, what was far more influential was our political and national response. ‘We responded with ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’ We color-coded fear. We frightened ourselves beyond terrorists’ wildest dreams, and we have lived in that atmosphere ever since. It is that atmosphere of fear which has allowed us to be manipulated, and which has contributed more to the erosion of civility and thoughtfulness than anything else.’
     “Fear makes civility a luxury and reduces many Americans to black-and-white thinking and political extremes. ‘For perhaps the first time ever, we have a president whose instant and often thoughtless reactions to the mundane, the horrible, and things of great international importance are instantaneously blasted worldwide for all to experience.  . . . {It’s not clear} which is worse — that no one seems to care much any longer, or that he {the current president} is capable of inciting numbers of unthinking people to acts of violence. This is a whole new moment in our history which requires national thoughtfulness and agreed-upon boundaries.’
     “. . . ‘We have a president who capitalizes off that fear every day. Fear is the oxygen of a social media frenzy that pushes us into tribalism and compels us to accept this idea of alternative facts.’
     “. . . ‘This is about globalists versus nationalists.  . . . the communication technology we have today {is} being irresponsibly used to mobilize large groups of people who are angered by their economic condition to harm the weakest and most vulnerable among us.’
     “Many Americans have chosen ideology over reason,  . . . in part because ideology is easier to sell. ‘This has been intentional. Conflict is clickbait. Conflict is higher ratings.  . . . the election of President Trump is not the cause of our civic illness. It is a symptom.’
     “. . . President Trump has contributed to the rise of incivility. He calls his opponents pejorative names like ‘Little Marco,’ ‘Lying Ted,’ ‘Crooked Hillary,’ ‘Crazy Bernie.’ He allows rude and coarse behavior at his rallies and has intentionally pursued a strategy of encouraging meanness, division and incivility. ‘As such, he has given cover to the angry voices of Americans frustrated by rapid changes in the country’s cultural and economic landscape.’
     “But the trend didn’t start with Trump, nor will it end with him. Politics in the past quarter-century has become all about winning — nothing else. There’s been a decline of the political center resulting in less willingness to compromise. Displays of anger, intimidation, and threats of violence have become a regular part of our political discourse. Statesmanship is all but dead.
      - - -
     “Recently, when U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., was referred to in a fundraising email as a ‘domestic terrorist’ by a group of college Republicans, it promoted a spike in threats against her life. ‘When speakers are shouted off university stages or uninvited to forums because their views clash with some student opinions, something is very wrong.’ [Emphasis mine]
     “As we have seen, incivility is not new. ‘It is part of human nature and, thus, as old as democracy itself. What is new is the reach of social media, bringing incivility, and worse, into our lives on a near constant basis. President Trump did not create this moment. He represents it perfectly.’
     “. . . the United States is not in a good place right now, and our national politics is increasingly an abject failure. ‘We see the signs of democratic decay all around us: politicians who behave worse than children on social media, the attempt to normalize calls to hate and violence, the drive to shout down those with whom we disagree. These trends are worrisome and must be turned back if our democracy is going to survive. But states are not seceding. There are still many good people in our public life and good citizens who have figured out how to work together. They can help lead us through this moment.’ ” (Ref. 4)

     We are witnessing the incivility that exists in Congress and in the public at large. Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of this incivility is occurring on our college campuses, where, to a discomforting degree our supposedly best and brightest are being taught to be uncivil.

     It has become distressingly obvious that America’s college campuses are the places where the right to free expression is being undermined. Censorship is not only imposed by our university administrators, but students themselves are a source of censorship when they choose to treat their political opponents with disdain and incivility.

     On many campuses, the liberal Left is pushing their radical agenda against American values by denying conservatives the opportunity to speak and to debate the issues.

     “Fear of the ‘other side’ has fostered a toxic political tribalism.
     “Thomas Jefferson once wrote that ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,’ and Americans have taken the fight for their individual liberties seriously. But while it is true that freedom must be defended, freedom also loses its credibility in the eyes of opponents if it is abused.
     “{Today’s} American college students are no exception. In their own way, they are determined to prevent others from stifling their freedom. What they don’t realize is as they claw for their rights, they are shredding the very foundation those rights stand on.
     “When conservative students {try to} host a lecture or activism event, {they must} remain on constant alert for demonstrators who {want only to} silence their speech.   . . .
     “Countless conservative events have been shut down by dissenting voices who can become violent and physical in an attempt to shut down words they feel are ‘hateful.’
      - - -
     “Students on the left have a . . . concern when it comes to rights. They often fight to protect the feelings of individuals who have historically been denied rights by society. It doesn’t matter whether they have reason to fear those individuals losing rights again. In the minds of progressive activists, they are defending the civil liberties of others.
      - - -
     “The right, when silenced by the left, begins to yell louder. The more words they can say, the better, as that proves they have the right to say them. Those words, however, often turn into dangling red meat for their opposition. They holster the ‘own the libs’ mentality, mocking liberals as snowflakes ‘triggered’ at everything.
     “The left feels their existence and rights are threatened, so they protest, grinding away on the limits of ‘peaceful’ assembly. And they justify in their minds that storming stages and super-soaking speakers is acceptable: They’re just defending their rights.
     “Shouting shameful things or forming a mob to silence your opponents sullies the intended purpose of the First Amendment. This amendment protects us from the government infringing on our rights, but the standard for exercising that right shouldn’t be merely what we can get away with legally.
     “We are so blessed to have the freedom to speak freely and organize ourselves to demonstrate as we wish without government-mandated muzzles. But what good is that protection if citizens are silencing each other’s speech or resorting to aggressive messaging? [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “Being able to engage with those we disagree with is important—we are a community of souls and should treat each other as such. The respect we show our foes reveals the respect we have for the Bill of Rights.
     “When we use our freedom for hostile purposes, we exploit the intention the Founders had for the First Amendment. Freedom requires responsible use, and the proper use of freedom optimizes its purpose.
     “Our standard for free expression should not be what we can get away with legally. If we continue down this path, language will continue to be associated with hatred, and assembly with mob rule.
      - - -
     “If either side truly wants to stop this endless cycle of shouting matches, cancelled events, and lawsuits, they are going to have to start gaining composure in difficult situations.
      - - -
     “When we face true injustice, or people who seek to erode our rights, we should stand firm for those rights. But we must do it with respect to the other side, even if they are not respectful in return.” (Ref. 5)

     Toward the end of the twentieth century we witnessed the disgraceful demagoguery of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. The senator who finally stood up to him was Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith who rebuked him with the words: “I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 3, Page 8)

     It is most unfortunate that, once again, the American political scene is cursed with the four horsemen of calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear. We arguably now have the most divisive Congress in memory. As former President Gerald Ford said: “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.” (Ref. 3, Page 61)

     Despite today’s unseemly actions, lack of action, and vituperative words coming from the U.S. Congress, it is worthwhile to take note of the fact that “Congress, for all of its faults, has not been the unbroken parade of clowns and thieves and posturing windbags so often portrayed.” (Ref. 3, Page 10) Let us all hope that common sense and American idealism will once more prevail.

  1. Violence Over Slavery on the Floor of the U.S. Senate, Robert McNamara, ThoughtCo.com,
    7 February 2019.
  2. Understanding Why 'The Squad' Screams 'Racism', Star Parker, Townhall.com,
    24 July 2019.
  3. Free Speech on Campus Comes With Responsibility, David McCullough,
    The American Spirit, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, April 2018.
  4. Our View: Our nation’s ages of nastiness, Cape Cod Times, 21 July 2019.
  5. Free Speech on Campus Comes With Responsibility, Abby Streu, The Daily Signal,
    2 July 2019.

  16 August 2019 {Article 373; Politics_49}    
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