Civility ain’t what it used to be…or is it?

It may be a straining just a little to post on this blog a comment on the dreadful shooting of U.S. Rep. Giffords that left six people dead. The link between this horrific event and our political past lies in the present tendency to think that political discourse was better, wiser, cleaner, more respectful in the good old days. Responding to the many voices demanding that the use “inflammatory rhetoric” or graphic imagery should be restricted in political discourse, Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, has already ably refuted that argument (while Jacob Weisberg, also writing at Slate, exemplifies the weak argument that the heated rhetoric “made (the attack) more likely”). Pointed rhetoric, ad hominem attacks and slanderous graphics have, in fact, been a part of the political scene in the United States going back as far as George Washington and it has been the rare individual who has refrained from using such tactics or encouraged the use of such tactics by his supporters. I firmly believe, and the record bears me out, that Calvin Coolidge is one of those rare individuals who preferred to run on his record rather than smear or tear down his opponents. Still, and as Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner, negative rhetoric and graphic statements are protected by the First Amendment, distasteful as they may be to some, and the loss would be infinitely greater if well- (or not-so-well) meaning politicians started censoring free speech (even more).

While it is true that technologies such as the internet have made the distribution of borderline, paranoid and just plain crazy views easier, we just do not know what motivates a person to action. For all we know, Loughner and his ilk may get instructions to kill from perusing a roll of toilet paper. It so happens that the internet was not around when Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, not even when an attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life not that long ago. The level of intensity of political debate is no indicator for the likelihood that a deranged individual carries out his or her plans. While we admire individuals who take the high road, we should not give in to the temptation to try and legislate away the low road – it will always be with us and is a part of political discourse. As Harry Truman used to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

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