Anyone who has spent 60 years writing for newspapers, as I have, and anyone who has read very much American history knows that vitriol and crudity in public talk weren’t invented in the 21st century.
But somehow it’s different now, at least from the time in the 1950s when my routine account of a high school football game drew a response scribbled on blue-lined notebook paper that included, “Your girlfriend might not find you too good to look at,” and a reference to my “punkin-sloped head.”
One difference is that was the only such letter in 10 years of writing about sports, so I still have it. Today’s disagreements are routinely slathered with references to parentage, “your silly comb-over,” age and, in response to my last column, “lying on your filthy kitchen floor looking at your filthy dishwasher.”
Anger boils off every line, aimed almost incidentally at me, at all institutions, at life in general, and it’s exclusively from males, judging by the names. I keep few of those.
Whatever the subject, writing for public consumption is an act without an antidote. Dissent is certain, and sometimes it’s even helpful. And the writer learns quickly to triage raw emotional response from earnest argumentation.
But there’s a particularly vicious and constantly escalating near-hysteria in how we talk to each other these days. For example, the recent and sudden descent of Martin Bashir.
Sarah Palin, a figure not known for conversational restraint, had compared U.S. indebtedness to China to slavery. Bashir, a conventional “Nightline” host on ABC for five years, apparently transformed by a move to MSNBC, cited on air the diaries of a former plantation overseer who punished slaves by having someone defecate (not the word Bashir used) in their mouths or urinate on them. Bashir suggested that Palin, whom he called “a world-class idiot,” would be “an outstanding candidate” for the same treatment.
The full-attack mode of political talk that Bashir’s outburst sickeningly illustrates is a national illness that could be fatal to our ability to solve the real problems of democracy.
If the illness affected only people in competitive media, we could discount or fully ignore it as cynical straining to manufacture controversy and ratings through outrage. It’s a race to the riches they hope can be found at the bottom of the intellectual barrel, led most notably by radio’s Rush Limbaugh, whose crudities, ridicule and edgy sarcasm recently earned him a $400 million contract. But the virus has spread to everyman and to every forum, online, in public discussion, in personal correspondence.
MSNBC is still trying to figure out what to do with Bashir, who immediately, in the disingenuous pattern of modern mea culpa, “apologized and moved on.” But it’s far too late for MSNBC or Fox News or Limbaugh’s Clear Channel to skate away from the results of their hosts’ grammar-school behavior. They could put a stop to it by prescribing and enforcing higher standards, but prefer, apparently, the low road.
Americans who value both humanity and democracy should let them know that’s what is expected in the only language they understand: ratings and advertising support.
And they should also let the Limbaugh-Bashir-Olbermann-Ingraham wannabes in the next cubicle or down the street know that their efforts at imitation are neither appreciated nor effective.
The only alternative – tragically already occurring – is no citizen conversation at all about public affairs.