The Death of Civil Discourse

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On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Representative from South Carolina, entered the Senate chamber with two other Representatives: Laurence Keitt, a fellow South Carolinian, and Henry Edmundson of Virginia. All three men were pro-slavery Democrats, and they had come to the Senate to confront Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts. Brooks was enraged at Sumner for a vitriolic speech he had given two days earlier in which he leveled scathing (and at times crude) attacks at South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, a second cousin of Brooks.

Two years earlier, Butler, along with Stephen Douglas, a Senator from Illinois, had helped write the Kansas-Nebraska act, which created the Kansas Territory; by 1856, the question of Statehood was being discussed, with particular emphasis on whether or not slavery would be legal within Kansas. When the territory was created, Butler and Douglas, along with the other authors and supporters of the bill had decided to let the citizens of Kansas decide the issue of slavery for themselves. In a microcosm of the debate that was dividing the country (and would later lead to the Civil War), a series of violent and lethal clashes (now referred to as the Bleeding Kansas crisis) had erupted between pro- and anti-slavery activists. Sumner blamed the authors of the bill for the violence because they opted to leave the issue of slavery up to the citizens instead of making a choice themselves. In addition to attacking their bill and the institution of slavery, he attacked them personally, using lurid insults and allusions to cast them as idiots, amoral hypocrites, and sexual deviants. Brooks was understandably furious at Sumner for berating his cousin, and he went to the Senate to seek revenge for what he deemed nothing but slander.

What followed was one of the most shocking incidents to ever occur in any part of our government.

Brooks walked up to Sumner, who was sitting at his desk, and accused him of slandering both his state and his cousin. Before Sumner could stand or respond, Brooks began to beat him with his cane. The beating was savage, and very nearly killed Sumner; he bled profusely, and eventually lapsed into unconsciousness. Brooks’ two colleagues tried to prevent other Representatives and Senators from intervening. Keitt drew his pistol and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to stop them. Brooks continued to beat Sumner until his cane shattered, and continued to beat him with the pieces until several other Congressmen were finally able to stop the assault.

Sumner required numerous stitches and his full recovery took several years. He wasn’t able to return to the Senate full-time until 1859, three years later. For the rest of his life, he suffered from chronic pain due to severe head trauma, as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Brooks was convicted of assault, but was merely fined instead of being incarcerated. The House attempted to expel him, but the motion failed. Instead, he opted to resign and let his constituents judge him in a special election, which he won roundly. Laurence Keitt was censured by the House, while an attempt to censure Henry Edmundson failed.

Ultimately, the response to Sumner’s beating showed the bitter divide that gripped the country. Northern Congressmen and citizens were outraged, claiming that the South was simply trying to intimidate them into silence. Southerners, on the other hand viewed Brooks as a hero because they hated the attacks that Sumner had leveled at them and at the institution of slavery. Some Southern Congressmen went so far as to wear pieces of his cane around their necks. Newspapers around the country ran editorials, with some condemning the incident and others condoning it.

The fact that the country could not agree on this issue is indicative of how bitterly divided it was. The question of whether or not it is right to savagely beat someone with a cane on the floor of the Senate should be easy to answer. Yet the country couldn’t answer it because the divide had become so great that morality itself was often occluded.

I fear we may be going down that same dangerous path once again.

Partisanship has been a hindrance to our country since the beginning. It has been excessively high at some times, and fairly low at others. But we have seen an exponential growth in it over the past twenty years, and it is now at a high we have rarely seen in the entire history of our country. Political speeches are now routinely filled with vile and unfair barbs towards opponents. Campaign ads are nothing but mudslinging (I can’t even remember the last time I saw a POSITIVE campaign ad). These things have, of course, been seen since the founding of America, but there is a key difference now, which is the assault on truth and morality.

The first hints of this appeared as far back as the Nixon administration. During the Watergate scandal, the Republicans echoed his claims that it was nothing but a partisan witch hunt, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that irrefutably proved his guilt. However, the first real seeds were planted during the Reagan administration, specifically when he repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required media outlets to be honest and balanced in their coverage and discussion of events. The doctrine was repealed under concern that it was tantamount to compelled speech. There is some logic to this argument, but the fact remains that repealing the Fairness Doctrine was what allowed media outlets like Fox News, which trades in nothing but propaganda and misinformation, to rise.

The divide began to grow exponentially during the Clinton administration, bolstered by Republicans’ hatred of and Democrats’ support for him. During his impeachment hearings, both sides willfully either ignored the truth or twisted it to support their agenda. Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the House, made no attempt to hide that his mission in life was to undermine Clinton, regardless of the cost, which is something we had rarely seen before. He regularly attacked Democrats and Clinton with vitriolic and abusive language, and his refusal to work across the aisle was partially responsible for two government shutdowns in 1995.

Partisanship continued to expand under George W. Bush’s administration. He started wars that were ill-advised (and considered by most to be of questionable legality) and the Democrats pushed back. Many Democrats resented the Bush administration from the word “go” because they felt that the presidency had been unjustly stolen from Al Gore (a question that is still hotly debated to this day, though most agree that the Supreme Court’s ruling was at best unethical), and they made no attempt to hide this. The way in which Republicans excused and even defended actions taken by Bush that were at best unethical and in many cases illegal and unconscionable was the first sign that the divide was threating us in a way we haven’t seen in over a century because it was beginning to obscure truth and morality.

It was during the Obama administration that the divide was rent wide open. The Republican Party opposed him and his agenda in a way we have never seen before. In 2010, as he was leaving office, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio admitted in an interview that they were ordered by party leadership to oppose Obama, regardless of what he wanted or the cost of such opposition, saying that “If [Obama] was for it, we had to be against it.” This alone shows a level of partisanship we have almost never seen, but it was only one more step on the road to a divide that may be irreparable. Lead by hatred, the Republicans made it their mission to use every possible tactic to oppose Obama. They abused the filibuster, changed the rules, and on several occasions, flat refused to do their Constitutionally-mandated duties. They shut down the government for sixteen days, hurting millions of government employees in the process, just to thumb their noses at him.

One would think that the Republicans’ actions would be condemned by their constituents, but precisely the opposite has happened. They were lauded with praise and rewarded with more power. They won more seats in Congress (due mostly to gerrymandering and voter suppression; in the last decade, the majority of votes in elections were for Democrats, yet Republicans gained seats while Democrats lost seats) and won the presidency in 2016. Trump is the face of the hatred and rage Republicans feel towards Obama and the Democrats, which is why the divide has widened exponentially under him. But he is also the face of the cause of this hatred and rage, which is the spread of misinformation, propaganda, and ignorance.

In the two years since Trump became president, the divide has continued to expand at a breakneck pace. Bitterness, vitriol, and resentment rule on both sides. His presidency exists purely because of this, and he feeds off of it like a parasite. But the strange thing is that the vituperative nature of today’s political discourse is both a cause and a symptom of our division.

When Reagan repealed the Fairness doctrine, media outlets cropped up that dealt in polarizing speech. Television channels like Fox News and MSNBC (which was originally right-leaning like Fox, but has flipped 180 degrees in recent years to have horrifically biased coverage in favor of Liberals), both of which launched in the same year, regularly pass off propaganda and conspiracy theories as news. Other media would follow suit in the years and decades to come. Television and the radio rapidly became places dominated by one-sided talk shows. When the internet and social media gained power, propaganda and misinformation permeated them as well.

The problem now is that as the divide has grown, so too has the kind of polarizing speech we see from all these outlets. All media outlets have a degree of bias one way or the other, but journalists have a Code of Ethics which keeps most news media more or less in check. But most people now get their news from sources that aren’t actually subject to this code, either through pundits and talking heads on their preferred news channel or from social media. The issue is that these sources, regardless of their political leanings, are increasingly pushing a zero-sum view of politics. Both sides now insist that the other is evil and must be resisted at all costs. This has created a vicious circle; as their speech becomes more polarizing, they attract more radical elements, which in turn makes their speech even more radical because they want to keep their base happy.

Breitbart News is a prime example of this. When Andrew Breitbart founded it, it was initially a news aggregator. Years later, he rebuilt the site to be an actual news site, calling it “the Huffington Post of the right,” which shows he wanted his site to have a clear Conservative bent, just as Huffington Post is quite liberal. This by itself isn’t bad, so long as you take what these sites say with a grain of salt (I read Huffington Post articles myself, but I make sure to fact check them because I know they have a strong Liberal bias, and much of what appears on their site are actually Opinion pieces, which aren’t journalism). But after his death, Steve Bannon became the head of Breitbart, and under his leadership, it has become one of the leading purveyors of misinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories. It is now one of the favored news sources of Nazis and White Supremacists, which by itself is a giant red flag.

The other issue is social media and message board sites like Reddit and 4Chan. Because people can post freely on these sites, misinformation, lies, and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. People post memes and articles, most of which are from very dubious sources, without fact checking them. Abuse and cyberbullying have become rampant. Most major social media sites are now trying to curtail these things, but there are limits to what they can do. Reddit has instituted strict guidelines on what is and isn’t acceptable, and they enforce those policies as best they can. But because of concerns over the First Amendment, many sites and social media networks are reluctant to do much to address the proliferation of fake news and cyberbullying.

Take the website 4Chan as an example. When it was launched in 2003, it was a fun place for geeks like me to talk and read about anime and video games (for the record, I have never posted on 4Chan, but I did used to enjoy reading some of the video game news there). But in the years since, it has devolved into a cesspit populated by the most reprehensible members of society. Nazis and White Supremacists gladly spread their filth there, and it was partially responsible for the Gamergate controversy. In recent years, 4Chan has begun to crack down on some of the filth, but much of it remains, and many simply fled to other sites such as 8Chan (a similar but unaffiliated site which is far worse).

It is against this backdrop of the spread of ever more polarized speech and misinformation that an even more troubling trend has emerged: an all-out attack on truth and morality.

With misleading information spreading faster and wider than ever before, many people are now either unable or unwilling to recognize what is true. As a result, many people now don’t seem to care about morality. They view these things as subjective, which is antithetical to what they are. When you point out the truth of something, you are at best ignored and at worst trolled and harassed. Confirmation bias has become the new norm because no one wants to listen to anything that questions what they believe to be true.

There is no better example of the assault on truth than Trump himself. We have irrefutable proof of his corruption, his disregard for the law, and his inability to speak the truth, yet he always responds with his mantra of “FAKE NEWS!” It is generally expected that a man guilty of crimes like his would proclaim his innocence, of course, but he attacks journalists simply for doing their jobs. He will not accept anything as fact unless it comes from a source that he trusts. He routinely makes up stories to smear his opponents, and lies more readily than any politician ever seen (the Washington Post’s Fact Checker has tallied over 6,400 lies and misleading statements as of this writing). Yet, despite all of this evidence, the Republican Party stands by him. His supporters continue to laud him with praise and even suggest that he is God’s chosen president.

Many, myself included, have asked why this is since he first declared his candidacy. How could ANYONE stand by such a blatantly unethical, amoral, and unfit president? In watching Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process over the last few weeks, I came to realize one part of the answer, and it scares the hell out of me.

It should scare every sane, rational American citizen.

I opened this essay with the story of the caning of Charles Sumner because I saw a disturbing parallel between that incident and the actions of certain Republicans during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. In particular, I was stunned by Senator Lindsey Graham’s rage-filled outburst during Kavanaugh’s testimony about the sexual assault allegations. Graham lashed out at Democrats on the Judicial Committee and called the hearing “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” and went on to suggest that Democrats were simply out for power. Both of these claims are vile because they are patently untrue, and they also ignore all the actions taken by Graham and the Republicans that WERE about gaining power, such as stalling Merrick Garland’s confirmation process.

Judge Kavanaugh also lashed out in partisan rage, making similar accusations. He leveled vitriolic attacks at Democrats on the committee and in general. He showed that he clearly cannot be trusted to be impartial because he has a deep-seated hatred of Democrats. He also showed he cannot be trusted to be truthful because he repeatedly evaded or refused to answer questions and actually perjured himself on several occasions (and, yes, I am aware of the report that suggests that Dr. Ford may also have committed perjury, but that is irrelevant to this discussion). All of this was done on live television in front of an audience of tens of millions of people. We all saw what happened. Yet we can’t agree on who was right and who was wrong.

Millions of people have universally condemned both Kavanaugh and Graham for their unethical, partisan behavior. We saw that what they did was unequivocally wrong, and that Kavanaugh was clearly unfit to be on the Supreme Court, regardless of whether or not he was guilty. Yet Republicans and their constituents rallied around both men, just as they did with Trump, and lauded them as heroes. They chose to ignore what was as plain as the nose on my face because they have been blinded by partisan hatred.

This is no different than the way Preston Brooks’ supporters rallied around him after he savagely beat Charles Sumner to within an inch of his life. The assault was indefensible and unconscionable, particularly because it was against an unarmed man. Yet his constituents felt otherwise because their hatred of the Abolitionists was so pure and so blinding that they couldn’t see anything else. They were willing to ignore morality itself because all they saw was hatred.

I am terrified that we are walking that same path once again because men who are undeniably wrong, who say and do indefensible things, are being defended and hailed as heroes. It isn’t just that we have bad politicians; the bigger issue is the people that support them. They are synonymizing conspiracy theories with fact and their feelings with morality, and they believe that demonization is more important than bipartisanship. They won’t question the leaders they support, and they attack those that do. Reason, rational thought, and logic no longer seem to have a place in political discourse.

Savage attacks have become the norm in political discussion. No longer are politicians or people willing to have a civil discussion (Senator Jeff Flake recently observed that there is no longer “any value in reaching across the aisle”). We have decided that our differences are more important than our similarities, which the inverse of everything we were taught as children. This is reflected in the stories and articles we share, both online and in person; instead of a headline discussing disagreement between two parties, we say that one person “slammed”, “excoriated”, “destroyed”, “savaged”, or “obliterated” another. Our language now is populated mostly by vitriolic terms, which further drives us apart.

We are mired in the most vicious of feedback loops, one that began with an unwillingness to accept truth and morality. Instead of accepting them for the immutable concepts they are, we have ascribed subjectivity to them. To most people, they now mean only what they want them to mean (Kellyanne Conway’s legendary “alternative facts” claim is a prime example of this). This defies all logic and reason, of course; something is either moral or immoral, fact or fiction. There are no shades of grey because these concepts are inherently binary. But because so many conflate opinions with fact and beliefs with morality, our discourse has become charged with hatred and violence, and it is in danger of breaking down entirely.

On the website of the Senate, there is a description of the caning of Charles Sumner, which ends with the following observation:

The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.

One of the contributing factors in creating the divide was certainly the “breakdown of reasoned discourse,” but this description omits any discussion of the reason that civility was dying. The reason then is the same now: the eclipse of truth and morality by partisanship and hatred. People didn’t want to have rational discussions because they had let their anger consume them.

There is a great deal of debate over precisely how wide and bitter the divide is now, and whether or not it really is the worst it’s ever been. I would argue that the Civil War was rock bottom, but I fear we may not be that far off. Some of the powerful voices on the right have been issuing veiled threats about a new civil war if Trump is removed from office. The fact that so many are either incapable or unwilling to recognize the truth even when it is staring them in face is a sign of how far we have fallen.

It starts when someone who commits an unquestionably immoral act is not just defended, but lauded. Preston Books was venerated for nearly killing Charles Sumner. Lindsey Graham and Brett Kavanaugh were both praised for their vicious, partisan attacks. Donald Trump is revered because he brutally mocks and threatens opponents (particularly women, who he will go out of his way to insult and berate) often using language and gestures charged with hatred, racism and sexism, and he does so to raucous cheers and chants of “Lock Her Up!”

All of these things are wrong. PERIOD. There is no debate. There is no gray area.

They. Are. Wrong.

Yet in each case, their colleagues and constituents all chose to ignore truth and cast aside morality. Some do this out of partisan hatred, some do it because the person they support shares their political priorities (which is a Faustian bargain, something that never ends well), and some do it because they are in fact every bit as immoral. But the reasons people do this are completely irrelevant. There is nothing that can justify or rationalize casting away morality itself.

When we try to redefine truth and morality, we risk losing the ability to actually recognize them. That is the precipice on which we stand now, and if we fall, we all lose. No one comes out a winner. It doesn’t matter what we gain because it can never be worth the cost. To quote the Bible, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” The answer is nothing. There is nothing worth losing our souls.

The Republican Party made this bargain decades ago, and they sealed it when they rallied around Trump, who is the epitome of amorality. They were once a party that had strong moral values, but they threw those aside decades ago in their lust for power. Yet they continue to berate the rest of us with sanctimonious speeches claiming that they are somehow still the authority on morality. The problem is that those who cast aside truth and morality often don’t realize they are doing it. The road to selling our souls is a long one, fraught with countless warning signs. The Republicans chose to ignore every one of those signs in their lust for power, and now that they control all three branches of the Federal government, two-thirds of governorships, and a majority of State legislatures, they threaten to take us all with them.

It is imperative we don’t let them. We must continue speaking the truth. We must educate people on what truth and morality are: immutable concepts that cannot be subjective. We must discuss the nature of what is happening to our country and our world. We must talk WITH each other instead of AT each other. We must resist the urge to attack and berate each other and instead keep the debate alive. We must listen to everyone with an open mind and heart, and try as hard as we can to remain objective. We must fight against partisanship and those who seek to divide us, and instead fight for unity.

Most of all, the truth must not ever be hidden or dismissed. There is no greater weapon than knowledge, which is precisely why dictators always try to suppress it. We can still step away from the precipice, but only if we are willing to let go of partisanship and do what is right.

The majority of this country vehemently disagrees with the direction our leaders are taking us. We see that many of our leaders can no longer discern right from wrong or truth from fiction. We have the power to change this, to replace this failed leadership with real leadership, with people who will uphold our values and work to unite rather than divide. But it’s up to us to exercise that power.

The question is whether we will act before it is too late.

This essay, like many I write, took me several weeks to finish due to its length and the necessity of fact-checking numerous points (particularly the historical anecdotes). As I was beginning the proof-reading process, our country was rocked by three horrific attacks. First, a series of packages containing pipe bombs were mailed to numerous Democrats, donors to the Democratic Party, and others who are outspoken against the Trump administration, including Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Representative Maxine Waters, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Vice President Joe Biden, actor Robert de Niro, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, donors George Soros and Tom Steyer, and CNN. The suspect behind this attack, now in FBI custody, has been shown to be a right-wing extremist who harbors a truly vile and potent hatred for anyone who speaks out against Trump or the Republican Party.

As these incidents were unfolding, a white supremacist shot and killed two elderly black people in a Kroger in Louisville, Kentucky. He had initially attempted to enter a black church, presumably with the same intent, but was unable to open the doors. Just two days later, an anti-Semitic white supremacist walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire. Eleven people were killed, and six others were injured in what is now being called the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in our country’s history.

All three of these men were right-wing extremists, and a debate is now raging about their motives. In particular, there has been heated discussion over whether or not the toxic, bigoted rhetoric spread by Trump and the Republican Party played any part in these attacks. It is a virtual certainty that the suspect in the mail bomb attacks was influenced by that rhetoric because we know his political affiliation. The windows of his van are plastered in stickers that celebrate Trump and vilify many of those he targeted, and all of the available evidence shows that this hate-filled man was an ardent supporter of Trump.

While the evidence is certainly not causative as of this writing, there is an undeniable correlation. Yet instead of accepting the facts of the case, Republicans across the board have chosen to ignore the truth and cling to conspiracy theories. Fox News spent much of the first day suggesting that the Democrats simply did this to hurt GOP chances in the midterms, and their viewers agreed. In the days since the suspect was arrested and his political leanings made clear, most on the right have abandoned their conspiracy theories. However, they refuse to accept that Trump’s rhetoric could have inspired the attacker, despite the fact that experts in linguistics and history have shown that political violence often occurs as a direct result of the exact kind of fearmongering rhetoric Trump has used since he declared his candidacy. Instead, the right continues to insist that it is Democrats and Liberals that are responsible for the escalation of political violence in this country, regardless of the fact that most acts of domestic terrorism and political violence are committed by right-wing males.

Before these horrors began to unfold, I believed that we stood on a precipice. I felt we were in grave danger of becoming the society that fought a civil war because I saw the parallels between today’s discourse and the discourse in the years leading up to the Civil War. But I honestly didn’t think we were quite at the point the country was when Preston Brooks was lauded for nearly beating Charles Sumner to death on the floor of the Senate. I really didn’t. Now, I’m not so sure. Considering that people tried to blame Democrats for a series of pipe bombs addressed to them, just as Brooks’ supporters blamed Sumner (and even suggested he wasn’t really that badly injured), I now believe that we have already slipped off that precipice.

We are now hanging off of that precipice, and I fear that our grip may be loosening. That an entire side of the political spectrum now refuses to admit even the most BLATANT of truths and hides behind ludicrous conspiracy theories and propaganda shows that our discourse may already be irrevocably damaged. When emotion and fallacies are substituted for logic, when you are attacked as “elitist” and a “pawn of Democrats/Liberals/Mainstream media” for making a logical, coherent argument based in fact and reason, I have to wonder if we have already lost. History is literally repeating itself, both in action and in word.

But the optimist in me isn’t ready to give in yet. Despite the bleakness of the situation, I still believe we can save this country yet. We still have a hand gripping the precipice, and we can pull ourselves back up. The majority of this country is tired of being fed lies, propaganda, conspiracy theories, and finger-pointing. We are tired of shifting goalposts and hypocrisy. The approval ratings of both the president (which has yet to exceed 46%) and the Republican Party are at record lows, and protests have become more common and more fervent. They have continued to turn a deaf ear to our voices, but we cannot be ignored forever. The midterms are just a few days away, and their fear is evident in their rhetoric and actions.

We can still save this country, but we have to act now. We cannot let apathy stop us. We can no longer afford to make excuses. Every single vote counts, and no matter how discouraged or disheartened we may feel, it is our civic, patriotic, and moral duty to make our voices heard. This election may one of the most important in our country’s history because it is about much more than who has control of Congress or Governorships. It is about nothing less than this country’s soul.

The choice before us is a damning one, but it is also an easy one because morality gives us the answer. We could let ourselves fall from the precipice, which could have catastrophic consequences, but we could also pull ourselves up and walk away from the precipice. The latter is clearly the right choice, but it can only come by changing our leadership and making our voices heard.

We have the power in our hands, and it is up to us to use it. What will your choice be?

If you need information about voting, be it finding your polling place or learning who and what is on your ballot, please visit the following websites:

https://www.vote.org/

https://www.ballotready.org/

Originally published at uncoveringthemanwithin.blogspot.com on November 4, 2018.

Writer, Musician, Computer Geek. Genealogy Enthusiast: http://lookingforyourroots.wordpress.com. Essayist: http://uncoveringthemanwithin.blogspot.com.

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