In the weeks following the shooting in Arizona that claimed the lives of six individuals and seriously injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, many in the media have focused intently on the lack of civility in our public discourse. This was also a popular topic during the election season, when President Barack Obama said that it can seem like civility is “a relic of some bygone era.”
The sheriff investigating the Arizona shooting, Clarence Dupnik, tied the violence to the content of talk radio, saying “[Rush Limbaugh] attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences.”
Surely, the political speech of Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, and caustic politicians are to blame for the shooting, just as violent video games are to blame for youth violence.
What happened to the days of gentlemanly politics, when men like America’s founding fathers treated each other with respect?
James Callender, a key staffer on Thomas Jefferson’s presidential campaign against John Adams, kindly offered the compliment that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
In the noble days of political civility, politicians simply dueled to the death when there was some sort of disagreement. When Vice President Aaron Burr read a letter in which someone claimed that Alexander Hamilton had a “despicable opinion” of him, Burr did the civil thing and fatally shot Hamilton in a duel. Note that while former Vice President Dick Cheney also shot someone, it was far less gentlemanly.
Now it is one thing to shoot someone over a petty argument, but it is completely another matter to post a map of the United States with crosshairs targeting certain areas, as Sarah Palin did. She practically pulled the trigger herself! If only she were more like politicians of days past who had the decency to do it themselves.
There is also the most obvious example of civility in American history; the Civil War. Back then Americans wouldn’t spread anger against the federal government in as irresponsible a manner as Rush Limbaugh. The politicans that pushed for secession killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, women and children, and did so with the utmost respect for the United States.
The George W. Bush years had civility in spades. If you didn’t agree with American policy, you were a part of the axis of evil, you probably had some sort of weapon of mass destruction and that was that. And just like the rest of American history, if you thought we ought to avoid war it meant you were unpatriotic.
Of course all of these examples sound completely ridiculous, but they don’t represent aberrations in American history; they represent the norm. For as long as we have existed as a nation, our public officials have done and said nasty things. Those who are clogging the airwaves with complaints about today’s lack of civility, as well as its ties to violence, would be well-served to remember that.