Eisinger: A New Low in Public Discourse?

Posted February 17, 2010 at 1:12pm

The lions and the bulls are either dying or slowly losing their step. Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) now joke about not buying green bananas, and keenly take note of icy, slippery marble steps.

[IMGCAP(1)]Critics bemoan how these senior citizens of the House are entrenched in a stale and corrupt politics. Back home they are most celebrated for their constituent service and love of their residents. They take pride in going to parades, visiting high schools and health clinics. They appear to have both a sense of humor and more importantly, a genuine affection for their job and the people they represent.

With Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) departure also comes the loss of institutional memory — a terribly under-appreciated resource in a city where transience is the norm, and Congressional aides come and go like the summer wind. Murtha was a lot of things — patriot, father, husband, deal-maker, Marine and Democrat. But his loss sadly exposes much more; it underscores how low our politics has ebbed.

Need proof? Read the comments that follow Web news stories about his death. Politico.com. Foxnews.com. MSNBC.com. It does not matter. Read ’em and you will learn that the bitter vitriol that permeates our national political conversations has tanked to the point where dead public servants receive the ire of their foes, most of whom probably never met the politicians they so much despise.

“surrender jack murtha was a treasonous piece of trash who falsely accused American soldiers of committing attrocities in Iraq” (politico.com, Feb. 8, 3:31 EST).

“Burn in he** with Ted Kennedy!” (politico.com, 3:33 EST).

“Good riddance to bad rubbish. After calling our troops murderers, I think this is Karma’s way of saying, “Pwnd.” (politico.com, 3:35 EST).

“Political? Please this man was a pig ….” (MSNBC.com, 3:12 EST).

“Benedict Murtha and Ted the Red are now together and can no longer rape the American coffers and put American daughters in danger of drowning. Good riddance” (MSNBC.com, 5:27 EST).

The Founding Fathers warned us of the vox populi’s intemperate side. Alexis de Tocqueville also expressed concern about the whims of public opinion, and about 50 years later, so too did James Bryce in “The American Commonwealth.” This ominous thread that weaves through our history is a peculiar one, in large part because we the people tolerate, and therefore are collectively responsible for this sordid expression of our political views.

We watch cable political food fights as if they were Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid, when they more closely resemble “Jersey Shore.” Without a trace of hubris or irony about the use of the word retarded, but barely a mention of the word f—–g. We refuse to mute our profane noise, and so it is no wonder that the political decibel level has risen to the point where we cannot hear ourselves.

The ease with which we can express ourselves — type, click — sans editor, is undoubtedly liberating, but it also should alarm us. We have become our own Federalist Papers — printing, proclaiming and announcing, but without the necessary pondering that accompanies reason and good judgment. Our civil filters have dissipated, and there are few signs of their re-emergence.

Exhibit A: After President Barack Obama announced he was seeking to work with Republicans on health care reform, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) responded, “First Question for President Obama: Did You Lie About Moving Forward on Malpractice Reform?” Such a comment hardly advances comity between the branches of government or political parties.

Rage-filled expressions are a bipartisan affair. Posthumous comments about Robert Novak and William F. Buckley Jr. were also laced with a meanness undeserving the dead or alive.

Naysayers also may argue that these angry comments represent the extreme fringes of our society. I will leave it to the pollsters to determine the extent to which this vocal minority is growing. The great political scientist V.O. Key Jr. reminded us almost 50 years ago that the public opinion is not merely the summation of public voices. Rather, certain voices are louder and therefore more powerful than others.

The old school may have its vices, but with few exceptions has at its core a sense of decorum. It cringes at and rejects the voices of the uncivil.

Our collective discourse is eerily vicious, venomous, enraging, brooding and shameful.

Robert Eisinger is the dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design.