by Hart Williams (c) 1995
-- Lionel Trilling
Civilization -- that is, those codes of public conduct (and private hypocrisy, for that matter) which we share with our forebears, England, Rome, Athenian Greece, etc. -- is under a merciless and unrelenting attack. and those attacking are armed with FAX machines, satellite uplinks, cable television, simultaneous radio syndication on "robot" AM and FM stations, 800 numbers, cellular phones, computerized mailing lists, and even the Internet and the WorldWideWeb.
The barbarians are at the gate; the heretics' court is about to be called into session. To listen to talk radio is to listen to America, and what is out there isn't very nice.
What has happened to public debate? What has happened to "debate" proper? In the words of one cartoonist, the wife at her computer tells her raging husband, "When I want your opinion, I'll listen to Rush Limbaugh."
We live in a world of ugly editorializing, often as the news is being read (G. Gordon Liddy, for example). But listen to Don Imus: "Well, he's just a wussy! Pansy, wimpy little wussy!" This in response to the debate on GATT! Or this from Limbaugh's show, in response to a granny lady's "megadittoes" and her revelation that she likes to do crossword puzzles. She mentioned that Rush was now an answer in puzzles. She said that she'd not been able to get a clue once. I had done that puzzle: NY TIMES, Sunday, puns on dances and people's names, i.e. "Waltz Disney." She breathlessly told Rush that she'd cracked the clue: Rush Limbo! From Mr. Limbaugh? "Well, all those people who write crossword puzzles are liberals!" With a sneer and a slur, and not a clue at all.
What? I defy the reader to identify the fallacies involved. The former, of course, is ad hominem, "against the man." But the latter?
We have an ideology of sniping; a government by slander. It is a debate of low guffaws and name calling.
Another example: I was online the other night. We were in a chat room, discussing Jeffrey Dahmer. It had evolved into a discussion of the morality of capital punishment. And then this: "THIS IS BORING THE F**K OUT OF ME. YOUR LIBERELS ARENT YOU??" (sic) (This from a fellow with a handle something like BGDICK4U!!?)
The conversation broke up as seven or eight of us flamed the Neanderthal subliterate. But the damage was done. Whatever actual conversation might have happened was lost to the "Beavis & Butthead" sniggering of some cybersex junkie named BGDICK. (Someone speculated "U" and not "I" as probable.)
But this is the problem in miniature. I was proud of the civilized netheads online, but I realized that BGDICK didn't care for any wit but his own, half measure of it. And this is what one hears on talk radio: griping and sniggering. Talk radio is only the tip of the iceberg: Geraldo, t-shirts and a plethora of others come to mind.
But there is a terrible effect. We know, historically, that when you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. Sow anger and reap bloodshed. The case of Paul Hill is not a farfetched one.
Paul Hill shot and killed a doctor and a retired gentleman who'd agreed to accompany the doctor to protect him. The doctor was performing abortions. Paul Hill, one does not doubt, was never involved with the painful circumstance of an abortion, either personally or peripherally, but he killed them just the same, in the name of his 'God.'
John Brown engaged in the same tactics in "Bloody Kansas" in the late 1850s. The first battle of the Civil War took place at a little bit of forested campground on a prairie 15 miles south of Lawrence, Kansas, called Black Jack. Within ten years of that first bloodbath, initiated by John Brown and his boys, 26,000 died in a single afternoon of carnage at Antietam. Europeans could not believe the numbers (many more died of their wounds, added silently to the abattoir).
Certainly slavery was wrong, but was there not a better way of ending it? Prior to that, by 1859, a Southern congressman so brutally beat an Abolitionist congressman that the fellow was nearly dead and permanently maimed, on the floor of Congress!
The parallel is not an extreme one. The dogs of war do not return meekly to their kennels. When discourse and reason cease, violence cannot be far behind. That is history's lesson.
Today, when Paul Hill is discussed on "talk radio," the victim is invariably referred to as an "abortionist" by the literate, and "an abortion doctor" by the less so. The other victim is rarely mentioned at all. His death is not interesting ideologically.
Do you see how important it is that we frame our speech precisely? If we say it one way, there is no excuse. But, stated the way it now stands, it almost seems (if your views run that way) that Paul Hill might have a case for shooting two unarmed men in the backs with a shotgun. (How noble!)
We of America hated the Russians for fifty years. Then, the Russians were gone: no more Communists left to hate. We have no one left to hate now, none to vent our self-righteousness, our "freedom" and "American Dream" on but ourselves.
But hatred is a very difficult habit to break, and hating (for over fifty years) becomes a kind of need. And, lately, one hears 'liberal' spoken in the same tones, with the same hateful inflections once reserved for pinkos, commies and subversives (whoever they finally turned out to be).
A radical form of moderation is needed. Extremism in defense of moderation might seem contradictory, but it may also be an absolute necessity.
I will not be surprised if some "Right Thinking" lunatic attempts assassination in 1995. [NB: proved exactly correct] There are precedents enough. It is a natural outcome of such speaking. Once, a fellow in the Balkans (Serbia/Croatia) started World War I in that fashion.
But in the meantime (and I do mean mean time), we have to stand up for some degree of civility. Perhaps, like Grandma used to say: "I respect your opinions, but if you continue to speak like that, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." Barbarism masquerading as civilized behavior is still barbarism, after all.
And, as Grandpa might growl, if the savage failed to get the point: "You can walk out or fly out -- your choice."
The barbarians are not waiting politely for us to answer the doorbell. And it is not their homes that will burn.