Read Time: 7 minutes
We are not “better than this.”
Would you please stop saying, “We are better than this”?
Where have you been living?
“This” is who we have become. It did not happen yesterday. It does not date from 2016, when we elected Donald Trump. It does not stem from 2000, when Bush and Gore arm-wrestled for the Florida vote all the way to the Supreme Court.
I have watched us devour ourselves for more than fifty years. It has all been out in plain sight.
One expletive at a time, we have destroyed all trust in our most important institutions, which is to say we have destroyed all trust in one another.
We have become a nation of character assassins. Oh, so casually. As if the words we use to describe one another do not matter. In reality, they are practically the only words that do matter.
The Mirror Test
If you feel incensed about some political issue, and you express your moral outrage by calling a politician you have never met “an ignorant f*ck,” you are not solving the problem. You are the problem.
If you recognize yourself in the paragraph above, and you say, “Well, what else can I call someone who approves of starving the poor?”, you have not brought light to an important issue. You have only defended your calumny by blaming its victim.
If you are stalwart in your casual infamy, I suppose this feeling of self-righteousness reflects your internal fear that someone will disapprove of you. You signal your virtue to deflect attention from the void within.
Were your outrage at the opposition truly righteous, you would accurately describe the problem, analyze and dispel misguided attempts to protect the problem, and work at building relationships of trust with those who can help solve the problem. You would not start by calling names.
Death of Civility
There was a time—we who witnessed it are shrinking in number—a time when people generally addressed one another in terms of dignity and even a bit of formality.
When politicians disagreed with one another, they said things like, “I would like to point out to my Learned Colleague . . . .”
Of course, these studied phrases, like “Learned Colleague,” “Distinguished Opponent,” or “Esteemed Friend from the Other Side,” were deliberate euphemisms. They were consciously inserted in place of what the speaker may have really thought—“liberal jerk,” “conservative bastard,” etc.
You may call such circumspection insincere. I call it wise. Politicians in those days knew that words can calm or inflame, and that your opponent of today may be someone you need to call on tomorrow for help in a larger cause. Harsh words can burn bridges.
On account of a war held in the 1960s, I was removed from the United States for a period of time. When I returned in 1969, donned civilian clothes, and began to resume my education at a major university, the culture to which I returned smacked me in the face like an arctic tsunami.
The most vulgar terms of personal abuse had become common currency in the mouths of otherwise cute coeds. The students and campus-hangers-on around me were more interested in heckling, belittling, and humiliating those in positions of power than in reasoning with them. Their exemplars were Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. And they had been reading Saul Alinsky, who said, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”
All this “ridicule”—not to mention snarling hostility and physical intimidation—was justified under the exalted rubric: “The Politics of Confrontation.” Sounds like a book title, or an undergraduate seminar, doesn’t it?
This bombastic, bellicose barrage of invective was justified as the verbal equivalent, at home, of the incendiary bombs being dropped on Vietnamese villagers. It was fighting fire with fire. Because of the moral horror being fought, no weapon was too crude to use in fighting it.
Nobody—or at least nobody virtuously fighting the Establishment—bothered to note the toll that the incessant berating of strangers would take on the moral fiber of our nation, and on the previously sacred notion that a person’s public character was an important personal possession not to be trifled with.
Self-Hatred and 500-Pound Chickens
Since then, we have been through repeated waves or cycles of public sentiment, some to the Left and some to the Right. Partisans of both sides have been tempted to substitute casual slanders for reasoned arguments. They have almost invariably succumbed to the temptation.
Character assassination has gone from being the sport of self-styled revolutionists on campus to being the common currency of elected officials when talking about one another, and even when talking about masses of people seen as the Other Side’s Base. One’s political opponent is always seen as playing exclusively to his or her base, who may be dismissed as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, mind-numbed Zombies, or “Deplorables.”
All of this bad-mouthing, whether from high politicians or ordinary people, has the inevitable effect of making us hate ourselves as a people. We can’t even see how much self-hatred is involved in all this—because everything is the Other Side’s fault.
That’s the dynamic that enabled the left-wing disgraces in Portland and yesterday’s right-wing disgraces in Washington.
Our chickens have come home to roost. They were such cute yellow fuzzballs when they left the nest. Now they are 500-pound bombs, and they are sitting on all our heads.
Stop This World, I Want to Get Off
I mention these things not because I wish to be a Cassandra.
I want us to get better as a nation, to become a more responsible people. But we ought to understand that we’re not going to flip some switch and suddenly gather around a campfire with guitars, singing “Koom-Bah-Yah.”
We have made a mess of ourselves over the decades. If it can be undone at all, that too will be the work of decades.
What must happen is the regeneration of kindness and the rejection of reflexive malice in our hearts.
Sorry to have to tell you that.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)