by Victor Davis Hanson
The historian Thucydides warned about the escalating violent language and behavior that we are witnessing. More on that later.
For now, yes, I thought Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) was a boor to scream out at the President during a joint session. If everyone were to do that, we’d descend into some sort of Third World Parliament in short order, or end up caning each other, as on the eve of the Civil War. He apologized to the President, and should have.
But sadly, I put no credence in liberal outrage. Dozens of Democrats booed Bush during his State of the Union address in 2005; an unhinged Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) called him a liar from the House floor. The currently outraged, like Maureen Down and E.J. Dionne, said little about the 2005 interruption of the President of the United States with catcalls. Congressional efforts at censure failed. Stark, for all I know, remains not an albatross, but an icon of the Left.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
President Obama called for more civility on 60 Minutes the other night. A noble effort, all would agree. But he has himself been serially accusing his opponents of disinformation and lying about his healthcare plan — even as his own accounts of how many are currently uninsured, the status of illegal aliens under his plan, or the nature of his end of life counseling programs seem to change weekly.
The President in his calls for moderation, of course, said nothing about Van Jones’s profanity and racism — or his czar’s charging Bush with planning the deaths of 3,000, charging whites with being mass killers in the schools, and polluters, and on and on.
Wasn’t There Someone Once Upon a Time Called Van Jones?
Any President devoted to the notion of restoring civility would have never nominated such a boor. Imagine instead a contrite Obama saying: “We have got to do better in the way we talk to each other. My own White House green jobs advisor should never have said the things he did, and that’s why he had to go.” Instead, Jones got out of town, screaming about smears at midnight. Obama voted present as the Left charged racism at Jones’s departure — although the President warned school children not to post things on the Internet, the implication being you too can be a poor Jones done in by Google.
The Wages of the Sixties
The truth is that a new generation of boors has come of age without sober wise people to teach them how to act. A Stark or a Wilson, whether left or right, were Sixties people, a generation known for its hip crassness and uncouthness. The baby boomers themselves abdicated the role of elder statesmen, and instead need in their dotage to be taught before they can teach anyone. The proper censors are in the graveyards, a better mannered generation used to hardship and war, whose legacy of standards we have squandered.
The result? Turn to tennis and we see this week a pathetic Serena Williams in a profanity-ridden rant, because she is being beaten badly on the court and apparently cannot handle the self-induced humiliation, and so goes ballistic over a bad call. I am sure she would have preferred, as in the past, the racist- to the profanity-card, had not the targeted umpire herself been a person of color. Of course, John McEnroe, Ilie Natase and Jimmy Connors set the present low standards in tennis. Ms. Williams is only following in their ends-justify-the-means footsteps. In about a week, her father will weigh in with his customary slurs on spec. Who knows, maybe even McEnroe will claim, “Even I would never do that!”
Steal the Show
Then a buffoonish rapper Kanye hijacks a music awards show, to scream out that he prefers the loser to the poor embarrassed winner, standing mute before him with the trophy. But how can the audience that honors the violence and degradation of hip-hop/rap, then be outraged that they get a live version before them of the crude behavior they buy on CDs? Had Kanye only put in a plug for green jobs, he might have escaped without the boos. So we need a Juvenal (‘Who will police the police”) to note the irony of a crass music industry being out-crassed on its formal night out.
Not So Long Ago
The Left is now furious that, as the new establishment, the rules of discourse are not more polite. But from 2002-8, they (Who are “they”? Try everyone from Al Gore to John Glen to Robert Byrd to Sen. Durbin) employed every Nazi/brown shirt slur they could conjure up. NPR’s folksy old Garrison Keiler was indistinguishable from mean-spirited Michael Moore in that regard.
The New York Times gave a discount for a disgusting “General Betray Us” ad. The Democratic Party head Howard Dean flatly said he “hated” Republicans. Hilary Clinton all but called Gen. Petraeus a liar in a congressional hearing. The New Republic ran an essay on hating George Bush (not opposing, not disliking, but “hating” the President). Alfred Knopf published a novel about killing Bush. A Guardian op-ed dreamed of Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth coming back to kill Bush. And on and on.
No one objected. A Dan Rather said nothing — but tried to pass off forged documents to alter the election. A Bill Moyers piled on. There was no voice of “Now, wait a minute, this is going too far.” Did the Left assume that they were going to be perpetually bomb-tossers, forever on the outside of Karl Rove’s ballyhooed three-decades of Republican supremacy to come?
What Comes Around, Goes…
And then something strange and quite unexpected happened. The Democrats nominated a charismatic African-American, won the presidency, after obtaining large majorities in Congress, and suddenly became the Establishment, demanding respect for the Commander in Chief in direct proportion to their efforts to deny respect to his predecessor. Then just as suddenly two tropes appeared after January 20th of this year:
One — cannot we all get along? We deplore this resort to barbarism and crudity.
Two — if you dare sound off like we just did, then you are now a racist.
Not So Fast
The problem is that the public is not really stupid and has a long memory. It hates hypocrisy as much as it does crudity. Part of Obama’s decline is precisely because of this sudden disingenuousness in which one rises to the top on hardball, Chicago politics and playing identity politics (remember Rev. Wright, Ayers, “typical white people”, clingers, etc.), and then of course wants an end to the crudity (like hoping the music stops only when you have grabbed that last chair).
Or so Obama said that he wanted a sort of end to the acrimony. But once he was elected, we got Eric Holder slurring the nation, the President slurring the police, the environmental jobs czar slurring almost everyone, and a host of satellites like Charles Rangel and Diane Watson leveling charges of racism.
So Where Do We Go from Here?
The standards of civilly, torn down during the 1960s, were obliterated completely after 9/11 (hours after, actually, when Michael Moore (Jimmy Carter’s hero) wished a red-state had been hit instead). We have no more “Wise Men” in Washington and New York, but rather graying children of the Sixties, aging badly. A large segment of the left — from Code Pink and Moveon.org to Acorn and the unions — believe that they really can smear and defame and then retreat to mythical standards of decency when they are now on the receiving end. Does anyone believe that the amateur hit journalists who caught Acorn red-handed used tactics any different from Mike Wallace and the 60 Minutes team?
Back to Corfu
The historian Thucydides has a wonderful chapter in his third book on the stasis at Corcyra on all this. In short, he says when rules, decorum, respect, and commonly accepted behaviors are jettisoned for short-term advantage, then the thin veneer of civilization, in other words the law, is scratched away and we peer at our natural Rousseauian selves below. And quite a scary sight that is, natural man without civilization.
Even more brilliant is the historian’s irony. When those on the outs, who excel through seeking the ends by any means, soon find themselves as the establishment, they want no more like themselves. (I don’t think First Lady Michelle now wishes anyone to charge her nation with being a mean country, or would want any guest to her White House to tell her that he is not proud of suddenly liberal America; cf. Obama’s sudden distrust of the community-organizing Tea Partiers and Town Hallers who are out-organizing Acorn).
But too late. Once the walls are stormed, and ramparts of decency in rubble, it is very hard to rebuild the stones to fend off the barbarians, given the power of natural coarseness, and the problem of legitimacy and irony (Why should we believe that you are shocked at Joe Wilson now, when you booed George Bush not long ago?)
The solution, of course, is for the majority to simply say enough is enough, and declare a personal code of decency: “I will not stoop to smear and slur, won’t interrupt a speaker, won’t call anyone a Nazi, won’t do to others what they’ve done to me.” Only that sort of code will end the craziness.
In the short-term it is a losing political formula for conservatives, but in the long term it is the only way to restore sanity and a winning strategy. The New York Times is moribund for reasons other than the Internet. Most (I have not bought a copy in 5 years) won’t read it because of the vitriol of a Maureen Dowd or Frank Rich, and the crass editorials disguised as news accounts on the front page. Obama’s ratings have dived because of the Gates mess, Van Jones, and the Chicago political style. Even Oprah is having problems, once America’s sweetheart went out in a fury on the campaign trail, and used her stature to play on identity politics.
No one needs to become Pollyanna or shocked at occasional tough hits (I’ve been booed and shouted down at a few public lectures by mostly middle-class students parading as “the people” on the barricades), but instead simply refrain from calling your enemy a Nazi or screaming at an official in the middle of a speech, or, like Maureen Dowd, dreaming of kicking Dick Cheney at a reception. The point is not to ostracize or point fingers at others in moralistic fashion, but just simply say, “That’s not my way.”
Otherwise, we won’t have a tennis match, an awards ceremony, a Presidential speech, a congressional debate — much of anything without some hysterical rant from the unhinged.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson