Wrong rhetoric targeted

Posted on February 5, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Politicians and pundits have outdone themselves decrying the tone of political rhetoric.

The initial touchstone for this latest round of condemnation was the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords “Congress on your corner” event. It quickly became evident, however, that the suspected shooter was apolitical at most.

Civility in politics is always a laudable aspiration, if an elusive one. Even the most casual perusal of history indicates that vitriol and political tongues are as fused with American heritage as elections and ballots.

Militant terminology and iconography incite political violence? If that were true, sports would be overrun with riots. Even in the tiniest weekly newspapers, athletic teams are described as buzz-sawing, blasting, crushing, destroying one another.

The biting irony about all this hand-wringing over political language is that politics is, by far, the least offensive public venue for verbal vulgarities.

Have none of these rhetoric lamenters darkened a movie theater’s door in the last 15 years? Ever since “Pulp Fiction” pulled out all the stops and dropped F bombs at the rate of more than one per minute, the quality of language in motion pictures has fallen to depths unimaginable just a generation or two ago.

Maybe those voicing the loudest worries about words stirring the wrong emotions have turned a deaf ear to modern music, too. If the proposed “Huckleberry Finn” rule banning the N word were applied to hip hop and rap music, it would put the industry out of business.

For that matter, when’s the last time anybody alarmed by the temperament of political rhetoric attended a sporting event? Obscenity-laden insults among the fans are as commonplace as cheers, if not more so.

Worse yet are the foul-mouthed players, who presumably ought to fall under managerial control. Most corporations wouldn’t allow high-paid executives to scream out the F word at a public shareholders’ meeting. Is it really too much to ask multimillionaires to hold their tongues within earshot of adoring grade school kids?

Come to think of it, even the most antagonistic and acrimonious political rhetoric is still comparatively clean. Heaven, or perhaps its opposite, only knows what’s said behind closed political doors. But when Dick Cheney used the F word while insulting U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, it still brought gasps of impropriety from all ranks.

Complaining about cross-hairs in politics is an ignominious cop-out given the epidemic of coarseness plaguing the other aspects of American society. While history is adamant that rancorous rhetoric has always been part of our political landscape, the historical record is equally clear that, up until recently, rampant obscenity and vulgarity was never part of our accepted social culture.

Looking back, it’s difficult to believe there’s not a link between the coarsening of our culture and the decline of our integral institutions. Look no farther than our public schools, which ought to be revered as hallowed halls of learning. My kids tell me they hear way worse language in class and on campus than the dialog of R-rated movies I object to them seeing.

Just this week, I was at a junior high girls basketball game when one of the players shrieked out the B word at a volume level high enough for the fans and the referees to hear. When I was in school, cursing on court was a technical-foul infraction. But the 14-or 15-year-old girl didn’t get teed up.

Profanity is inherently disrespectful, and respect is the fundamental building block of education. Whenever an official or a teacher looks the other way. the system crumbles a little bit more.

No wonder we spend billions on education and can’t replicate the aggregate results of less funded (but more disciplined) schools of yesteryear.

A couple of weeks ago, the country remembered the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address. It is most famous for originating the “military-industrial complex” phraseology. but more pertinent now is his use of references, words and allusions that reflected his audience and their society.

When he listed the lofty purposes of “America’s adventure in free government,” which included enhancing dignity and integrity among peoples and nations, he credited our national character.

“To strive for less,” he said, “would be unworthy of a free and religious people.”

His conjunction of liberty and piety echoed the earliest understandings of the republic but would be objectionable to many today.

Every time we strive for less, whenever our public institutions tolerate gross abdications of dignity and integrity and we the people tolerate it, we are unworthy of our American ancestry.

Whether this also means that we are incapable of perpetuating it, time will tell. But the nation is shaped more by the millions and millions of little coarsening lapses, in speech and civility, than by the fighting words of politicians.

Too bad the headlines are targeting the wrong rhetoric.

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