I have always been a First Amendment purist, especially when it comes to freedom of speech and (obviously) freedom of the press.
But I don’t think that calls for civility in our political rhetoric violate, or even restrict, the First Amendment.
Calls to ban or, even worse, punish harsh or uncivil political discussion would cross that line. But a voluntary admonition to tone it down and not be vicious or hateful is definitely inbounds.
Not all that long ago, politics was fun. It was fun for those who participated in it and it was fun for those, like journalists, who watched it.
At some point, it stopped being all that much fun and, especially at the congressional and presidential level, became nasty, vicious, small minded, angry and mean. It became a sort of blood sport. Political opponents are no longer opponents, they are enemies. They aren’t merely wrong, they are evil and their intentions are bad.
A lot of people date this from the Newt Gingrich revolution in 1994. One of the things Gingrich did as Speaker of the House was to encourage his members not to socialize with members of the other party. When Democrats were no longer friends with Republicans and vice-versa, it was easier for them to vilify and demonize each other, which took away all the mechanisms of bi-partisanship and made it purely a situation of Us vs.Them.
Words are important. They shape attitudes. Attitudes are what will allow, or prevent, us from working together to move forward as a nation. The harsh, divisive and vitriolic tone of our politics is holding us back. It prevents compromise. It stops us from working together to build the nation and its people up.
Abraham Lincoln said “a House divided against itself can not stand.” He was referring to a quote from the gospel of Matthew where Jesus also said: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation.” The United States is today a country divided against itself ; red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative.
It used to be that Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, used to acknowledge that they disagreed about what is best for this country. That is no longer true. Both sides now contend that their opponents want to bring evil – fascism, communism, socialism – and, ultimately, ruin to the United States. Neither side seems willing to acknowledge that the other also wants to do what is best for the country and they merely disagree about how to do that.
Think of some of the things liberals said about George W. Bush, and that they are still saying about the Republican Senate and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Or what conservatives said about Ted Kennedy, and still say about President Barack Obama, and Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi.
All of it is beyond the pale and we would be better off without it.
I’m not trying to get all Rodney King on you here and say can’t we all get along. No, vigorous disagreement and debate is desirable in politics. It is how the system works. All sides have their say and we either pick one argument over the others or find common ground that everyone can, if not totally agree, than at least live with. That system has broken down.
We have arguments, but no one is listening to the other side. No one is willing to concede that the other side is correct on even a minor point. The debate has become all or nothing – winner take all – and the point is to leave the other guy, if not dead, then at least beaten and bloody and defeated utterly.
How then can we pretend to be surprised when someone shows up to an Arizona congresswoman’s “Congress on Your Corner” constituent event and, instead of putting a bug in her ear puts a bullet in her head?
Cable news outlets – Fox News Channel, to be precise – got all indignant when people said the overheated political dialogue might have provoked the Arizona shooter, Jared Lee Loughner (assassins always get their middle names spelled out, for some reason). But c’mon, how long and hard can you beat the drum, how vigorously can you whip emotions to the point of frenzy, then stand back and accept no responsibility when something bad happens?
Likewise, local talk radio hosts are taking umbrage at Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s order that state employees, including himself, not appear on talk radio on work hours.
But Chafee’s edict is not censorship, nor is it a violation of free speech.
It is a perfectly acceptable work rule that a boss can impose on employees, like telling them not to play computer games or view Internet porn on work time. (And before howling talk show callers and bellowing bloggers start, I am not equating talk show calling with Internet porn. It is not at all the same thing. They just happen to be two items on a list of what bosses can and should be allowed to prevent employees from doing on work time.)
What would happen at your workplace if your boss turned on the radio during work hours and heard you chatting with John DePetro, Dan Yorke or Helen Glover? If the boss told you to get off the phone and get back to work, would he or she be violating the First Amendment, or engaging in censorship?
I can understand Chafee’s personal decision not to go on talk radio. It is hostile territory for him. The guy gets beaten like a borrowed mule four hours a day, five days a week on the Buddy Cianci Show on WPRO, and he doesn’t fare too much better on most of the other programs.
But his call for an advertiser boycott is a bit over the top. Anytime a top government official says of a source of criticism “Shut it down!” as Chafee said advertisers should do to the vitriolic talk radio shows and other antagonistic media outlets, we are getting into worrisome territory.
Chafee has other media outlets open to him – newspapers, television news shows, he could even write his own gubernatorial blog or do whatever it is people do on Twitter or Facebook or any of those annoying entities – and he can just leave the radio shows to preach to the angry choir. He doesn’t have to urge advertisers to pull the plug on them.
I don’t want to sound too negative about talk radio. I listen to it a lot, learn a lot from it and often enjoy much of the dialogue it offers. On the whole, I like talk radio.
But it doesn’t have a claim on the time of the governor or other state officials. Former Gov. Donald Carcieri gave it one, making talk radio his go-to option for getting his message out. But a lot of things are going to be different in the Chafee administration and that is one of them.