The attempted murder of Rep. Steve Scalise and several other Republican colleagues last week came as a shock to Americans of all political stripes. Not surprisingly, much soul searching, of various depths, has been engaged in since in hopes that more violence doesn’t follow.
That certainly is a laudable desire which we can only hope will be borne out by subsequent events. But as worthy as it is to urge (sincerely or not) political leaders and activists to “tone down the rhetoric,” that will happen only if the current political crisis itself is “toned” down. That means that long-standing problems will continue to ignite rage, whether that rage is justified or not.
It cannot be said often enough that we are not experiencing hard times because of bitter partisan division but just the opposite. It is so much easier to believe that things will get better if people in politics and elsewhere would just speak more politely to each other, but that ignores the circumstances that evidently stir the harsh words.
Above all, we must not succumb to the childish dream that what we differ over matters less than the fact that we differ so passionately. While the ancient wisdom that indignation is a bad counselor holds forever true, it is not true that there is never a reason to be angry. For the same ancient wisdom also teaches that it is a virtue to be angry at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason and with the rights person(s).
It is, moreover, easy to be blinded by passion when viewing or experiencing the anger of others. Naturally, one believes that one is right to be angry about issue X but that others with opposing views are surely not justified. As the above paragraph implies, it matters not a little what the truth is, however much we are rightly admonished not to give way to unbridled rage.
Typically, people view their own troubled times as the worst crisis in history. But however heated matters are now, that is not true. The American Civil War, it must be remembered, raged for four years and resulted in more combat deaths (214,938) and related deaths (450,00 estimated) than any conflict in our history. And that was on American soil!
Since no one has a crystal ball, we don’t know what our future holds. But in the worst crisis of 1861-65, Abraham Lincoln — both before and after he became president — resisted siren calls to compromise fundamental principles in order to gain an illusory peace. Not only Democrats but abolitionists sought to end the war with chattel slavery still in place, but Lincoln refused. Was he too angry at the South for its attempted secession?
Or, in fact, didn’t he realize that the evil of slavery had to end if the United States of America was ever to achieve what had been promised by the generation of 1776 that won our independence, based on a commitment to the equal rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
It might be objected that nothing so grand is at stake in our present political situation — just Democrats who want to help the poor opposing Republicans who urge self-reliance. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. In case you haven’t noticed, one side in this dispute demonizes the other and the other side grants the decent motives but questions the policies of the other.
While seeking to keep the political temperature as low as possible, as long as it is possible, I nevertheless affirm that Winston Churchill was right when he said, in the midst of war with the monstrous Nazi regime:
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Thankfully, we are not at the point our forebears were in 1861 in regarding each other as enemies. But we cannot be rightfully deterred from our duty to preserve and perpetuate our republican form of government with its guarantee of civil and religious liberty merely to avoid giving offense. The greatest offense is making war against our nation’s heritage in the name of remaking it in a new (actually old) and vile image.
The question, then, is not whether the rhetoric is too hot for civil discourse. It is rather this: when our blessed way of life is being assaulted, tempers will flare. The hope is that, in the midst of crisis, level heads will prevail, whatever the provocations, rather than for them to lose sight of the ultimate prize.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow Community College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com