Tuesday, January 18, 2011


I am fond of saying, "Politics ain't beanbag." As soon as the words escape my lips I invariably realize that the person to whom my statement was addressed has no idea what I'm saying (blank stares, glazed eyes, etc.). So let me elucidate.

Finley Peter Dunne was an author who wrote primarily about political and social issues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most famous quote is the one I spout, but I've shortened it. Here's the whole thing: "Politics ain't beanbag: 'tis a man's game, and women, children 'n' pro-hy-bitionists had best stay out of it."

In other words (and in more modern terms), politics is a full-contact sport. It's about life and money and religion and even sex, and when something touches upon every area that means the most to us passions are going to be inflamed. It has always, always been this way. Things are arguably better now than at any time in our nation's history. Don't believe me? I'll give you some examples.

In the presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson and his supporters described Adams as "a hideous, hermaphroditical character," accused him of "importing mistresses from Europe," called him "blind, bald, crippled, toothless," and announced that he was guilty of wanting to start a war with France. Jefferson secretly bought a newspaper in order to better control some of the lies that were printed about Adams.

On the Adams' side of the ledger readers were warned that "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest [would] be openly taught and practiced" if Jefferson were to win the election. "The soil will be red with blood and the nation black with crimes." Images of "children writhing on a pike" and "dwellings in flames" were written about and would no doubt have been broadcast had the technology been available. Adams, like Jefferson, was able to get personal, too: "Jefferson is the son of a half-breed Indian squaw raised on hoecakes." Adams took a swipe at Hamilton while he was at it: "Hamilton is the Creole bastard brat of a Scotch peddler."

The election of 1828 was not any better. The incumbent, John Quincy Adams, and the ultimate victor, Andrew Jackson, accused each other of murder, adultery, corruption, and the "procuring of women." Jackson's wife, Rachel, died shortly after the election and he forever blamed the ugliness of the campaign for her early demise.

I could go on, but I want to make another point (or maybe two). The first is that the cure for political speech that we hate is always MORE political speech. Attempts to quash or control or even sanitize speech are Constitutionally questionable at best and ultimately futile. We can bemoan the coarsening of the culture or the lack of civility in today's politics, but it behooves us to keep some perspective. Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel (and participated in several others). We've come a long way, baby.

I am a pragmatic person when it comes to politics. Principles are all well and good, but someone who holds too fast to his principles will never change the world (because he'll never be elected). Politics, to use another well-worn quote (this one by Otto von Bismarck), is the art of the possible. One must know when to stand fast, when to compromise, when to be aggressive and when to retreat. I understand (but have no sympathy for) those who would cast a vote for a candidate destined to lose; no one will ever convince me that we are better off with "bearded socialist" Christopher Coons in the Senate than we would have been with a squish like Mike Castle. A vote for Christine O'Donnell was self indulgent. She had no chance to win and Castle would have been handed the office, but because he didn't fill the fantasies of the far right he was jettisoned. I am firmly in the camp of those formerly headed by Bill Buckley who believe that you vote for the most conservative electable candidate. (Yes, I know that sometimes that choice is not clear. In the election to which I just referred, it was.)

I have been dragged far off track. My original point was that if you don't like listening to heated political rhetoric you should turn down (or better yet, off) your televisions. And radios. It has always been with us. It will always be with us as long as we are a democracy. And that homes in on the real key, doesn't it? You know where there's NOT a lot of heated political rhetoric? In dictatorships. Go figger.

I realize that as sure as the locusts return to Capistrano (you thought it was swallows? marketing ploy) every time there is a crime committed by someone who may possibly have once worn a red baseball cap (and thereby labeled himself a Republican) we will have these overwrought examine-the-rhetoric orgies. I prefer to pass. My pragmatism alarm rings loud and long--I have no time for attempts to immanentize the eschaton (look that one up). There is work to be done and all I can do is focus on my own behavior (which I hope to keep civil).

More later...

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