Drowning in Hate
Cose, Ellis, Newsweek
Byline: Ellis Cose
Ugly rhetoric perverts our politics.
Much has been made of the abuse showered on members of Congress at a recent tea-party demonstration on Capitol Hill. Georgia Congressman John Lewis was greeted with racial slurs. Emanuel Cleaver, a black congressman from Missouri, was spat on. Congressman Barney Frank, who is openly gay, was tarred with homophobic epithets. Later, Democrats in various cities had their offices vandalized. And Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida said one of his 5-year-old twins picked up the phone and heard a voice threatening to kill him if he voted for the bill. The startled child, Grayson told me, initially thought the threat was aimed at him.
Frightening a child in such a way is inexcusable. But presumably the caller thought she had reached the congressman himself. And, frankly, I'm not that worried about Grayson. Congressmen can pretty much fend for themselves. Lewis spent his formative years being beaten and tear-gassed by armed, foulmouthed racists on the Southern battlefield for civil rights. And let's face it: taking verbal abuse is part of a politician's job description.
The more serious danger from this corrosive conduct--and the failure to acknowledge it for what it is--is to our fraying national sense of purpose. It's a symptom of "what happens when [the citizens of] a country can't talk to one another constructively," said Cleaver's spokesperson.
When I asked Frank whether the rhetoric was worse than during the Clinton era, he said it was. To find its equivalent, said Frank, "I think you have to go back to the '60s, early '70s." The crazy talk then, he noted, was from the radical left, the likes of SDS. But at least in that era, respectable liberals denounced the radical fringe. Now the Republican establishment quietly acquiesces. And the right-wing media egg it on. "Instead of damning with faint praise, it is praising with faint damns," said Frank.
And precisely because it is so faintly damned by on-air pundits and other prominent figures, much of this poisonous talk is absorbed, undiluted, into the body politic. An analysis by Media Matters for America, a liberal media-watchdog group, blames the irresponsible and harshly partisan language for much of the misinformation accepted by a shockingly high percentage of the public. A majority of Republicans, reported a new Harris poll, believe President Obama to be a Muslim and a socialist--notions that, as Media Matters points out, are widely propagated in right-wing outlets (even though they don't particularly seem to go together). …