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America’s Dangerous War of Words

America’s Dangerous War of Words

 

Written by Richard Schiffman

From my balcony on Manhattan’s Westside, I can see the spot on the Palisades above Weehawken New Jersey where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in July, 1804. Hamilton, a Federalist, had called his Democratic-Republican adversary “a dangerous man… not to be trusted with the reins of Government.” Burr responded by challenging America’s first Secretary of the Treasury to a duel. Hamilton, mortally wounded, died the next day.

Nowadays, politicians no longer settle their scores on the dueling grounds. They reserve their best shots for debates and Sunday morning talk shows. And they don’t limit themselves to expressions of patrician contempt. Hamilton’s rebuke of Burr would scarcely register on today’s Richter-scale of political insult. It would not even make it onto Fox News.

As the Republican primary season drones on, we have seen a level of rancor and character assassination rare in the team-playing GOP. Never before have so many violated Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment… thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.

Should we begrudge the candidates their harmless mudslinging? Linguist Kathryn Ruud, a contributor to the book At War with Words, argues that much of what we hear today is no longer harmless, but destructive of the minimal level of civility which a democracy requires to function. We should learn some lessons from our founding fathers. While they were no strangers to political controversy, Ruud says, America’s founders exercised restraint in public because “they understood the difference between the ethical and unethical use of strong language.” Nowadays this crucial distinction is being lost.

Politicians aren’t the only ones to blame. They’ve taken their cues from the tribal blogosphere and talk radio, where the battle for ratings has fueled a race to the bottom of the verbal pack. In such an environment, politicians ramp up their rhetoric to appeal to their own increasingly radicalized base. Moderate views are marginalized and America gets divided into mutually non-communicating camps, where it is OK to express hatred and contempt for ones political rivals.

History demonstrates that hate speech leads to hateful acts. The abuse of language on talk radio and elsewhere was surely a factor in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 of the the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which claimed 168 lives, and in the Tucson shootings of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others last year.

As a linguist, Kathryn Ruud traveled to Munich where she studied Hitler’s speeches in the original German. She was shaken by the chilling resemblance of his language to some of what she had been hearing on American talk radio.

Ruud is quick to add that America’s home grown demagogues are not in the same league as the founders of National Socialism. Yet they employ many of the same verbal tricks to create revulsion in their listeners for “the other.”

Hitler, a master of dehumanization, called Jews “parasites,” “bacteria,” and “vermin,” thereby preparing the German mind for the holocaust. Limbaugh, for his part, calls liberals “maggot-infected” “parasites” and Glenn Beck refers to progressivism as “a disease,” “an infection,” “a cancer eating our constitution.”

Another of the German Fuhrer’s techniques was what Ruud calls “lexical fusion,” lumping together hated groups, however dissimilar they may be, into a single monolithic enemy. Hitler spoke of “Jewish marxists,” and “fascist capitalists.” Rush rails against “the liberal media,” and “liberal, socialist, communists.” This vague and faceless group is made the scapegoat for all that is evil in society.

A key to brainwashing is keep it simple. Nazi information chief, Joseeph Goebbels wrote: “Propaganda…must always be essentially simple and repetitious. Only he will achieve basic results in influencing public opinion who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form despite the objections of the intellectuals.”

To be sure, the dumbing down of political discourse owes more to focus groups and opinion polls than the teachings of Joseph Goebbels. Political campaigns are increasingly engineered by marketing specialists who rehearse politicians in talking points, and craft negative ads to demonize their rivals. Rather than using their election year soap box to reason and persuade, candidates now routinely play to the fears and the prejudices of the crowd. They employ fighting words designed to tap into people’s hidden wells of rage.

For all who care about the future of the American democracy, these are worrying trends.

Richard Schiffman is the author of two books and is a poet based in New York City, as well as a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR and leading literary journals. His “Spiritual Poetry Portal” can be found here.

 

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Photo of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton's duel available through public domain

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54 comments

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10:46AM PDT on May 14, 2012

politics SUCK!

7:51PM PDT on Apr 14, 2012

Clearly the denigration of who you do not like makes it that much easier to squash them. Spielberg's film "Schindler's List" had a great and classic line in the scene with Kommandant Goth followed the attractive young Jewish lady to the wine cellar during a party. He banters with her and is ashamed of his attraction to her. He approaches her very closely, looks her square in the eyes, and says "Are these the eyes of a vermin?" He did not shoot her at the moment but went back upstairs to his guests.

7:36AM PDT on Apr 12, 2012

For some reason my comment posted twice, that was not my intent.

Mark B & JLA calling for political murders, sometime known as assassinations.
You are the men with ideas, the masses are looking for leaders and will follow you. Lead the way by beginning the assassinations yourselves.

Luvenla V
Calling for the destruction of the US, really now. Your proclamation that Hitler was a genius was my clue to the fact that you were not playing with a full deck. Hitler acquired his hate all by himself with the help of his mental illnesses, namely a homocidal maniac.

7:22AM PDT on Apr 12, 2012

There is more verbal hate expressed on Care2 than anywhere in the real world. If one wishes to reduce the hate in our discourse, one must not use hateful words. A couple comments above is a general call for more assassinations in the US. While it is not directed at anyone, it is still a strong advocation for murder. I have been on several discussion sites and the hate expressed here places Care2 at the top of the hate list.

Most of the comments below contribute to the expanding the intellectual wasteland in the US.

To those of you that hate the US and its government, I would suggest a move to Somalia because there is no governemnt there to interefere with your lives. I hear the weather is nice this time of year.

There was no one running from the basement of any of the WTC buildings, Not One Person.
However, 30 Con Ed firefighter/electricians went into the basements to cut the power and did not get out.

The same people that condemn the actions that allowed the bin Laden family to leave the US on 9-11 wish to give unlimited rights to the Islamic terrorists. We don't kill family members for the crime of being family members in the US.

The Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by agents of Saddam Hussein. All McVeigh did was drive the truck and they didn't even trust him to do that unwatched. "The Third Terrorist" - Jayna Davis. It is a good read. McVeigh was somewhere between an atheist and agnostic and not associated with any milita groups.

7:22AM PDT on Apr 12, 2012

There is more verbal hate expressed on Care2 than anywhere in the real world. If one wishes to reduce the hate in our discourse, one must not use hateful words. A couple comments above is a general call for more assassinations in the US. While it is not directed at anyone, it is still a strong advocation for murder. I have been on several discussion sites and the hate expressed here places Care2 at the top of the hate list.

Most of the comments below contribute to the expanding the intellectual wasteland in the US.

To those of you that hate the US and its government, I would suggest a move to Somalia because there is no governemnt there to interefere with your lives. I hear the weather is nice this time of year.

There was no one running from the basement of any of the WTC buildings, Not One Person.
However, 30 Con Ed firefighter/electricians went into the basements to cut the power and did not get out.

The same people that condemn the actions that allowed the bin Laden family to leave the US on 9-11 wish to give unlimited rights to the Islamic terrorists. We don't kill family members for the crime of being family members in the US.

The Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by agents of Saddam Hussein. All McVeigh did was drive the truck and they didn't even trust him to do that unwatched. "The Third Terrorist" - Jayna Davis. It is a good read. McVeigh was somewhere between an atheist and agnostic and not associated with any milita groups.

5:17PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

And if a republic populated by rational, reasoning humans was a reflection of human nature, we wouldn't have this problem. But our nature it isn't, so a reflection it isn't. If pandering is more effective than reasoning, it must be because tribalism and pandering and belief are our nature. Certainly, with the wealth of observational psychological experiments of the last 30 years showing the primacy of cognitive bias mechanisms in our reasoning and the falsehood of asymmetrical insight, such a creature can't be realistically held to the ethical and rational standards of some monk/computer hybrid.

And this is why the Republic will fall.

5:05PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

Unfortunately Burr was about as bad and corrupt as a man could be. In the dictionary under the word "scoundrel" is his picture!

4:43PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

Hamilton blessed us with the model for fractional banking. Too bad there weren't a few more Burr's.

4:25PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

Bruce please save your false equivalences, we have heard the Republican talking point and they do not fly. The right comes up with one incident of a comedian saying something in an adult standup act in a night club and it becomes the rote message from the right. Give everyone a break.

4:17PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

No one has mentioned all the name calling by Liberal talk show hosts ie: calling Palin a C word I guess it's OK when it comes from your side?

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