"This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President." -- Mark Shields, PBS
Nobody can be surprised that 82 percent of citizens in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll described the tone of national political discourse as negative. The great majority dislikes the constant barrage of contumely and insult that characterizes public political debate. Doubtless that's also why fully 78 percent approved of President Obama's wise and deeply humane speech in Tucson.
Such majorities accurately reflect the America we live in, as opposed to the one we experience on television, talk radio or Internet websites. I've been meaning to write about this. The Arizona tragedy has made it almost imperative.
I don't want to make this about me, but a bit of biographical information may be pertinent. I live differently from most political writers: on a gravel road in a rural county with no stoplights, probably more cows than people, and that voted 2-to-1 for McCain/Palin. My home state, Arkansas, voted for Bill Clinton many times, but rejected President Obama's candidacy by 20 points.
Yet despite my being a semi-public figure whose photo appears in the statewide newspaper every week and who has appeared on television more times than is wise -- my experience being that television often tempts sensible individuals to grandiosity -- I'm never confronted, insulted or threatened by people who disagree with me. Not once, ever. Neither did I in Little Rock, where I lived for many years, nor out here in the country.
Indeed, I've gotten the impression that my neighbors consider it rude to bring politics into a friendly conversation. Apart from a couple who've mentioned they agreed with something I'd written, I've no real idea how they vote or why. My public persona rarely comes up. One time I mentioned to a fellow who was teaching me to bottle-feed an orphan calf how calming I found it tending to livestock rather than watching the evening news.
"That's how come you moved out here," he allowed. "In case you don't know it."
Funnily enough, because some Little Rock people think about rural Arkansas the way some New Yorkers think about Little Rock (and vice versa), people actually warned me that my views might make country life dangerous. Ridiculous. People react to how they find me, not to my newspaper columns.
So what are Arkansas "country folks" like? Well, the morning after my horse Rusty died, a neighbor arrived unbidden with his backhoe to bury him for me. He'd made a 50-mile roundtrip to fetch it. I've got African-American neighbors, too. One brought a spare 50-pound sack of dried milk for that orphan calf. He'd heard I might need it. I do what I can to reciprocate, although being good with animals is my only relevant skill.
My point is that I believe most of America is still simple and good-hearted, and that virtually all Americans appreciate this. The heroism of ordinary citizens in Tucson proved that.
But that guy who used to call from a phone booth outside a liquor store after midnight to scream threats and obscenities at my wife? The hyperthyroid soreheads who send anonymous e-mails calling me a socialist, communist, fascist, and comparing President Obama to Hitler and Stalin? The screwball lefties who sometimes fill Salon.com's comments line with accusations of corruption and sexual insults? (A right-wing favorite, too.)
Well, the key word is "anonymous." I heed the bawling of cows more than cowards hiding behind pseudonyms.
My theory: Ever since Rush Limbaugh adapted the techniques of drive-time sports radio to politics -- the loudmouth hyperbole, the fake omniscience, the mute button -- the mass-marketing of outrage to people stuck in freeway traffic with blood-pressure levels already approaching the blowout range has coarsened public discourse to the level of road rage.
You want "blood libel"?
Limbaugh, last week: "What (accused assassin) Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party ... The Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he's just a victim ... plus a local sheriff doing everything that they can to make sure he's not convicted of murder -- but something lesser."
If you believe that, you'll believe anything.
Meanwhile, the Tucson radio station that advertised "Rush Limbaugh: Straight Shooter" with a billboard full of simulated bullet holes has taken it down.
See, they compete with each other, these clowns, to set you against an imaginary enemy consisting of your friends and neighbors because conflict pushes ratings, and higher ratings lead to more money.
Are you going to keep helping them do it?