My dad has told the story many times of the day that President Kennedy was shot. Dad was on his way to a college class when someone shared the news and one of his fellow students, not realizing that Kennedy would not survive, immediately said, "Good."
I repeat that story, actually, to encourage you. This past week was a discouraging one in Arkansas for anyone who values civil discourse, so it’s a little reassuring to remember that people have been speaking thoughtlessly for a long time.
You probably have heard about the incidents to which I’m referring. Last Friday, while the city of Boston was on lockdown while authorities searched for the second Boston Marathon bomber, Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, wrote on Twitter, "I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?"
Not surprisingly, Bostonians did not appreciate their being insulted by an American elected official after being attacked by terrorists. They responded with a barrage of their own Twitter messages directed at Bell. Afterwards, he apologized for the timing of his remarks, but not the substance.
Then this past week, Christopher Nogy, a Benton County GOP Committee member, wrote in the committee’s newsletter that Republicans who voted for the so-called Medicaid private option ought to be shot and should be made to feel afraid of being shot. Since that unfortunately wasn’t going to happen, they should be voted out of office. He later wrote on Facebook that strong action was needed, though "we most likely won’t try to kill them or harm their families."
Did you catch the words "most likely"?
In both cases, wiser heads prevailed. Bell’s fellow Republican lawmakers disavowed his remarks. The Benton County GOP chairman said he did not know the article had been written and expressed his outrage. Within a couple of days, Nogy and his wife, who had published the newsletter, resigned from their positions in the party.
The First Amendment has always guaranteed Americans the freedom to say dumb things. The difference between 1963 and now is that only a few people witnessed the college student’s thoughtless reaction to Kennedy’s assassination, whereas today, such a comment can travel around the world within hours. Bell later explained that he had not realized his remarks, posted on the World Wide Web, might actually be read anywhere in the wide world except Arkansas.
Another big change between past and present political discourse is that, today, many Americans spend hours listening to a radio talk show describe a world where one side is right and the other wants America to fail. Then they watch news stations that tell them much the same thing. Their "friends" on Facebook reinforce their sense of outrage. Add old-fashioned face-to-face conversations with like-minded individuals, and by the end of the day, a fellow can work himself into a real tizzy.
A spirit of anger and contempt is infecting the land, which is how a person can stop considering the people of Boston to be fellow Americans – or just fellow human beings – and instead think of them as cowering liberals. It’s also how legislators who spent months anguishing over Medicaid become traitors to the cause who should be threatened, even killed.
This is the way we talk about politics and about each other these days, but it’s not healthy for our democracy and it surely isn’t healthy for us as individuals. It corrodes us from the inside out, makes us miserable, and makes us hate each other. It’s time to turn off the noise and resolve to be kind to one another. And to reject, not empower, those in politics and the media who preach unkindness.
Dad also has a saying he’s repeated a number of times, mostly but not entirely for comic effect: "It is better to keep your mouth shut and make people think you’re stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."
Good advice. I’m ending the column here.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.