In the aftermath of what may be a politically-motivated shooting targeting Republicans in Alexandria, Virginia, naturally we’ve once more seen a lot of media and social media discussion – and, ironically, arguments – about incivility and “violent rhetoric.” Recent comments and current politicians are regularly cited. Even “2016” is blamed:
For example, that is a serious tweet by a New York Times journalist.
And it also demonstrates a startling myopia and a shocking “presentism” of thought.
Some other facts. U.S. “political discourse,” including a “degraded” version, did not start last year, of course. Consider this:
The author there is in the main calling for people to be educated as to facts; but if some revolt because they have got the facts wrong, to give them a break, too.
Yet that is almost never what is seized upon in that letter. Its last lines of that paragraph are those that are always quoted – and usually wrongheadedly. And if they had been written on Facebook last week its author would almost certainly be condemned as calling for violence.
And the man who composed that was U.S. Minister (meaning ambassador) to France, Thomas Jefferson. Four years after Great Britain recognized U.S. independence, he is reflecting on a recent uprising by embittered Massachusetts farmers. It was led by a former U.S. Continental Army officer, Daniel Shays, and is today known as “Shays’ Rebellion.”
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, dueling was also commonplace if men felt their “honor” had been questioned, and it occurred even among politicians.
Americans saw a former treasury secretary killed by a Vice President. Less well known today, future president Andrew Jackson shot a man dead after public insults that sound mild compared to much that we see filling Twitter: Jackson was a “worthless scoundrel, … a poltroon and a coward.”
Imagine if Twitter had been around back then?
Good thing we at least don’t do dueling any longer.
In the years approaching the Civil War, political mob violence was not uncommon. Even on Capitol Hill itself, a southern congressman pummeled a northern senator to near death on the Senate floor. And as we all know, President Lincoln was assassinated near the war’s end.
The U.S. was born out of a sometimes violent settlement of North America. It achieved its independence through fighting a long and often ugly war. Slavery itself was brutal and at times truly merciless and murderous. The Civil War ended as a prelude to the horrific trench warfare of World War I: 1864 was probably the bloodiest year in U.S. history.
And while much less common than previously, the twentieth century had, and twenty-first has, political violence, too, of course…
Americans are not personally inherently more violent than anyone else. However, buried within Americans of all political persuasions is an inherited distrust and even perpetually smoldering dislike of “the state” and fear of the government’s power to coerce us. It is generally lazily assumed that “the left” likes the government more than “the right,” and much fun is directed from that “left” at those on “the right” who hate the “guvmint”. Yet leftist Democrats do not really like government telling them what to do any more than rightist Republicans do … if, like Republicans, that government is telling them to do what they don’t want to do, or don’t want to see others compelled to do.
The national tendency in political rhetoric unfortunately also has always gravitated towards employing hyperbole – and sometimes violent metaphors such as Jefferson’s “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.”
So we must stop deluding ourselves into thinking “this climate” is suddenly Donald Trump’s fault. Or Bernie Sanders’s. Or Barack Obama’s. Or some media personality’s who won’t shut up. Or…
It’s not. In some form or another, “this climate” always “is” and always has been. It long pre-dates any of us now living. And it does produce bursts of violence now and then.
If we really want to go back to its true source…
…probably we’d best start in 1607, in Jamestown, Virginia, in the first permanent English settlement in what would eventually become the United States of America.
It is only a couple of hours’ drive in 2017 from Alexandria.