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America's Uncivil Liberties

By Thane Peterson As the Presidential campaign winds down into its tight, bitter last phase, the negative campaigning will only increase. Much of it will be fair, I suspect. Many negative ads, after all, make valid political points, albeit crudely. But some of it won't be fair -- not by a long shot. In recent years, American political discourse crossed a line, and all sorts of once-taboo language and personal invective became acceptable. And that worries me.

I'm not talking about ads or speeches that contain inaccurate or distorted messages, though their incidence is way up this election year, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, who tracks campaign rhetoric. I'm talking about name-calling and ads that impugn a candidate's motives, such as the ones implying that President Bush is lying when he says he won't institute a military draft or those that suggest Senator Kerry volunteered for Vietnam simply to pad his résumé. We shouldn't confuse negativity, which is often justified and informative, with incivility, which isn't.

INSULT TV. A few weeks ago, Zell Miller, the 72-year-old Democratic senator from Georgia who is supporting President Bush, felt MSNBC-TV's Chris Matthews was peppering him with harsh questions and cutting short his answers. Miller become so frustrated he told Matthews he wished we lived in the day when he could challenge the hyperaggressive TV host to a duel. Shades of Alexander Hamilton, the founding father who was challenged to a duel by political opponent Aaron Burr because Hamilton had privately called one of Burr's opinions "despicable." Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day.

While many heaped scorn on Miller for his quaint nod to politics past, I actually applaud him in this instance -- even though I don't support his politics and don't condone his vitriolic attacks on Kerry at the GOP convention. Miller is to be congratulated for not impugning Matthews' motives or calling him names, as many politicians would have done. Programs such as Matthews' Hardball, Bill O'Reilly's, and Al Franken's -- just to name a few -- routinely descend into invective.

And many politicians cross the line, as Vice-President Dick Cheney did by cursing out Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, on the floor of the U.S. Senate (one of the nation's last bastions of respectful discourse) -- and then boasting about it on Fox TV.

"GETTING UGLIER." But such nastiness isn't confined to public figures -- either as targets or protagonists. It now pervades our private discourse as well. I speak from experience. Over the last couple of years, angry readers have sent me e-mails calling me a liar, a racist, a s---head, a traitor, a moron, an idiot, and insipid, among other unseemly things, because of what I've written in my columns.

A few weeks ago, some fellow wrote saying he hoped my parents would die. When I get e-mails like that, I find myself, like Miller, yearning for some way to demand immediate and public redress (though, obviously, I'd like it to be short of shooting my antagonist, as Burr did).

I checked with several people who routinely make their views public, including Daniel Okrent, the reader's representative at The New York Times; David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University who has been critical of the Patriot Act; Omar Ahmed, chairman of a national group called the Council on American-Islamic Relations; and Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor who is editor of Sojourner Magazine and a leader of Call to Renewal, a coalition of religious groups formed to fight poverty.

All of them said they've observed a similar slide into invective in the last year or two. "It was ugly before, and it's getting uglier," sums up Okrent.

NASTINES IS THE NORM. Some think this nastiness is largely confined to the Internet, talk radio, and TV, and there's certainly something to that. When you write a nasty e-mail or call a radio or TV host, it seems like private communication, so you don't exercise the same discretion you might otherwise. However, your message can end up being seen or heard by thousands or even millions.

But I think the real problem is that people see and hear so much incivility from public figures, courtesy of the TV, the Internet, and talk radio, that it seems acceptable. Nastiness is now the norm.

And this has to be stopped before it gets any worse. Already racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic language is starting to creep into quasi-private exchanges. New York Times columnists Paul Krugman (a liberal) and David Brooks (a conservative) have both said they often receive anti-Semitic mail. We simply can't allow that sort of stuff to creep back into the public sphere.

APOLOGIES AFTERWARD. I believe most Americans -- even those who indulge in such behavior -- understand it's wrong. Nine times out of 10, readers apologize when I write back chiding them for being so unpleasant. Ahmed says the Council on American-Islamic Relations had a similar experience after receiving 30 nasty e-mails blaming Muslims for the recent hostage-taking and killing of children at a Russian school. When the council responded to the e-mails, 23 of the writers wrote back, 20 of them to apologize, Ahmed says.

It's important to remind people -- strongly if necessary -- that their actions have crossed the line. I support Okrent, who recently wrote a column naming -- and condemning as a "coward" -- a San Francisco blogger who ended a note to a New York Times reporter with these words: "I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war."

I talked to the blogger briefly and he was devastated by the experience. His family had received angry phone calls, and he had been unable to sleep for days.

VOTING FOR CIVILITY. Harsh medicine, and even Okrent had doubts about his own course of action. "But I thought about it, and I decided that someone who goes out at night and paints a swastika on the door of a synagogue doesn't want it written about either," says Okrent. "There have to be consequences. [What the blogger wrote] was vile. No one should ever wish that on another person."

Most voters and viewers don't have Okrent's power. But they do have the ability to write letters to Congress. They can turn off the TV when the ads and talk turn mean. And they can vote against the candidates who consistently cross the line.

That's tough when both sides are doing it, but at some point we have to start applying a political litmus test for common human decency. An election season is the best time to start. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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