Loss of civility: Our Achilles heel?
The great aviation writer and humorist, Rod Machado, opened a column this way: “Recently, I read Virgil’s The Aeneid in its original Latin form. I enjoyed it. I would have enjoyed it more if I understood Latin.” Recently, yours truly re-read a translation of Homer’s The Iliad. But with even less enjoyment.
While some of us do not remember all that happened in Homer’s epic re-telling of the wars between Athens and Troy, many do remember that, as a protective measure, Thetis held her son, Achilles, by one heel as she dripped him into the River Styx. Unfortunately for Achilles, the heel by which he was held did not receive the river’s protective armor.
Achilles started out as a great warrior for the cause of Athens. But when his advice was not always taken as gospel by the Athenian powers-that-be, Achilles became angry, directed hate speech against his comrades, and dropped out.
In fact, Achilles even refused to fight for Athens against Troy. Even worse, Achilles prayed that his Athenian comrades would be slaughtered by the Trojan forces and that Athens would lose the Trojan War.
Does this start to sound familiar? Does this begin to sound like the position taken by the Bush-haters in Hollywood Left such as Michael Moore and the like?
Of course, not everyone on the far Left wants us to lose the War on Terror. But virtually everyone on the Left side of the debate has thrown civility out the window. If political hate speech were a crime, some rather famous names might be getting to bunk with Martha Stewart.
In his commencement address at Hillsdale College, Heritage Foundation president, Ed Feulner, recounted a psychology experiment that bears on our loss of civility in political discourse: A Stanford psychologist arranged for two cars to be abandoned – one on the streets of the Bronx, the other in a posh neighborhood in Palo Alto, California.
Within ten minutes the Bronx car was stripped by vandals. In three days, it was totally trashed and destroyed. The Palo Alto car sat for a week unmolested. Then, the psychologist took a hammer to the Palo Alto car and smashed a window. Soon, passersby were taking turns with the hammer until the car was demolished.
So, what’s the point? The broken window, like graffiti, like the presence of panhandlers, like public drunkenness and littering, sends the signal that no one is in charge -- that community norms have broken down or been abandoned.
Dr. Feulner’s point is this: Political civility is broken in this country. While the first windows, if you will, were broken by the far Left, the far Right is beginning to break a few windows of its own. Book stores are filled with books with titles such as the Leftist: The Lies of George W. Bush or, from the Right, Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.
Founded in fact or not, this lack of civility has the pernicious effect of driving those in the middle away from the debate. In the last two presidential elections, over half of the eligible voters failed to vote. More votes were cast for the most recent “American Idol.”
For example, this observer once subscribed to an Internet chat room devoted to a particular brand of sailboats. But one of the chatters dominated the exchanges with hate speech directed against the sailboat manufacturer to the point I asked to unsubscribe. I had joined to learn maintenance techniques, not read his baseless diatribes.
In the end, Achilles put aside his anger and rejoined the battle against Troy. But had Achilles not prayed for their defeat, Athens might have won sooner, with less bloodshed and without resorting to trickery. Today, our nation cannot afford for one side to substitute hate speech for reasoned debate and to wish for our defeat. This loss of civility may be our Achilles heel.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2004. William Hamilton.