ESSAY- Bloody Kansas: Why incivility can be dangerous
Prior to the Civil War, Jefferson Davis (while a member of the U.S. Senate) spoke against slavery spreading north of the 36th parallel, arguing that the institution everywhere would soon die on its own. Even after his 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln did not advocate emancipation of slaves. He only wanted to stop slavery from spreading outside the states where it already existed while it died its well-deserved death.
These moderates were pushed, however, into the most horrible war in American history by radicals on each end of the political spectrum. Adding irony to murder (or murder to irony), after his rampages in "Bloody Kansas," the first victim of one radical, John Brown, at Harper's Ferry was a black man. John Wilkes Booth, too cowardly to wear a uniform, did far more than shout "fire" in a crowded theater.
Having now attempted to hear John Yoo speak and having learned that someone cut a gas line he or she thought fed the home Congressman Tom Perriello, I wonder if we are on the verge of another clash brought on by the people who deny those of us in the middle our right to think and act upon our own. Tea Partiers, I read in my morning newspaper, are seeking to drown out the president's speech in Iowa, and someone threw a brick through the Albemarle County Republicans' office window.
What is it, I wonder, about we as a people that we seem incapable of keeping the fringe thinkers on the fringes? Why do we so quickly allow them to dominate our political conversations and turn reasonable discussion into shouting, angry battles?
Why do we seem incapable of understanding that all of the issues facing our nation are complex and that only rational dialogue has any chance of solving them without bloodshed?
Where does that line where Free Speech leads to the "clear and present danger" that murder and violence, and other activities that any society must suppress, begin?
Why do we in the media seemingly give the microphone to the craziest voices we can find?
The media's common refrain is that conflict is "news." It's what the people want; what they demand or they'll change channels or quit reading or go watch The Daily Show or click into the web page of some blogger who is "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore."
Information must be, we media people in the age of television and internet think, fascinating or entertaining– or the audience's little brains will tune it out.
We in the media have gradually concluded that complexity is beyond our audience's capabilities to the point that today, I submit, life does indeed imitates art. We have so dumbed-down our "news" stories into such tiny increments of infotainment that only the far ends of the political and social spectrum receive any chance of being heard in the seven-second average "soundbite" of today's culture.
The best shout in bumper sticker length gets the ink– or the infamous 15 minutes of "fame" – therefore pushing the shouting radicals even further towards acting on their poorly analyzed political dogma.
One of the shouters against Yoo at the Miller Center, after all, bragged on an internet link that the shouting controlled the conversation– even after Mr. Yoo had long since left town– and that no one anymore was even referring to Yoo's "boring" book.
The irony, of course, is that the shouter was writing that internet comment during the Virginia Festival of the Book– a week-long celebration of the power of in-depth thought, of delayed gratification, of intelligent discourse. Another irony: the great likelihood that the shouter has never read Yoo's Crisis and Command or even the legitimate reviews that the Miller Center was kind enough to provide.
The most powerful demonstrator at UVA, however, wasn't shouting. He sat there quietly wearing a black hood, not uttering a word until he politely went up and asked Mr. Yoo a question following Yoo's afternoon speech. They had a thoughtful interchange of ideas, the true basis of America's First Amendment.
The hooded man made his point brilliantly without resorting to common incivility which, history indicates, eventually leads to common indecency– are we there today?– and which can lead to massive bloodshed.
American casualties in all other wars combined, after all, have barely exceeded the 620,000 dead in our Civil War– which we all know was about slavery.
Yet, according to the 1850 Census, as reported by famed historian Bruce Catton in The Coming Fury, 93 percent of white Southerners did not own a single slave and only 30,000 (roughly the South's casualties at Gettysburg) owned more than one.
Slavery was, and is, wrong– please don't misunderstand the point. But like everything in life, there must have been more to our Civil War than the bumper sticker. Could all 14,000 men of Pickett's division who walked into Union cannon across that 1.1-mile field without any cover on July 3, 1863 have had a death wish over protecting someone else's "property?"
We, in the middle, must curtail the simplistic shouters and return political discussion to rational discourse, not irrational soundbites. We could be on the verge of "Bloody Kansas."
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his transportation ideas aren't being written about.