Before government was just another TV game show — or something akin to the Jerry Springer or Maury Povich shows or “Survivor” — we would have only the occasional glimpse of the coarseness of underbelly politics.
People still believed in essential good manners; you might have a debate at the Thanksgiving table over football, politics or religion, but that was usually shut down by Mom before it got out of hand. At least stick to football, boys, and mind your language around the children.
I think the current decline of civility began when the news media decided that ratings were more important than good taste. Then we had the television coverage of the Vietnam war and every other human tragedy around the world, the effect desensitizing our youth and setting off the theater of the mass protests against just about everything but drugs and pornography. Every value was tested and found wanting. Every institution was challenged and judged guilty of malfeasance.
I forget the comic strip — perhaps it was Pogo, but it could have been Calvin and Hobbes or the one with the Penguin and Bill the Cat — but the message was that we had worked our way in a short decade into a distrust of the police and courts, politicians, the churches, the news media, academia, even professional sports and there was nothing to believe in any more.
Truth takes abuse when emotions are used to interpret facts. And yet, it’s the human ability to apply emotional impetus to the facts before us that sets us apart from chimpanzees. Or so it used to be.
Do I sound despondent? If so, I think it certifies that I am sane.
I grew up during the years spanning the end of World War II and the slide into the Korean War. I recall vividly the day I heard a radio in a neighbor’s kitchen window broadcast a news report that American soldiers were being sent to Korea, and I ran home and asked Mom if Dad was going to have to go back into the Navy.
Sixteen years later, Dad was unable to leave his bedroom to bid me goodbye the morning I left for military duty during the war in Vietnam. In between, the world was shaken by flood, famine, pestilence and all the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, including the assassination of a young president in a city in Texas, a state so full of hatred for him that he was implored by aides not to go there.
As of this past week, our government still holds secrets in the John F. Kennedy murder.
We bicker over whether it is appropriate to stand or kneel during patriotic ceremonies, but will not challenge the real assaults on the liberties and dignities that the flag and the Constitution guarantee. We rationalize injustices and failures of humanity as our rights to our own opinions and preservations of personal interpretations of culture.
We all watched an election campaign in which words were spoken, lies were exposed and deeds were replayed on the evening news that once would have been the end of the aspirations of any candidate. The nation witnessed and ultimately condoned behaviors that should have denied a pretender access to the seat of power. Most of my friends would not want the churlishness we have seen in our homes, and would never buy a car from one who displays it.
Supporters — people we share communities with — say the president is just like them. More than anything else, I hope they are wrong about that.
The American citizen — whatever the race, heritage, religion — has been the fiber of the tree of liberty. When a tree falls, sometimes it’s an ill wind that brings it down.
Sometimes it’s the rot in the roots and core of the tree. Anger, self-service, ignorance and cultural corruption are the rot.
Let the investigations continue, and then fix things.