Tom Nichols is a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. In his opinion piece of August 15, 2022, Nichols asserted the United States is living in a “new era of political violence.” Nichols compared our current political climate to America’s Civil War and declared:
“Compared with the bizarre ideas and half-baked wackiness that now infest American political life, the arguments between the North and the South look like a deep treatise on government.”
Of course, Nichols, as all of us do, meant those ideas he disagreed with. He wrote his article as a warning against “the random threats and unpredictable dangers from people among us who spend too much time watching television and plunging down internet rabbit holes.”
While I believe Nichols falls victim to the kind of incitement to political violence he warns the rest of us to avoid, I agree with him that much of our poisonous political atmosphere is both created and exacerbated by “instigators who will inflame them from the safety of a television or radio studio.”
When I try to glean news from Facebook, MSNBC, CNN, FOX News and even sometimes NPR and the regular commercial news outlets, I spend a lot of my time hearing the echo of my Mother’s sage advice, “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all.”
In our current political discourse it seems almost every discussion has to first set forth the commentator’s pro or anti Trump diatribe then morph into the “real news.” I keep trying, with little success, to block out the opening statements as I wait for any significant new facts.
This atmosphere of dueling slings and arrows, some of which are more than mere rhetoric, is the “political violence” Nichols refers to. People committing random acts of physical violence against complete strangers for no reason other than to attempt to give some meaning to their uninteresting lives. And as many of us have suffered through the discomfort, or worse, of political conversations with our friends and family these last few years, it is not just random strangers who have accosted one another with Nichols’ “New Era of Political Violence”. Long-time friendships and relationships have often suffered due to competing political views.
A large contributor to the current “Era of Bad Feeling” is the tendency to classify those who do not share our political views as holding “half-baked” or “wacky” ideas because, in Nichols’ view, they suffer from “a generalized paranoia that dark forces are manipulating their lives.” The sense I get from our current political in-fighting reminds me of the McCarthy Era from the 1950’s when Senator Joe McCarthy held hearings that ruined countless lives with accusations of Communistic leanings among American citizens. Sure, eventually we, as a democracy, saw through the “Red Scare” but it was too late to save many good citizens.
It feels to me now as those Red Baiting times felt. We seem to go immediately to anger when the “other side” speaks its views. Perhaps we could learn from our history instead of repeating it. As Mom would have said, “Just because someone sees things from their viewpoint doesn’t make them wrong. And just because someone else voices an opinion opposed to ours doesn’t mean they are bad.” It kind of goes back to that old advice, “If it ain’t good, don’t say it.”
That does not apply to real news, only personal character assassination. We need our democracy to have unfettered access to information about many subjects. That is, we need facts to make good decisions. What we do not need is vituperative personal attacks masquerading as evidence.