The incivility death spiral
Rooting for your opponents to die is the last frontier of free speech
The incivility death spiral
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Taking one last break from the tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle, here is my updated and expanded Sunday print column:
I remember when I first realized that the decline of civility had become a death spiral. The date was Jan. 20, 2009. Ted Kennedy, who was battling a brain tumor, collapsed at an Inaugural luncheon – thus prompting many anonymous participants in our oft-demented national conversation to rub their hands in glee and root for his death.
On the ABC News website, one exclaimed, "Hot diggity damn! Maybe we’re finally rid of him!” Another exulted, "And I thought nothing good would come of this day!”
But this was mere foreplay compared to the purrs of satisfaction that were posted online when Kennedy died seven months later. Many commenters were frankly giddy at the prospect that the late senator would dwell forever in a certain fiery climate.
On the Boston Globe site, a commenter wrote, "Burn, baby, burn!" On a blog sponsored by a prominent law professor, somebody wrote, "Good riddance to bad rubbish. The Kennedy’s (sic) have always been socialists. I for one am glad to see another one of them pass into Lucifer’s loving embrace." Somebody else chimed in, "The dude was pure evil and I’m all for dancing on his grave." (Actually, the dancing was the least of it. He also anticipated performing a specific bodily function.)
I’m all for free and unfettered expression, but we have clearly crossed a line somehow, somewhere. Anger is a natural emotion; it can even be a healthy emotion if channeled properly. But millions now seem to assume that an Internet connection is a license to indulge their most sociopathic impulses. In our increasingly coarsened political culture, even death is being politicized; apparently, it’s now considered cool to rejoice in the demise of those with whom we disagree.
Some online correspondents are refreshingly sane, of course. After Kennedy died, there were sporadic attempts to admonish the death lobby. One civil soul wrote on the Globe site, "Comments like theirs make me feel ashamed for America – that our way of life is producing values like theirs." Another lamented, "Politeness is a virtue that has all but vanished from our public discourse," and contended, "the extremist right wing, abetted by Fox News, is the principle reason for that. It’s always the haters on the right-wing who are completely devoid of class and decorum."
Well, actually, that’s totally wrong. People on the left do the death dance all the time. Last night, for instance.
Dick Cheney was hospitalized with chest pains yesterday. The Washington Post put the story on its website at 7:31 p.m. Sixteen minutes later, a commenter wrote, "I hope he drops dead." Seven minutes after that, somebody wrote, "I just hope they don't desecrate Arlington (National Cemetery) with this piece of carrion." Four minutes after that, somebody wrote, "The devil is calling his boy home." Seven minutes after that, somebody wrote, "I was so excited to hear that the guy was on his way to the hospital. I was so disappointed to hear that he made it there alive." Four minutes after that, somebody wrote, "Best news to hear in quite some time. Let's hope he suffers before he rots." (Back in 2007, when Cheney survived an assassination attempt in Afghanistan, commenters on the liberal Huffington Post site wrote things like this: "Can't the Taliban do anything right?")
Similarly, when Rush Limbaugh was hospitalized with chest pains last Dec. 30, the left-leaning comment boards were jammed with celebrants:
"Garbage in, garbage out. Let him die."
"If he croaks, this is offically the greatest year in American history."
"Come on, 2009! Don’t fail me now!"
And not all trash-talkers are anonymous. Last spring, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, comic Wanda Sykes said of Limbaugh, "I hope his kidneys fail." OK, she was joking, but the joke was symptomatic of our cultural illness. Incivility is rewarded; it’s one big reason why somebody like Ann Coulter is a bestselling author. And the parameters of outrage inexorably expand. It’s not enough anymore to be shrill, to call somebody an idiot or a moron or words not fit for a family newspaper. After those frontiers are crossed, what’s left? Just the final frontier: a publicly-stated declaration that the idiot or moron should cease to breathe.
For some anonymous liberals back in 2007, it wasn’t enough to assail Bush White House press secretary Tony Snow for his conservative views. When the news broke in March that his soon-to-be-fatal cancer had returned, commenters at several prominent liberal sites quickly posted their get-well-soon cards. For instance: "He is pure lying scum and should die ASAP!!" For instance: "The cancer in Tony Snow is removing the cancer in Tony Snow…could there be a god?"
Snow had a long track record as a broadcast commentator, which at least partly explained the antipathy. But when a veteran newswoman named Deborah Howell was fatally struck by a car while vacationing in New Zealand on New Year’s Day 2010, a number of conservatives exulted online – even though they had never heard of her prior to the accident.
When they learned that she had served a stint as The Washington Post’s ombudsman, and that she was married to a university president (who had witnessed the fatal accident), that was enough to label her as a liberal – and, therefore, not worthy of respect in death. As one giddy patriot declared on the Politics Daily website, "One less of those anti-U.S. types to deal with."
Nobody in public life is arguably more of a pro-U.S. type than a Marine Corps vet, but not even that designation could protect John Murtha during his final days. When the legendary Pennsylvania congressman was hospitalized for the last time earlier this month, the well-wishers at the Politico website lined up to pay homage in their inimitably perverse fashion:
"Typical Democrat. Please die soon, Murtha."
"He and Benedict Arnold should share a very hot corner in a very bad place."
"Hear-hear! Is he dead yet?"
Abraham Lincoln, who dealt with hate on a daily basis, urged his fellow citizens to heed this bit of advice: "In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity." His admonition seems just as sensible today, but, as a culture, we seem to be more in sync with someone like 50 Cent, the rapper who wrote a song entitled "Death to My Enemies."
Part of the problem, of course, is that our brave new digital world allows people to root for death from the safe confines of anonymity. I bet they would spare us their most toxic thoughts if they were required to put their names to the words, and take some measure of responsibility.
But, yeah, I know: Anonymity supposedly encourages a more robust online discourse. And I grudgingly agree with Doug Feaver, the former executive editor of washingtonpost.com, who argued last year that "it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there, and it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a different context, 'Man is least in himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'"
In other words, incivility extremism can’t be stopped. All we can do is call it out, in the name of civility. I've just done that. You should do the same.