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In Today's Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tongue?

Charisse Carney-Nunes received hostile e-mails when she was erroneously linked to a video about President Obama.
Charisse Carney-Nunes received hostile e-mails when she was erroneously linked to a video about President Obama. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Late last month, Charisse Carney-Nunes fired up the computer at her home in Northeast Washington to check her e-mail. Her brain already was on morning drive time: breakfast for the kids, her day's work at a government agency. She glanced down at her screen, then froze.

"Ms. Carney-Nunes," began the e-mail from Michelle Malkin, a best-selling and often inflammatory conservative writer with a heavily trafficked Web site. "I understand that you uploaded the video of schoolchildren reciting a Barack Obama song/rap at Bernice Young elementary school in June. I have a few quick questions. Did you help write the song/rap and teach it to the children? Are you an educator/guest lecturer at the school? Did you teach about your book, 'I am Barack Obama' at the school? Your bio says you are a schoolmate of Obama. How well-acquainted are you with the president?"

Carney-Nunes looked at the time stamp -- 6:47 a.m. -- and closed the file without replying. She knew Malkin had driven criticism of President Obama's back-to-school speech, streamed nationwide, as an attempt to indoctrinate students. Now Malkin was asking about a YouTube video of New Jersey public school children singing and enthusiastically chanting about Obama from a Black History Month presentation.

By nightfall, Carney-Nunes's name was playing on Fox News and voice mails on her home phone and cellphone were clogged with the furious voices of strangers. The e-mails kept pouring in, by the hundreds, crammed with words spam filters try to catch: She was a "nappy-headed" traitor; she would lose her job and go to jail; she was Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who glorified Hitler.

It has been nearly a year since Barack Obama, running as a uniter and not a divider, was elected president by the largest margin in 20 years. The loop on cable news of thousands of beaming faces in Chicago's Grant Park has given way to a summer and fall of thousands of other faces contorting in defiance and fear. A congressman yelled "You lie!" at the president on national TV. A liberal bit off the finger of a conservative during a confrontation over public health insurance.

On Friday, just hours after Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Republicans and Democrats were at their battle stations again.

The nation's political discourse seems sour, angry, even dangerous; "uglier than it's ever been" is a phrase often volunteered -- as if President George W. Bush had never been depicted as Hitler, declared a dunce and heckled by Code Pink during his second inaugural address.

Critics are using the YouTube video of the children's song to argue that Obama is becoming a brainwashing dictator. To raise money for the Republican National Committee, Chairman Michael S. Steele has compared the song to "the type of propaganda you see in Stalin's Russia."

Carney-Nunes, swept up in a viral tornado of vitriol, had nothing to do with the children's song. She was doing an author's reading in the school that day.

Raucous rhetoric against presidential power is a tool of both ends of the political spectrum, of course, most vociferously used by the party out of power.

"In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude. Every man will speak as he thinks," wrote George Washington, "or more properly, without thinking."

And that quote is right there on one of Glenn Beck's Web sites.


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