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In Today's Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tongue?
If the Internet and cable TV amplify and spread vile personal assaults, they may also, paradoxically, minimize the physical danger. Duels as an acceptable way to settle a score went downhill after Burr and Hamilton. Benson notes that Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) gave a thoroughly modern explanation for shouting "You lie!" during Obama's speech: He had to get something off his chest.
Another paradox: The rancor is simultaneously lucrative -- ideologues are the millionaire kings and queens of cable and radio ratings and book sales -- and unsettling to those in the center of the American electorate, who dislike the political sniping and often tune it out. Obama's approval rating is 53 percent, the same as the percentage of the vote he won last year.
One noteworthy change is that the face of the federal government is African American for the first time, a factor that heightens animus in some and protectiveness in others.
"We've come a long way," said civil rights icon Dorothy Height, who attended the Black Family Reunion, which took place alongside the national Tea Party protest on Sept. 12. "But I stood on the National Mall watching people pass by carrying posters of Uncle Sam in blackface and I said, 'There's still a lot of work to be done in this country.' "
"Completely false allegations incubate in the fringe and jump within days to the mainstream, distorting any debate or progress we can have as a society," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which released a report last month noting a rise in the "militia movement" over the past year. "What's different is that a great deal of this is real fear and frustration at very real demographic and cultural changes."
Town Hall Showdowns
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) tried to establish rules of civil discourse at his town hall meetings this summer. Busloads of out-of-town protesters showed up to the first one, but staff members admitted only his constituents. At the second, he wanted to focus on health-care reform, but residents kept questioning his authority to legislate. Grayson quoted the Constitution, while shouted interruptions drew cheers and applause.
"Greetings, angry protesters!" Grayson said in opening his third town hall. The line got chuckles. But his temperature had been rising for weeks. "There is a fight in Congress now, not between Republicans and Democrats, but between those who want to help and those who say, 'Thank God we're not helping,' " he said. In an interview after the event, he called the national Republican Party "a lie factory."
Back in Washington, he took to the House floor and denounced his colleagues across the aisle. "If you get sick, America, the Republican health-care plan is this: Die quickly." A Harvard graduate with a soft voice, he had decided to fight invective with invective.
Carney-Nunes, who writes children's books and was a year behind Obama at Harvard Law School, watched as strangers posted her personal information on the Internet. She read, "You're a dirtbag commie propagandist trying to infect children with your failed Marxist ideology." And "your Obama chant is right out of Africa." And "get ready for a massive attack!!!" And "my friend GLENN BECK will also shove this in your face until justice is served." She made copies (which she shared with The Washington Post) and then deleted the messages, hoping the tornado would set her back down.
"I was fearful," she said. "I was looking over my shoulder." The disrespect for the office of the presidency disturbed her. "I won a contest in college and President Reagan gave me an award, and that signed letter is still hanging in its frame in the foyer of my mother's home. We are very proud of that letter, even though my mother didn't vote for him."
After a few days, with the outcry expanding to calls for the school principal and district superintendent to be fired, Carney-Nunes issued a statement through a publicist saying that she "did not write, create, teach or lead the song about President Obama in the video," and that "the song was presented to her by a teacher and students as a demonstration of a project that the children had previously put together." The district superintendent gave the same account in a letter sent home to parents.
Carney-Nunes said an associate of hers videotaped the children's performance and later uploaded it, along with video and photos from other of her readings, to Carney-Nunes's YouTube account.
An e-mail to Malkin Saturday seeking comment was not answered.
Carney-Nunes spends a lot of her free time teaching children how to bridge divides, but she has no idea how to build a dialogue with those who attacked her.
"How can I talk to those people?" she said. "These are people who persist in believing that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that he isn't a citizen of this country. You tell me: Where is the beginning of that conversation?"
Staff writers Scott Wilson and Krissah Thompson and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this story.