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

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.

'Stalin or Jefferson!'

"There are enough good people who believe in the flag and the Bible to seize and control the Government of America! . . . We must make our choice in the presence of atheistic Communistic influences! It is Tammany or Independence Hall! It is the Russian primer or the Holy Bible! It is the Red Flag or the Stars and Stripes! It is Lenin or Lincoln -- Stalin or Jefferson!"

That rousing call to action against a president could be stripped straight from the Web sites of today's Tea Party protesters, and it brought lusty cheers from 10,000 Americans outraged over what they perceived as invasive federal power.

It was the summer of 1936, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seeking his second term as president. He already had closed the banks in an effort to pry the country out of the Depression and established the sweeping safety net of the New Deal. Gerald L.K. Smith, the minister who delivered that jeremiad at a third-party convention in Cleveland, was merely a warm-up act for the invective to come from the Rev. Charles Edward Coughlin. An early Roosevelt supporter, Coughlin turned on the president and depicted him as a tool of the devil in weekly radio addresses that reached 40 million people. Still, Roosevelt won by a landslide.

"From time to time, I go back to find the golden age of civility," said Michael Barone, lead author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, "and it has proved elusive." He cites Coughlin. He cites fistfights over policy at the mid-century Georgetown dinner parties so often lauded for their bipartisan bonhomie. "I'm not sure we are in a greater era of incivility."

A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams "a hideously hermaphroditical character." Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr "bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country," an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation's history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval -- illustrated in recent decades by the contentious judicial confirmation fights. Conservatives say those fights began with the Democratic-led verbal savaging of Supreme Court nominee Robert J. Bork in 1987.

The spread of the Internet in the mid-1990s, along with the rise of conservative talk radio and 24-hour cable news programming, added a new dimension, however.

"The thing that is really important now is the way the Internet has changed the relationship between the elite and the non-elite. Everybody has the opportunity to be a great communicator for 15 minutes," said Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study who studies modern political theory.

An Opportunity for All

Now everybody wants to grab the bullhorn and holler through it.

That level of participation is a good thing for a healthy democracy, Allen and other scholars agree.

Red-faced and blue-faced insistence online and on television "brings us to this very wobbly sense of where we are right now: Is this a sign we are falling apart, or that people are just participating again? Or both?" said Thomas Benson, a professor of rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University.

"So we get this puzzling image of Senator Specter in my home town, and some big guy bulging out of his shirt says, 'I've read this [health-care] bill!' And he is so angry it's a declaration of his impotence as an ordinary citizen, but at the same time he's asserting his participation as a citizen, and both things are right."

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.

Post a Comment


Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company