A History Lesson In Political Rhetoric

In the rush to explain Saturday’s tragic shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, many in the media have rushed to link the bloodbath to what they see as the recent upsurge in harsh political rhetoric emanating mostly from the political right.

While they take pains to paint their theses with high-minded arguments about a need to lower our political voices and speak with more “civility,” an editorial in Monday’s New York Times makes the target clear:

“It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge.”

In short, this is one more attempt by the left to limit free speech, especially speech it does not agree with. And some segments of the media, which should be that freedom’s strongest defender, are abetting the cause.

One of the great ironies that often crop up in tragedies like this one is that on Thursday, when the House of Representatives, at Republican behest, publicly read the Constitution, it was Giffords who read the First Amendment. Stepping to the lectern, she read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Yet, there are those who in the aftermath of her shooting seek to do just that, not necessarily through legislation, but certainly through intimidation, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech and the press. Their targets: icons of the right such as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, influential voices with large followings they would like to shut down because they are tough political foes.

Those who now say our harsh political rhetoric is something new and generated mostly by an angry political right would do well to take a look at our history. They would find that political debate in some of the most vitriolic terms -- “vitriol” seems to be the word of choice these days -- has been with us and our press since the days when the American colonies began to protest British rule. Icons such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, bitter political rivals, were not above the fray.

Eric Burns, in his 2006 book “Infamous Scribblers,” which recounts the “rowdy beginnings” of American journalism, says early newspapers were more weapons of political war than they were impartial chroniclers of daily events.

“The golden age of America’s founding was also the gutter age of American reporting,” he wrote. “The Declaration of Independence was literature. The New England Courant talked trash. The Constitution of the United States was philosophy; the Boston Gazette slung mud, Philadelphia’s Aurora was less a celestial presence than a ground-level reek.”

In those days, journalists such as the fiery Samuel Adams preached violence, not civility, against those in government control, in that case the British.

We heard and read similar vitriolic rhetoric through such crusades as the fight to abolish slavery, the battle for women’s suffrage, the 20th century push for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights and efforts to end the Vietnam War. Driving all of those causes was the right to free speech. To be sure, there were many who tried to quiet those voices, including large segments of the mainstream media that were late to join those causes. Now, they want to silence those they don’t agree with again.

Thanks to the Internet, and the easy ability of anyone with access to a computer or smartphone to express their opinions -- misguided or logical -- adds to the volume and intensity of political debate. That disturbs many people. But to say that we somehow need to shut it down or restrict it ignores our nation’s time-honored tradition of freedom of expression, which might have its drawbacks and downsides, but in the end, makes us stronger.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches journalism and politics at American and Georgetown universities.