About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
Well that was shocking…
In Montana, the Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, Glen Gianforte body slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Jacobs was doing what reporters do: asking a question. What he got in response was chocked, knocked to the ground, and his glasses broken. The Gianforte campaign quickly issued a statement blaming the reporter. Just as quickly, the statement was contradicted by an audio recording and refuted by eyewitnesses. In a single 24-hour period, Gianforte was arrested, charged, and elected to Congress.
In Texas, on the last day of the legislative session, two Representatives exchanged blows and threats on the floor of the state house. Here’s what happened. Outside the Chamber, there was a demonstration in opposition to Texas SB4 – a law penalizing sanctuary cities. State Rep. Matt Rinaldi announced that he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to arrest the demonstrators. His action enraged Hispanic legislators and violence erupted.
In a statement, Rinaldi said state Rep. Poncho Nevarez “threatened my life on the House floor. I was pushed, jostled and someone threatened to kill me.”
Nevárez admitted he put his hands on Rinaldi “but was I going to shoot the guy? No, he’s a liar and hateful man.”
It makes you want to temporize and say, “Now, now boys, learn to use your words.” The problem is these are our elected officials, not the third grade class.
Is this shocking because it is unique? No, the level of discourse is not actually at an all-time low. We have gone lower.
In 1856, a Congressman laid aside rhetoric and took up his cane. Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) repeatedly struck Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass) in the head. As a result Sumner lay bleeding, semiconscious, and near death on the floor of the United States Senate.
Sumner was a leading Abolitionist. He delivered a speech arguing that Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a free state. It was not a kind speech. Employing a colorful metaphor, Sumner called slavery a harlot to which some legislators were enthralled. Unstinting in his use of adjectives, he called those legislators “brutal, vulgar men without delicacy or scholarship” and “noise-some, squat, and not proper models for an American senator.”
It was May 19 in Washington D.C. In the Senate Chamber, the room temperature was 90 degrees and soon the emotional temperature was equally high. Brooks, a member of the House, was not present but word spread. Three days later, Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, raised his cane, and struck Sumner from behind. Brooks swung so hard and so repeatedly that his cane broke. It took three years for Sumner to recover.
Sumner supporters insisted his Senate seat remain empty awaiting his return as a tribute and a reminder. Supporters of Brooks’ sent dozens of canes to replace the broken one. It was a tribute; a salute to their hero. Each, attacker and attacked, was a hero to his side. Hard to understand how one who speaks maliciously or acts maliciously could be a hero? It was 1856 and the country was deeply divided; as it turned out the country was irreconcilably divided. The issue was slavery, and the result was Civil War.
Is that where we are today? Are we a country irreconcilably divided? Rather than one issue, we seem unable to discourse rationally about climate change, immigration, health care, taxes, Russian espionage, or the man in the White House. If we have gotten to a place where one side cannot or will not listen to the other, where each side intends to obstruct the other and progress is halted, what then? In 1856 secession was an option because the slave-holding states were geographically contiguous. Today, states on one side of the political debate are a sea of red in the center of the country; states on the other side are two slivers of blue separated by a continent. With money and population concentrated in the slivers, geography may force us to find a way to communicate.
Yet here is the real horror: the stories out of Montana and Texas are not shocking. Not because violence erupted among legislators once before in our history but because in this century we seem to have been slowly desensitized, inured, and no longer shocked by coarse language, violence, false denials, half truths, and the simple belief that winning is more important than how you won. It is sad if the leaders of a country are bad guys; it is a horror if the people expect them to be bad and no longer demand good.