Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 139 – Decency

Because of deadlines and all that semi-cool newspaper stuff, I'm writing this before the election, but it will come out the day after. I've made no secret of where I stand on the Presidential race, and hope that I'm happy reading this Wednesday morning. In any case, as I've said all along, I'll only relax about this one after the Electoral College results have been ratified.

But whoever wins the Presidency, I find that, at the end of the election season, I'm dismayed and discouraged by the direction I've seen in campaigns at every level down to the local. American politics has always had a strain of the personal – character attacks, whether warranted or not, have been a part of every campaign save, maybe, Washington's. Still, they have been a relatively minor part and usually have been a sign of desperation on the part of a losing effort. Similarly race, religion, and gender have been used as issues, but were not accepted as really right to use – JFK was able to neutralize the issue of his religion with, essentially, one speech.

Since the 1950's, though, rumor, slander, and innuendo have increasingly become the norm rather than the exception, and truth, integrity, and decency have been casualties. In 1952 Richard Nixon ran a red-scare smear campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas in a California race for US Senate and won, earning in the process the sobriquet "tricky Dick." In the 1960's General Motors tried to discredit Ralph Nader and was forced to apologize to him.

More recently, the "swift-boating" of John Kerry in 2004 tried to discredit Kerry's military service and even Max Cleland, who lost his legs in the Vietnam War was the victim of a smear campaign. To the candidates' credit, the level of ad hominem attacks in the current campaign was much less than in 2004, but smears were still present including the notorious "Obama is a Muslim" internet campaign and the "pals around with terrorists" gem as well.

More ominously, religious belief has returned as a vehicle for smearing candidates in a way that we never imagined in 1960. The rise of fundamentalists as the Republican Party's putative base has made a candidate's religious beliefs and practices part of the campaign, and has attempted to bring intensely personal and sometimes painful decisions into the public domain. People who oppose government involvement in almost any other area seem to want the government to decide who can marry whom and what women should do when they are pregnant.

Finally, on the local level, we have seen races that are, by law, non-partisan argued on a partisan basis and terms like "liberal" and "conservative" used as insults rather than descriptions. When I ran for IVGID Board of Trustees two years ago, the experience was so unpleasant in so many ways that I decided I would never run for office again. When Independent Incline, a group that has been trying to find a way to empower our community for many years now, finally found a way to take a step in that direction and got it on the ballot, we were attacked as "special interests," though no one has said what those interests might be or given even flimsy evidence to back up the accusation. While Independent Incline was open about our membership and public support, we were attacked in a full-page, anonymous ad just before the election, an ad that cited lies, half-truths, and things said in jest as evidence of our supposed hidden agenda.

I don't know what to do about this – once the Pandora's box of slime and slander has been opened, I doubt it's possible to close it, but maybe, just maybe, our children and grandchildren will be sickened enough by it to bring decency back into politics. As I said, I don't know as of this writing who was elected to office or the outcome of the various ballot questions, so if my side lost, don't hear this as sour grapes – I will feel exactly the same way if we win. In the words of the convict-philosopher Rodney King, can't we all just get along?

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