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November 29, 2015

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Forget civility. How about more truth in politics?

Arizona shooting (Eds. note: Graphic content)

Two people embrace each other at the scene where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and others were shot outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011. Launch slideshow »

In the wake of last weekend’s horrific shooting, many observers have weighed in with both trenchant and idiotic takes on what the incident means and doesn’t mean.

There has been some wonderful stuff — George Will, the National Journal’s Kathy Kiely and Josh Kraushaar, to name a few — along with gigabytes of left and right Jabberwocky. But as I have reflected on the tragedy, while marveling at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ resilience, my reaction has gradually metamorphosed from disgust to resignation.

As many have observed, Jared Loughner so far seems to be a lunatic who does not possess the intellectual moorings to be classified as a right-wing or left-wing maniac. As partisans on both sides discard their self-editing mechanisms to gain advantage, the issue of vitriol in the political discourse is much less relevant than many other topics. And I don’t just mean the obvious ones — a renewed debate over limits that should be allowed so Second Amendment remedies are more difficult to carry out and a rare chance to look at how mental health funding, in Nevada and in the country, needs to be revisited.

Those will happen, they will be ephemeral, little will change. But what is dominating the colloquy now, from Capitol Hill to cable TV to the Twitterverse, are calls for more civility in politics, for a tamping down of incendiary rhetoric that may or may not have created an environment for Loughner to act but supposedly could trigger latent Manchurian assassins. And those calls spectacularly miss the point.

Don’t misunderstand: There are careless politicians such as Sharron Angle who toss out flammable phrases such as “Second Amendment remedies” and “domestic enemies” and “Sharia law,” without any regard to the violence that could spring from the small percentage of potentially unhinged folks out there. I never believed, as did some, that Angle was dog-whistling to the nuts; I just think she doesn’t think.

There also are unserious politicians such as Oscar Goodman, who blithely talks of whacking his opponents or getting a baseball bat to pound critics or, most recently, wishing someone would break a journalist’s legs. Considering his past associations, I don’t think those comments are funny — and, yes, I know I am in the minority.

The media enable the Angles and Goodmans, by either sensationalizing or laughing at the awful rhetoric, and sending a message that the more outrageous you are the more attention you get. Which gets to the real point: The problem in this country is not a lack of collegiality but a lack of truth.

American politics has for centuries been characterized by a lack of civility that was much more uncivil 200 years ago than it is today. There is just so much more of it now because of the Web and cable talkers that so many more people can be affected by it, although a minuscule fraction will be impelled to violence.

But what about the destructive effect on democracy of empty or hollow rhetoric that is not just unchecked by the media or opposition voices, but either ineffectually parried or even shamelessly highlighted?

I would much rather see congressmen or senators act more like members of Parliament during PM question time, hurling invective and insults, than simply reading off a cue card provided by the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee. So, too, in Carson City, would it be refreshing to hear someone called an “ignorant slut” if it weren’t followed by the meaningless “no new taxes” or “we need to study the tax base.”

The real issue in the American polity is that if you treat people like idiots, they will act like idiots. No, most will not buy a Glock and start firing away at a congresswoman who gave him an unsatisfactory answer. But many will do much more damage to democracy’s fabric in the long run by voting based on hot-button, vapid issues.

Yes, there are enough people out there, based on the blind fury I saw and experienced during the 2010 Senate conflagration, that politicians should think twice before using violent imagery. Perhaps journalists should take heed, too — I probably have used “kill” a few too many times in metaphorical ways.

Reflection, in contrast to censorship, is one thing. But to dwell on some false hope that the Giffords shooting will cause politicians to be kinder and gentler to each other is not just naïve but foolish and meaningless. The best way to honor the dead and pay tribute to Giffords is to use this as a call to a different kind of arms, from Carson City to Capitol Hill, for politicians and the media to be more responsible and honest in the way information is presented.

Now who’s the crazy one?

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