Monday, March 31, 2008

Selective Quoting

Nicholas Kristof wrote up a big long New York Times column on the alleged decline of American intellectualism, and I agree with parts of it. But not where he channels Susan Jacoby committing what I think is a major sin: cherry-picking.
“America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism,” Susan Jacoby argues in a new book, “The Age of American Unreason.” She blames a culture of “infotainment,” sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies.

Even insults have degenerated along with other discourse, Ms. Jacoby laments. She contrasts Dick Cheney’s obscene instruction to Senator Patrick Leahy with a more elegant evisceration by House Speaker Thomas Reed in the 1890s: “With a few more brains he could be a half-wit.”

Susan Jacoby is trying to illustrate a point about the decline of American eloquence by choosing two quotes to contrast. But you could illustrate practically any proposition this way. There have been political insults in this decade that have been far more eloquent than Cheney's "go fuck yourself". There were undoubtedly political insults in the 1890s far coarser than Thomas Reed's cutting words.

Crude four-letter Anglo-Saxon words did not suddenly come into being from nowhere in the late 20th Century, as a little historical investigation shows.

You might think coarse insults may have been common among the Great Unwashed in the 19th century, but political discourse was characterized by high-minded, thoughtful, educated speech. Well then, I have the perfect counter-example all cherry-picked for you.

-- The Saga of Sumner and Brooks --

In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner (D-MA) denounced Senators Stephen Douglas (D-IL) and Andrew Butler (D-SC) for their support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Most notably, he accused Butler of taking a mistress (slavery) and mocked Butler's speech impediment (Butler had suffered a stroke some time earlier).

But there were even loftier heights of discourse to come. Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC), Senator Butler's nephew, decided to confront Sumner personally on the Senate floor. What sort of political discussion ensued?

Did Brooks and Sumner talk through their differences amicably, in a highly literate discussion with frequent references to the Greek philosophers and the writings of Locke and Kant? Not really.

Did Brooks tell Sumner to go fuck himself, in a foreshadowing of Dick Cheney's verbal attack on Patrick Leahy? No, but you're getting warmer.

Did Brooks beat the bejeezus out of Sumner with his cane until Sumner was lying bleeding and unconscious on the floor?

Well, um, yes, that's precisely what happened.

Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years; he soon transmogrified from a D-MA into an R-MA. Southern newspapers opined that perhaps Sumner ought to be savagely beaten every day; that might knock some sense into him. Brooks, his self-preservation instincts operating at full blast, weaseled his way out of a duel with one of Sumner's political allies, but died of croup within the year (a hazard of living in the 19th century).

-- Thus Ends the Saga of Sumner and Brooks --

Obviously not every political argument in 19th century America ended with someone lying beaten and bloody on the floor, just as not every sharp exchange of words in 21st century America consists of "Go fuck yourself".

But by cherry-picking your quotes, you can make 19th century America seem like a land of glittering repartee and lofty erudition. Or you can make it seem like a country of cavemen thwapping each other with clubs. You can make the first decade of the 21st century seem like a digital wonderland of articulate wits exchanging eloquently phrased opinions on the Internet. Or you can paint it as a world where Eric Cartman clones trade barbs with like-minded imbeciles on political forums.

Anything is possible, if you cherry-pick your quotes.

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