Battleground state

Monday 1 February 2016 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — one month to the Massachusetts primary 

During this election cycle, dear readers, I watched every minute of every televised presidential debate, Republican and Democrat. I consider it my duty as a citizen to stay well-informed, even though (being a priest) I’ll never endorse any particular candidate or party — not that my endorsement would amount to a hill of beans.

I suppose a certain amount of vitriol has always been part of American politics. Abraham Lincoln, when publicly accused by a political opponent of being two-faced, famously retorted, “Sir, if I had two faces, why would I wear this one?” The difference is that Lincoln’s pithy repartee was heard by only a handful of people, not by millions.

What I find most fascinating about the recent candidates’ debates is not so much the political platforms (or lack thereof) of the candidates, but rather what the cold blue eye of the television screen was mirroring back to us about the culture in which we live. I see a culture of incivility. Worse, vitriol, it seems to me, has become entertainment. When did politics morph into theater?

In any drama worth its salt, the divide between the protagonist and the antagonist must be exaggerated. The presidential candidates, consequently, strive mightily to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack. This involves strategies that were once frowned upon in polite society — interrupting the other speakers, hurling ad hominem attacks, misstating facts, and slipping into the bottomless pit of “I said/you said.” Sometimes even the debate moderators, supposedly neutral, will throw fuel on the fire with patently inflammatory questions.

Which candidates get to be on stage and which do not is determined by the television network polls, with an eye towards their own ratings.

Following the debates, I also watched the political pundits, the so-called “talking heads,” explaining everything they have decided we need to know about the debate. Their opinions of the candidates, of course, were in place well before the debate began. This applies to right-leaning and left-leaning television news networks. The term “unbiased news” has become an oxymoronic anachronism.

I determined to go back in history to identify when this trend became established in the American culture. 

In 1968, I was cloistered in a seminary in Canada. I missed the debates. During a recent winter storm, I sat down and watched archival footage of the 1968 debates. These were not, however, the debates between the candidates themselves (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace), but another debate series.

By the way, in 1969, I actually ran into President Nixon. He was at the Washington Monument during the Moratorium March. Then, in 1972, I attended a George Wallace rally in Baltimore. I ended up being carried out by four state troopers — but these are stories for another time.

In 1968, the Republicans gathered in convention in sunny Florida. The Democrat Convention (hosted by Mayor Richard Dailey), was held near the stockyards in Chicago. I watched footage of neither convention. Instead, I watched two commentators duke it out in secluded corners of the convention floors. 

The debaters in that series were the torrid novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and mores-busting Gore Vidal against the iconic conservative champion and founder of the National Review magazine, William F. Buckley Jr. The two men, both of astronomically high intelligence, obviously loathed each other. Their seething mutual dislike was palpable. Ironically, they presented themselves similarly — witty, elegant, eccentric, urbane, upper-class sophisticates — but apparently from totally different worlds. Those worlds were colliding. 

Each viciously attacked the other and repeatedly stabbed his opponent with steely words snarled through smiling teeth. It was a clash of the Titans; and it was televised to millions of viewers. That network’s ratings went through the roof.

These two were the embodiment of a tectonic shift then taking place in the nation. They stood on the fault line, albeit on opposite sides. They modeled the future to us. It was not a pretty sight.

We now live in the world Buckley and Vidal prophesied — only more so. They didn’t go far enough. Incivility, rudeness, confrontation, ad hominem attacks, slander, and a general attitude of personal superiority and entitlement are pandemic. They are embedded in the culture in which we now find ourselves. They are in evidence not only in civil society but have even seeped into faith communities. This is neither the same society nor the same Church in which I was born and raised. My world has changed.

I’m not complaining, you understand, dear readers. It does no good to complain. One cannot flee to the past for safe harbor. One must remain firmly anchored in the present. I’m simply saying we have to weather this cultural and moral tsunami as best we can, all the while remaining faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is a phrase popular in today’s political parlance: “battleground state.” Rather, ours is a battleground world.

And that’s the latest breaking news, as I see it, from out here in the trenches.

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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