Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Politics, language, and civility

Anyone following the American presidential primary season, especially the Republican candidates, is struck by a tone of negativity and pessimism about the present and future that is unfortunate--as well as by ugliness and a lack of good manners.

Much of this ugliness in language comes from Donald Trump's efforts in self-promotion. His use of crude language, in the presence of families with children, is not seen by most people as a major problem at a time when cable TV and movies regularly use the language of the street. Long gone are the days when "expletive deleted" was part of the political dialogue.

Michael Gerson in the Washington Post is one who has noticed and called him out for being tasteless. He rightly says in a recent piece that Trump's foul mouth is a cover for ignorance and weakness.  His use of the F-word and other vulgar insults seem to be based on the view that such talk is authentic, that people like to hear candidates tell it "like it is."  Yet this is a kind of pseudo-toughness that adds to the overall nastiness of the current public debate.

Profanity demeans people; it is generally cruel and aggressive. But that is the basis of Trump's vulgar style.

What a contrast to the 2008 campaign when Barack Obama emerged on the public stage: poised, articulate, optimistic.  And so he has remained, as David Brooks notes in the New York Times yesterday (Feb. 9).  Brooks is no fan of Obama's policies but praises the outgoing president's integrity and good manners in contrast to today's vulgarians.

He rightly notes that the Obama administration has been free of scandals. This president has appointed people of rectitude and he and his family have been humane and decent.  Brooks doesn't mention that Obama, unlike so many candidates today, thinks through issues and speaks in coherent sentences that require few corrections. He has shown, as Brooks says, grace under pressure, handling the economic meltdown and other major crises with coolness--and without vulgar language.

I was struck by the conservative Brooks's praise of a liberal President for his decency and "elegance" at a time when, sadly, there has been a decline recently in public behavior and speech; the result, as George Orwell long ago warned, is a decline in public life and society as a whole.

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