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The Commentary Pages Are No Tea Party

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Friday, August 19, 2011

Several columnists recently referred to the tea party "patriots" as terrorists. The terrorist label set off a stormy protest among the group's legion of message writers.

I was one of those columnists. I figured that had some radical sheik sitting in his cave threatened to blow up the American economy -- that is, push the United States into default on its debt -- if his demands weren't met, few would have questioned use of that unflattering term.

The partiers' most plausible defense was that "everybody knew" the government was not going to default in the end. But everybody didn't know that, certainly not the businesses and investors forced to prepare for that doomsday scenario, even if the odds were against it. And though a last-minute deal did pull us from the brink, the manufactured chaos embarrassed the United States globally and played a role in Standard & Poor's downgrade of our credit rating. It sent the stock market into a paroxysm of volatility and helped ravage consumer confidence just as it was beginning to recover.

That little stunt continues to pain the jobless, investors and U.S. companies while weakening American power abroad. But the hurt the tea party writers most complained of was to their feelings. I had engaged in name-calling, they kept saying. One professing to want more civility in our national conversation, as I do, should not be flinging around the "terrorist" word.

May I presume to disagree? Civility is a subjective concept, to be sure, but hurting people's feelings in the course of making solid arguments is fair and square. The decline in the quality of our public discourse results not so much from an excess of spleen, but a deficit of well-constructed arguments. Few things upset partisans more than when the other side makes a case that bats home.

"Most of us know that effectively scoring on a point of argument opens us to the accusation of mean-spiritedness," writes Frank Partsch, who leads the National Conference of Editorial Writers' Civility Project. "It comes with the territory, and a commitment to civility should not suggest that punches will be pulled in order to avoid such accusations."

Partsch served as editorial page editor of the Omaha World-Herald for a quarter-century. I'm currently the NCEW president.

Name-calling is not foreign to respectable commentary. Some journalists swear off name-calling altogether. It does not advance an argument. But in the right hands, it can spice up an essay.

Let us revisit some columns by H.L. Mencken, whom conservatives revere for his hostility to government. In a 1925 essay for The (Baltimore) Evening Sun, Mencken referred to the followers of populist William Jennings Bryan as "half-wits," "gaping primates," "rustic ignoramuses" and a "forlorn mob of imbeciles."

Calling Bryan "a walking fever," Mencken wrote: "If the fellow was sincere, then so was P.T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity."

The above was published the day after Bryan died.

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commenters outside the group see what's up and don't bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It's not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It's a strong argument that hits the bull's-eye.

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