Discourtesy is to blame for bitter partisanship

In recent years we have been treated to much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media about the bitterly partisan atmosphere in Washington, where the political denizens have elevated it to the level of an art form—albeit a notably ugly and intellectually dishonest one.

Actually, it’s hard to believe the media hasn’t noticed that a bitter political partisanship has been afflicting social relationships here since at least the late 1970s—by no means solely in Washington, but throughout America. After all, the media is largely responsible for fomenting it.

Indeed, the media has been so successful in doing so that bitter partisanship is by no means confined to the political arena. Rather, it has insinuated itself into virtually every aspect of American life.

Political partisanship is no longer solely related to the people to whom we give our vote. It now extends to the choice of the people with whom we elect to associate. Even the places where we worship seem to be divided along partisan lines—liberal or conservative.

Truth to tell, the media’s feigned horror at the bitterness of the partisanship in Washington calls to mind the scene in the movie Casablanca where Captain Renault (Claude Rains) declares he is “shocked, shocked” to discover people gambling in Rick’s Café.

Hypocrisy, as Oscar Wilde so pithily observed, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

Sad to say, partisanship seems to be the rule in every aspect of daily life. Even the products we buy inspire partisanship: Several years ago we needed to replace Charlotte’s ancient SUV. After much research and deliberation, we decided on a Subaru.

“I never put you down as tree-hugging lefties,” sniffed an acquaintance on learning of our purchase. It seems Subarus are regarded in some quarters as the “badges and tokens” of left–wing political leanings.

Every cloud, however, has a silver lining—thus I hope our Subaru will protect us from the wrath of the proletariat when the revolution comes: My Toyota truck, you see, is apparently an unequivocal expression of patriarchal, white supremacist, gas-guzzling, anti-environmental, rightwing extremism.

In truth—not that truth matters much when it comes to political correctness—both vehicles were purchased for entirely practical reasons: price and utility.

Given our ’druthers, we would much rather drive a 1931 Stutz Bearcat, a 1954 Aston Martin, a 1963 Cadillac convertible, or 1966 Ford T-Bird—all, I confess, regarded in leftist partisan quarters as politically incorrect. To which, I would respond: Things of beauty are a joy forever. But I digress …

No matter: There is no place whatsoever, it seems, for the moderate, the neutral, or the apolitical on the battlefield of American social relations. Indifference to the vehement political disputes merely excites the antipathy of all sides.

Yet hard though it might seem to believe, there was a time when politics were by no means a cause of social division. Political views were simply treated as personal opinions of no particular interest except at election time.

Back then a circle of friends was composed of folks of various political and religious persuasions united by common interests: such things as the PTA, books, art, music, freemasonry, amateur dramatics, automobiles, sports, and the like.

Politics and religion in no way hampered people’s mutual enjoyment of each other’s company. On occasion, however, such differences actually contributed to interesting and informative discussions because, back then, people were expected to treat each other with civility and respect.

Our London dinner parties were tremendous fun, albeit occasionally raucous fun. In those days, dinner guests were usually invited for their different political persuasions—on grounds that too much uniformity of thought on any subject made for dull conversation.

All that had changed by the end of the 1970s. In New York, dinner parties, in the media world at least, had become relentlessly, not to say drearily, political. Parties even at friends’ homes were either deadly dull gatherings of the like-minded or arenas for hand-to-hand political combat.

Weird though it might seem, dinners, cocktail parties, and social gatherings in the Soviet Union and most of its satellites in the 1960s & 70s were a good deal more friendly and enjoyable than they tend to be in today’s London and Washington.

Sure, the political divisions between us were profound, but away from the negotiating table, debates were generally good-natured, respectful, and civil. Folks on either side of the divide who were anything less than courteous were not invited again.

What has changed here in America is not the profundity of political opinion—far from it. Compared with yesteryear, what passes for political thought today tends toward the derivative and the banal.

In the past, however, political opinions were as strongly held as they are today. But the thing that has changed is our regard for civility, courtesy, and tolerance.

Sad to say, we have become a society where rudeness and boorishness reign supreme. And the source of this ugly disregard for common courtesy is the gross self-absorption fostered by our legal system, our body politic and, yes, the very media that bemoans its consequences.

All three have combined to drive the wellspring of courtesy and tolerance in our society—the teachings of the Christian faith—from the public square.

As a consequence, “do as you would be done by” has been replaced by “do what you will.” (And for Christians, the originator of that particular doctrine should not be hard to identify.)

In sum, however, Washington’s bitter partisanship is merely a symptom of our problem. And the only way to cure it is to treat the underlying disease. GPH✠

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