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Personal insults in politics

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and has pledged to “get to the bottom” of allegations associated with discussions President Donald Trump had with Ukrainian officials. He also is a descendant of the New Jersey/New York Burrs of the late 18th Century. You know who I mean.

Aaron Burr, who was a senator from New York and the third vice president of the United States (under President Thomas Jefferson), is quite familiar to Mid-Ohio Valley residents, and maybe that is why his surname caught my eye, as one of his uncle’s descendants now wades through another national political drama.

There has been plenty of talk lately of allegedly “unprecedented” political vitriol, bullying … general nastiness. People hurl political labels such as Democrat and Republican at each other as though those words by themselves are deep insults. And it is true our worst selves are on full display because technology and a certain intentional disregard for social media etiquette make the problem SEEM worse than in the past. It looks as though more people are actually reveling in the lengths they take to hurt others.

For example, no matter how you feel about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., you probably cringe (or should, anyway) when the derisive nickname “Pocahontas” is applied to her.

More than 200 years ago, former President John Adams referred to Alexander Hamilton, even after Hamilton’s death (you know, because he and Burr were such bitter political rivals they fought a duel and Hamilton lost), as a “bastard brat of a Scotch pedler.”

Or how about this one?

“The minions of power are watching you, to be turned out by the pimp of the White House if you refuse to sustain him. A man sunk so low we can hardly hate. We have nothing but disgust, pity, and contempt.”

That was former U.S. Rep. Kenneth Rayner, Whig-N.C., speaking to an audience 10 years after he left Congress, about President Franklin Pierce. (And, yes, I know what some of you are thinking.)

President Grover Cleveland was called a “besotted tyrant,” “moral leper” and “corrupt tool of Wall Street.”

Do you see it yet?

I could dig up plenty more, but there is no need to teach some of you new insults. My point is that for 200 years, we have a record of political nastiness at about the level we see right now. What we don’t have is much record of what ordinary people were calling each other for supporting one candidate or the other over the years. There is very little recorded evidence that they, too, might have considered anyone supporting someone or something different from their own views to be troglodytically stupid and the spawn of Satan himself.

Maybe they did. But maybe, because they did not have the ease, distance and sometimes anonymity of social media to protect them, they did not. For most of this nation’s history it has been crucial to at least get along with your neighbors well enough to ensure everyone’s general wellbeing.

Tell me this, then, folks: Why do we do this to one another? What goal do we have in seeking to destroy one another online?

Does it make us feel better about ourselves? If so, what about ourselves are we trying to mask?

But more to the point, since so many claim they are simply trying to prove the other person’s point of view to be wrong: Has anyone, EVER, changed their mind about something because someone used the most insulting language possible to tell them they were stupid for believing it? Speaking for myself, I know I tend to get defensive and double-down, rather than taking a serious look at the opinion at hand.

There’s nothing new about today’s political discourse except the perceived lack of consequences and ease of communication that allows ordinary people to be just as degrading and disrespectful as their “leaders.”

Oh, and about that preserved evidence … nothing ever dies from the Internet. We don’t know much about how those with opposing points of view talked to each other for most of this country’s history, but our children are watching what we are saying to each other now. And their children and grandchildren will still be able to see it, too, with just a few keystrokes.

Is this what we want to teach them? Is this what we want them to think of us?

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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