- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

A recent article about flaming, or “online disinhibition effect” gives us some clues, I think, as to why general political discourse continues to decline in America.

The article by Daniel Goleman in the New York Times was of course primarily concerned with bad behavior on the Internet, and cites academic studies which single out the Internet’s anonymity, its invisibility and the delay or lack of response as root causes for rude, inflammatory and often untrue things said about persons and institutions, usually without consequence for the person saying them.

The article included a quote that stuck out for me, “The brain seems to need face-to-face cues that nurture civility.”

As I think about the campaign rhetoric and political criticism of the past several years, it occurs to me that much of it takes place in circumstances where the person making the provocative sound bite or political insult doesn’t have to face the object of attack. These provocations usually happen on a TV appearance, a phone interview, or in a political advertisement. Rarely is someone attacked when face-to-face with the attacker.

It is a mainstay of American law that a person in a trial has the right to face their accuser. This is not a bad principle. It’s a good one, and part of the reason why our legal system works. It is probably something we should apply, within reason and commonsense, to political discourse.

It’s true that political audiences a hundred years ago, lacking modern technology, had no choice in campaigns but to attend long debates with the principals both present and speaking to each other, looking at each other (at least part of the time) in the eye.

There would be mildly rowdy moments, audiences would interrupt the speakers with laughter, derision or applause. But there was usually a certain civility between the debaters. The most famous of these, and a legendary confrontation in our political history, were the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858. At stake was a Senate seat, and the issue of the day was slavery. We now consider Lincoln the winner of these debates, but he did lose the election, and he almost disappeared from American public life at age 50.

Less than two years later, a group of New York Republicans decided that their own governor, William Seward, then the overwhelming favorite to be the Republican nominee in 1860, could not win the general election. They invited a number of prominent Midwestern Republicans to speak in New York because they were convinced only a Midwesterner could defeat Stephen Douglas, now the almost-certain Democratic nominee and a defender of “popular sovereignty,” a clever way the Northern Democrats had devised to avoid facing the slavery issue head-on as abolitionists and most Republicans wanted them to do.

Lincoln came to New York in February 1860, at the newly constructed Cooper Union and he gave an extraordinary speech that electrified his audience, and within a few days, his party and many others in the North.

The speech lasted two hours, but audiences and readers were accustomed to that. It did not have the poetry of the Gettysburg Address, not the symphonic epiphanies of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, but it was a masterpiece nonetheless. It was provocative and hard-hitting, but at the same time it was lawyerly and civil, often spoken as if the intellectual defenders of slavery (who argued that its justification in the U.S. Constitution was because the founding fathers wanted it there) were in the Great Hall at Cooper Union that night.

Now, 147 years later, there will be a remarkable dialogue in the same Great Hall at Cooper Union on Feb. 28. The two speakers will be former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, and each of them among the most articulate and effective public speakers of their generations. It will be unrehearsed before a live audience.

There will be a few agreed-upon ground rules, and the issues will have been mutually chosen ahead of time. It will last for an hour-and-a-half. These are two men with different views of American contemporary politics, and what might be the solutions to the very critical issues facing the nation. I anticipate lots of personality, contradictory views and refreshing civility. They will look each other in the eye.

They will also challenge the major 2008 presidential candidates to come to Cooper Union, which has graciously provided their historic space for this and subsequent dialogues, to argue and debate about the serious issues of our time. I hope these candidates have the foresight and guts to take up this challenge, and give the American voter something to think about as we approach a critical national election.

There will be a free live Web cast (6:30-8 PM at www.americansolutions.com) so that virtually anyone can watch this historic event. It will be fascinating to see what it leads to.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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