Unpleasant People

Some people like a challenge, but most of us simply avoid unpleasant people. Those of us who came of age in the sixties – we used to be called hippies, and then we became liberals, and now it seems we’re progressives – don’t watch a whole lot of Hannity or O’Reilly or Beck on Fox News. But the same thing can happen with those who spent the sixties as Young Republicans – you know, those were the guys with the short hair with the madras shirts and the khaki pants and the penny loafers with no socks, and the young ladies in shirtwaists with the circle pin and all that. They should, after all these years, still be big on the rants of those three, not finding them unpleasant at all. But it seems that this Fourth of July a Utah radio station dropped Hannity from its lineup. What’s up with that?

It was the unpleasantness. The station is owned by Deseret Media Companies, the for-profit arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormons – and Deseret Media Companies has a mission statement that calls for the dissemination of “light and knowledge” while promoting “integrity, civility, morality, and respect for all people.” And Hannity keeps saying things like each and every Democrat in Congress should be tortured and killed, at Guantanamo and that anyone who believes homosexuality is a natural phenomenon – and not an evil choice one makes just to make other people uncomfortable – is clearly brainwashed. Well, the Mormons may have financed and staffed the effort out here in California to pass Proposition 8 – banning gay marriage and all associated rights for such people – but they weren’t unpleasant about it, and they weren’t screaming at people. They just quietly paid tens of millions of dollars for ads and offices and rallies, and it passed. They were civil about it, if one can be civil in demonizing a class of people and interfering in the political process of a state that isn’t exactly Utah in any way. But Hannity can be a directly unpleasant fellow. The Utah radio station’s CEO mentioned nothing about what Hannity likes to say – Hannity’s explosions of rage – he just said they would be developing local programming, as that seemed like a good idea right now. But of course you wouldn’t mention those explosions of rage – there’s no point in getting into a pissing contest with an angry and quite unpleasant person. You just cross to the other side of the street. There’s nothing to be gained.

And on the other end of the political spectrum many of us have stopped watching Keith Olbermann on MSNBC – Olbermann moves from shrill to snide to smug and back again, and it’s quite unpleasant. Actually it’s become quite unwatchable. And MSNBC also has Ed Schultz on his high horse with his grab-you-by-the-elbow folksy populism. He should sell used cars. And they have the scattered and hyperactive Chris Matthews – always talking over his guests and saying things the next day that he admits were unbelievable dumb, but excuses because he loves politics so much. It’s not for nothing folks call him Tweety. He’s not the sort of fellow you’d invite to your next dinner party. At least MSNBC has the gracious and respectful Rachel Maddow – an overeducated geek and a total policy wonk, who tends to giggle a bit too much, but who is impeccably courteous. Even Rand Paul, after that disastrous interview where he said he had real problems with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, came to her defense – he said she treated him fairly and professionally, and the angry right should stop picking on her. Rand Paul may be a man with very odd views, and quite strange in many ways, but it seems he is also a gentleman.

Does all this portend a return to civility and measured discourse? Hardly – being a gentleman in America is to be considered a fool and a wimp. People will say you’re weak, and you clearly won’t be successful. It’s that old Leo Durocher thing – nice guys finish last. But Durocher corrected that – “I never did say that you can’t be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I’d trip her up.” And he’s in the Hall of Fame. Are you?

And there’s that problem with the word, gentleman – originally the word for a man with an income derived from property or a legacy, one who was independently wealthy and doesn’t need to work. In England that meant you were of the peerage, or if you could not claim nobility or even the rank of esquire, at least you were better than the riff-raff who had to worry about making a living. You were a gentleman. Over the centuries the word may have gained other meanings, having to do with unfailing courtesy and innate thoughtfulness, but it still has a whiff of old world aristocracy about it. We fought a revolution to be rid of that sort of thing. As a rule, we don’t trust the thoughtful.

And that may make us a nation of unpleasant people, who are proud to be unpleasant. And in his Fourth of July column, the New York Times’ Frank Rich hints at that:

All men may be created equal, but slavery, America’s original sin of inequality, was left unaddressed in the Declaration of Independence signed 234 years ago today. Of all the countless attempts to dispel that shadow over the nation’s birth, few were more ambitious than the hard-fought bill Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law just in time for another Fourth of July, 46 summers ago.

Yes, those were the days when most of the nation, appalled at the crudeness of George Wallace and Bull Conner and the like, and seeing Martin Luther King was a decent man and, oddly, a gentleman in the modern sense, decided civility and common decency were long overdue in these matters. Some things were just wrong, and some things were just right. Maybe you had to be there – it was so much unlike these days – but even pro-business Eisenhower Republicans, as we call them now, had no problem with doing the right thing. At least that was Pittsburgh at the time – there was no dispute in the suburban Ozzie and Harriet family – one does the right thing, and Johnson was doing the right thing. It was a matter of common decency. Father may have been a businessman and a Republican, but he was a gentleman.

But it’s never that simple, as Rich notes:

With the holiday weekend approaching, Johnson summoned the television networks for the signing ceremony on Thursday evening, July 2. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, first proposed more than a year earlier by John F. Kennedy, banished the Jim Crow laws that denied black Americans access to voting booths, public schools and public accommodations. Johnson told the nation we could “eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country” with the help of a newly formed “Community Relations Service” and its “advisory committee of distinguished Americans.” Talk about an age of innocence!

Well, that was before Rush Limbaugh was screaming and sputtering on the radio, and when Rupert Murdoch was still in Australia. It was a different time. Decency and civility were at least given lip service, not mocked. Yes, William F. Buckley had just founded the National Review and penned his famous editorial on the inferiority of the Negro and in defense of segregation – the whites were the advanced race – but he later said it was a mistake for National Review not to have supported the civil rights legislation of 1964-65, and he later supported a national holiday honoring King. Oops. In the end he wasn’t going to be a total jerk for the cause.

But Rich remembers the July forty-six years ago, just after Johnson signed the bill, this way:

A front-page photo in The Times on July 4 showed 13-year-old Gene Young of Kansas City being shorn by a white barber at the Muehlebach Hotel shop “formerly closed to Negroes.” But that Norman Rockwell-like tableau was paired with the image of a white businessman, Lester Maddox, and a teenage accomplice respectively wielding a pistol and an ax handle as they turned away blacks from Maddox’s restaurant in Atlanta. The summer of 1964, which had begun with the lynching of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., would soon erupt in a bloody wave of terrorism, marked by dozens of bombings of black churches, homes and businesses.

And there was the presidential campaign:

The soon-to-be Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, had committed heresy by casting one of the Party of Lincoln’s few Senate votes against the Civil Rights Act. But not even Goldwater had been as implacably opposed as a Democratic senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd. Of all the filibusters trying to block the bill, largely from Southern and border state racists then welcomed by the Democratic Party, Byrd’s was the longest (some 14 hours) and perhaps the most appalling. As the historian Taylor Branch recounted, Byrd even let loose with ornate “segregationist interpretations of Luke and Paul.”

Yes, that was the same Robert Byrd, now a bit of a hero to the left, who just died:

He had been an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1940s. As he moved toward a political career after World War II, he wrote to a notorious bigot, the Democratic Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, to rage at President Truman’s efforts to integrate the military: “I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.”

Yes, he was a thoroughly unpleasant person, but he changed:

That letter was not unearthed until the late 1980s, but by then Byrd had long since renounced and apologized repeatedly for his ugly past, with words as well as deeds, including his avid support for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983. Byrd referred to his KKK association in interviews as an immutable stain. He always noted with rue, not complaint, that it would haunt his obituaries. He wasn’t wrong. But when those obituaries finally appeared last week, after his death at 92, Byrd’s résumé in racism was dwarfed not just by his efforts to atone for it but by his legislative achievements on many fronts during his epic Senate career.

Yes, he changed, but it wasn’t easy, and Rich argues that there’s a lesson there:

Byrd’s evolution often parallels that of a country that has now elected its first African-American president. But the story of America and race is hardly resolved, and progress is not inexorable. Even in the new century, we still take steps back and forward in bewildering alternation. New Yorkers could only be embarrassed to learn last week, courtesy of The Times, that in a city where the non-Hispanic white population is 35 percent, 70 percent of the senior officials hired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg are white – a record worse than that of all three American cities of comparable population, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. The title that an independent panel gave to its newly issued report on the altercation between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a Cambridge, Mass., police officer – “Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities” – might apply here too.

Yet paradoxically the news in New York was preceded by happier tidings from South Carolina, where the flag of the Confederacy still flies at the state Capitol. Republican primary voters there gave victories both to an African-American candidate for Congress, Tim Scott, and an Indian-American gubernatorial hopeful, Nikki Haley. Liberals have argued that these breakthroughs come with a caveat: Scott and Haley are often ideologically to the right of even their conservative competitors. True enough, but that doesn’t alter the reality that some very conservative white voters in the land of Strom Thurmond did not let any lingering racial animus override their other convictions. They voted for Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, despite the urging of a local GOP official that they reject a “raghead.”

And Tim Scott defeated Strom Thurmond’s son. Things do change.

But Rich says one shouldn’t get all hopeful or anything, as there was the Kagan nomination hearings:

Even as Washington paid homage to Byrd’s triumph over his origins last week, the Capitol played host to what the Supreme Court’s only black justice, Clarence Thomas, might call a “high-tech lynching.” The victim was, of all people, Thurgood Marshall – the nation’s first black solicitor general and first black Supreme Court Justice, nominated to both jobs by LBJ.

Marshall had been a mentor to Kagan – she clerked for him in 1988 – and he was the man who successfully argued Brown v Board of Education in 1954, and that led directly to legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and things at the confirmation hearings just got strange:

Even before last week’s ceremonial hazing of Kagan, the GOP’s only national black political figure, Michael Steele, attacked her for writing approvingly of a speech Marshall had given calling the original text of the Constitution “defective” – a restrained adjective, actually, for a document that countenanced slavery. On the first day of the Kagan hearings, Marshall received many more mentions (35) than even that other Republican archenemy, President Obama… Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said they weren’t sure they could have voted to confirm Marshall to the court. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a state that suffered years of economic boycotts because of its opposition to the King holiday, faulted Marshall’s jurisprudence for advancing “the agenda of certain classes of litigants” (wonder who?) and for being out of the “mainstream.”

In short, these were unpleasant people, out to prove they were unpleasant. And Rich argues they were more Thurmond than Byrd:

Like Byrd, Thurmond had been an ardent Democratic foe of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unlike Byrd, he left his party in disgust that year and endorsed Goldwater, jump-starting the migration of the Democrats’ racist cadre and their political toxins to the GOP and setting the stage for the Republican “Southern strategy.” That strategy isn’t dead. Witness just recently the Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration of a Confederate History Month that omitted any mention of slavery, and the Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul’s revival of Goldwater’s “constitutional” objections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Thurmond, who died at 100 in 2003, never recanted his racist past. He chose instead to pretend it never happened. He told interviewers that his “reputation as a segregationist” was “just misunderstood” and that he helped “the people of both races” throughout his lifetime. This from a man who, when running as a Dixiecrat for president in 1948, exclaimed that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation.” Only after Thurmond’s death did we learn that his record also included fathering a daughter with a teenage black maid in the 1920s – and then shunting her into the shadows.

And it was more of the same:

The senators trashing Marshall last week almost uncannily recycled Thurmond’s behavior from July 1967, when, as a freshly minted Republican senator on the same committee, he pelted Marshall for an hour with windy, truculent and arcane questions during Marshall’s own Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Indeed, some of the coded invective – such as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’ decrying Marshall as “a well-known activist” – was coined by Thurmond and his peers then. Thurmond not only voted against Marshall but declared him too deficient in constitutional knowledge to qualify for the court.

It seems the senators decided they’d get points for being unpleasant – and the Republicans, having offended the Hispanics with their attacks on Sonia Sotomayor (Rush Limbaugh dismissed her as just the Puerto Rican cleaning lady) and being all for the stop-all-Latinos-and-demand-their-papers Arizona law, decided to offend the blacks by bemoaning the unfairness of ending racial segregation. There was an audience, awarding points. They are becoming the party of proudly unpleasant people. Rich argues that America is still very much a work in progress.

And he may be right. We still value unpleasantness. See this item on the week leading up to the Fourth of July – the Republicans cut off unemployment benefits to almost two million people and their top guy in the house said any problems with the big banks and investment houses and the rules was quite minor stuff – just an ant – and along with trashing Thurgood Marshall and implicitly defending racial segregation, their Nevada Senate candidate argued rape and incest are part of God’s plan and abortions even to save the mother’s life were morally wrong, even if the mother and the baby die, and the party again defended poor beleaguered British Petroleum against the nasty Obama folks and the regulators – and then threatened to either end social security or change it – so more than twenty million people who have paid into the system for at least twenty years will have to wait until age 70 to see their benefits, and they filibustered aid to homeless veterans with children. And that was just in one week.

Yes, most of us simply avoid unpleasant people. You just cross to the other side of the street. But these folks say they are the ones who should be running the country. Once upon a time, when the nation at least paid lip service to common decency, these folks would be shunned. But that was a long time ago. Sean Hannity may have lost one radio station – he has five or six hundred more. Unpleasantness is the order of the day now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Unpleasant People

  1. Hitch says:

    A very nice and timely piece, and exceedlingly readable too. Thanks.

    It is striking to travel between Europe and the US. Just the political campaign posters tell it all. In Europe issues are on the posters. In the US ad hominems and mischaracterizations of the opponent.

    In the US we get crossfire (well luckily canceled). In the UK we get Question Time.

    But it is unfair to say that this is new or even US centric. Aggressive newspapers are as old as newspapers.

    But of course we really should want better.

    • justabovesunset says:

      For a number of years, at the apex of my career in the corporate world, I would regularly spend two weeks in Paris each December – kicking around on my own, doing a bit of Christmas shopping, but generally just poking around and sitting, watching. Friends and family often asked if I didn’t find the French rude and insulting. I had to explain no, that wasn’t it at all. They were formal – a circumspect and rather private people. There were rules, for how one addressed others and the proper way to do this and that. They had, over the long years, established a system of civility, one that assured civility. There were things one just did not do – talk loudly in restaurants, or in conversation, until much was established, talk about oneself and so on. One did not just burst into laughter in the street, or even smile. That was unseemly – that was for family and friends. And there were the greetings – the number of kisses on each cheek in which order. Watch the young teenagers there, all punked out. Even they follow the rules.

      But once one got the hang of the rules, and followed them, the French invariably turned out to be warm and generous people, and loyal to a fault. And it wasn’t just a Parisian thing – the same applied in Rouen and down south in Aix and Avignon and Arles. The French with whom I dealt of course found Americans like me fascinating – we had no such social superstructure at all, and to them our brash let-it-all-hang-out, say-what-you-mean-and-damn-what-people-think way of being seemed attractively liberating, and, at the same time, deeply frightening. But they may have been saying something else. My French was never very good.

      But we are who we are.

  2. Bill Nichols says:

    This piece raises a worrisome question about the role of civility. I responded recently to an unpleasant attack on one of my columns in our local paper, The Granville Sentinel. Wish I could include the attack here, but I quote some of the attack in my response. It follows:

    If you happened to read Crawford Lipsey’s response to my recent column titled “What Makes Faisal Shahzad Tick?,” you’ve encountered a local example of the approach to political debate that makes public disagreements so disagreeable these days. Lipsey’s “Guest Opinion” accuses me of having written many terrible things, but he provides not a single example.

    “Nichols’ frequent socialistic views demonize the American way of life,” Lipsey says. I’ve looked back through my columns on health care reform and found support for a public option that would allow people who can’t get health insurance from a private insurer to buy it from the government. And it’s a fact that I’ve been critical of our growing dependence on private contractors in making war. As for demonizing our way of life, I can’t find a thing unless Lipsey considers consumerism to be the key. In a January column, “Falling in Love Again with the Big Apple,” I suggested we’d be better off in many ways if we spent less money at Christmas time. Whether such ideas are socialist and demonizing might be a question worth discussing, but it’s not obvious.

    Those are Lipsey’s gentler condemnations. He also says I make the case that Faisal Shazad, who left an SUV loaded with explosives in Times Square, where it was meant to kill as many people as possible, is a victim. He claims I “justify” Shahzad’s crime, even seek to “rescue” him. Readers who didn’t see my Faisal Shahzad column but caught Lipsey’s “Columnist defending terrorist’s motivation to kill?” might worry understandably that Granville harbors a dangerous Rambler.

    The truth is less alarming. “What Makes Faisal Shahzad Tick?” asks what makes a man who has found his way into the heart of the American Dream turn against us. How does a man who has lived such a conventional life suddenly become a maniac? And I say our country’s increasing use of drones in targeted assassinations that often kill innocent people is likely to foster “poisonous hatred” among Pakistanis and Afghans. When I say Mohsin Hamad, who wrote the novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” attended Princeton and Harvard, I don’t mean that makes him “something special,” as Lipsey suggests. (Although Lipsey has no space for evidence, he does find room to mention that he’s “an executive alumni of Harvard,” and he’s “run large, multi-national, multi-million dollar companies.”) What interests me is that Hamad’s background is similar to Shahzad’s. He calls himself a “divided man,” and he writes a novel about a man whose life also parallels Shahzad’s. We might, I suggest, learn something useful about the terrorist from the novelist.

    Distortion and name-calling like Lipsey’s “Guest Opinion” have long been a regular part of political debate, and they seem to have taken on a new virulence in recent months here at home. My guess is that much of the contempt and condemnation grows from fear, for we face daunting problems and dangers as a society and as citizens of the world. But it’s impossible to be both truly free and deeply afraid. As we approach our July 4th celebration, it’s probably not a bad thing to be reminded that mistrust and fear make humane discourse and freedom of expression difficult even in a community as beautiful and peaceful as Granville.

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