Before the Civil War, Jefferson Davis spoke against slavery spreading north of the 36th parallel while a member of the U.S. Senate, arguing that the institution everywhere would soon die on its own. Even immediately after his 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln did not advocate emancipation of slaves. He only wanted to stop slavery from spreading outside the states where it already existed while it died its well-deserved death.
These moderates were pushed, however, into the most horrible war in American history by radicals on each end of the political spectrum. After his rampages in Kansas, the first victim of anti-slavery extremist John Brown at Harper's Ferry was a black man. After the war, John Wilkes Booth, too cowardly to wear a Confederate uniform, did more than shout terror in a crowded theater when he shot Lincoln.
Having now attempted to hear John Yoo speak and having learned that someone cut a gas line he or she thought fed the home of U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Charlottesville, I wonder if we're on the verge of another clash brought on by the people who deny those of us in the middle our right to think and act upon our own. Tea partiers, I read in my morning newspaper, are seeking to drown out the president's speech in Iowa, and someone shot a hole in the minority whip's office window in Richmond, though police have said this was a random bullet.
What is it, I wonder, about us as a people that we seem incapable of keeping the fringe thinkers on the fringes? Why do we so quickly allow them to dominate our political conversations and turn reasonable discussion into shouting, angry battles?
Why do we seem incapable of understanding that all of the issues facing our nation are complex and only rational dialogue has any chance of solving them without bloodshed?
Where does that line where free speech leads to clear and present danger that murder, violence and other activities that any society must suppress, begin?
Why do we in media seemingly give the microphone to the craziest voices we can find? The media's common refrain is that conflict is news. It's what the people want; what they demand or they'll change channels or quit reading or go watch “The Daily Show” or click into the Web page of some blogger who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Information must, we media people in the age of television and Internet think, be fascinating or entertaining or the audience's little brains will tune it out.
We in the media have gradually concluded that complexity is beyond our audience's capabilities to the point that today, I submit, life imitates art. We have so dumbed down our news stories into such tiny increments of infotainment that only the far ends of the political and social spectrum receive any chance of being heard in a seven-second average sound bite of today's culture.
The best shout in bumper-sticker length gets the ink — or the infamous 15 seconds of fame — therefore pushing the shouting radicals even further toward acting on their poorly analyzed political dogmas.
One of the shouters against Yoo at the Miller Center, after all, bragged on an Internet link that the shouting controlled the conversation — even after Yoo had long since left town — and that no one was even referring to Yoo's book anymore.
The irony, of course, is that the shouter was writing that Internet comment during the Virginia Festival of the Book — a week-long celebration of the power of in-depth thought, of delayed gratification, of intelligent discourse. Another irony is the great likelihood that the shouter has never read Yoo's “Crisis and Command” or even the legitimate reviews that the Miller Center was kind enough to provide.
The most powerful demonstrator at the University of Virginia, however, wasn't shouting. He sat there quietly wearing a black hood, not uttering a word until he politely went up and asked Yoo a question following his afternoon speech. They had a thoughtful interchange of ideas, the true basis of America's First Amendment.
The hooded man made his point brilliantly without resorting to common incivility that, history indicates, eventually leads to common indecency — Are we there today? — and that can lead to massive bloodshed.
American casualties in all other wars combined, after all, have barely exceeded the 620,000 dead in our Civil War — which we all know was about slavery.
Yet according to the 1850 census as reported by famed historian Bruce Catton in “The Coming Fury,” 93 percent of white Southerners did not own a single slave and only 30,000, roughly the South's casualties at Gettysburg, owned more than one.
Slavery was, and is, wrong — please don't misunderstand. But like everything in life, there must have been more to our Civil War than the bumper sticker. Could all 14,000 men in Pickett's Charge who walked into Union cannon across that 1.1-mile field without any cover on July 3, 1863, have had a death wish over protecting someone else's property?
We, in the middle, must curtail the simplistic shouters and return political discussion to rational discourse, not irrational sound bites. We could be on the verge of Bloody Kansas again.
Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.
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