The Coarseness of Our Times

by Michael Sean Winters

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It is difficult to imagine how American politics could become any more coarse. Yet, the evidence seems overwhelming: Just as sportsmen and women must always strive to jump higher or run faster, the tendency in our politics to push the envelope, no matter how regressive the contents of the envelope, seems inexorable.

I am not one of those perennial nostalgia mongers, who imagine there was once a golden age of American politics in which thoughtful men and women debated issues of public import with seriousness and determination without ever getting their hands dirty in the rough and tumble of electoral politics: The 1800 presidential contest between incumbent President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson remains one of the nastiest campaigns in U.S. history, the things said about Abraham Lincoln were no gentler than the things said about President Obama, and, more recently, conservative cranks floated dozens of conspiracy theories about the Clintons and liberal cranks returned the favor during the Bush presidency.

Still, just as war used to be something that soldiers did on a battlefield, until the advent of “strategic bombing” when whole cities were targeted indiscriminately, in today’s politics the nastiness is not confined to accusations hurled against the protagonists, but is spilling out into the equivalent of strategic bombing.

The latest instance comes from the Republican Senate primary in South Dakota. Dr. Annette Bosworth, trailing in the polls, needed to fire up the base and what better way than to speak their language. And so, she took to Facebook with the kind of offensive comment that is par for the course on certain Fox News programs and conservative talk radio. Under the heading “Today’s Lesson in Irony” Bosworth wrote:

The food stamp program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They proudly report that they distribute free meals and food stamps to over 46 million people on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service, run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us ‘please do not feed the animals.’ Their stated reason for this policy being that … the animals will grow dependent on the handouts, and then they will never learn to take care of themselves. This concludes today’s lesson. Any questions?

The real “lesson in irony” here is, of course, that Bosworth does not seem to grasp how offensive her comparison of food stamp recipients with wild animals is. The lack of human sympathy with those who struggle to feed their families is shocking. And, unsurprisingly, there seems to be no awareness that many millions of people who get food stamps are working families whose incomes are insufficient to pay for groceries. Her Facebook posting is the political equivalent of Wal-Mart’s holiday food drive for its employees, a window into the great issue of our time – income inequality – dressed up to look like something else. At least Wal-Mart’s intention was to help people. Dr. Bosworth’s intention was to demean.

A different example of coarseness comes from Georgia where the legislature passed a “guns everywhere” bill that seems about as necessary as a rerun of that horrible show about the Kardashians. Kudos to Archbishop Wilton Gregory and other faith leaders for publicly resisting the effort to get more guns into Peach State churches. But, why was this bill passed, other than that the NRA wanted to make a point? Coarseness comes in may shapes and sizes, not just vile, demeaning comments about the poor. There is a coarseness in the enactment of a policy that is unnecessary and dangerous, simply because the extremists in the NRA want it.

And, what to make of the Rev. R. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, not only defending the death penalty but chastising those of us who oppose the death penalty for being the real culprits in what he perceives is a loss of moral sensibility in our culture. Mohler, writing at CNN, states:

There is also the larger cultural context. We must recognize that our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.

Most would not admit this lower moral evaluation of murder, but our legal system is evidence that this is certainly true.

We also face a frontal assault upon the death penalty that is driven by legal activists and others determined to bring legal execution to an end in America.

Controversy over an execution this week in Oklahoma will bring even more attention to this cause, but most Americans will be completely unaware that this tragedy was caused by the inability of prison authorities to gain access to drugs for lethal injection that would have prevented those complications.

Opponents of the death penalty have, by their legal and political action, accomplished what might seem at first to be impossible – they now demand action to correct a situation that they largely created.

Their intention is to make the death penalty so horrifying in the public mind that support for executions would disappear. They have attacked every form of execution as “cruel and unusual punishment,” even though the Constitution itself authorizes the death penalty.

It is a testament to moral insanity that they have successfully diverted attention from a murderer’s heinous crimes and instead put the death penalty on trial.

“Moral insanity”? Yes, our judicial system looks at the heinous crimes perpetrated and metes out an appropriate penalty. But, the opposition many of us have to the death penalty is precisely the fact that we are the moral agents who perform the execution. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma was carried out on behalf of the people of Oklahoma. Timothy McVeigh was executed in all our names. I did not know Mr. McVeigh and I would have declined to be complicit in his bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City because I have not lost my “confidence in human dignity” and have not secularized my understanding of human identity. And it is for this exact same reason that I would have declined to be complicit in his execution. Rev. Mohler likes to quote the Bible, but perhaps he should focus a little more on the central drama of the Gospels, the execution of Jesus Christ. Either way, why is he hurling epithets at opponents of capital punishment when it was not us who botched the execution? Because that is how the game is played now.

At the end of the day, I do not know what I find more troubling, the coarse demeaning of the poor, the craven pandering to the NRA, or the deeply troubling attack on death penalty opponents coming from a seminary president who could do with a few courses in Moral Theology 101. Offensive is bad, so is stupid, and so is myopic. For all of our technological advances, it is not easy to make the case that humankind’s capacity for understanding, real understanding, about the things that matter and not just the matter of things, is on the uptick. A gloomy start to a beautiful day, but there it is.



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