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American Impressions, Chapter 7: Illinois
How Abraham Begot Jerry

From the sound of it, you’d think the American way of talking has turned into a clash of primal screams.

They’re shouting everywhere—on television, on the radio, on the Internet, on the floor of Congress, at your local government board, on magazine covers and in the streets. Civility is out. Big mouths are, allegedly, in.

Six years ago, a Time magazine cover caricatured Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern hurling fire at a microphone under the headline, “Voices of America?”—the same headline (minus the question mark) of a Penthouse article two years earlier that noted how “it’s precisely because talk radio is unedited, noisy, and sometimes crude—sometimes bordering on demagoguery—that it’s so hot and intriguing.”

Hard to imagine that there was a time when talk radio could still be called “intriguing,” back in its early ‘90s golden age. Now it’s merely pervasive, one of the many tentacles of an industry that gives us movies like “Dumb and Dumber,” television shows like “Beavis and Butt-head” and “South Park,” and news chat shows like “Hardball” and “Crossfire” that pretend to be serious but contribute more to the din of spin than to discourse, let alone truth.

I had explored trails of history in Montana, trails of missiles in North Dakota and shopping trails in Minnesota. I explored a trail of talk in Illinois. I got there around the time of the last election in November, knowing there’d be plenty of stages from which to choose. I had no interest in the merits of the messages being delivered, only in the manner in which they were being delivered—whether by Democrats or Republicans or cheating lovers—and in the response they would provoke. My compass was the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates, held in seven towns across Illinois in 1858, and to this day considered a peak of political theater and eloquence. It wasn’t, incidentally, because the two men had behaved.

The debates of 1858 don’t have a reputation for greatness because Lincoln and Douglas behaved well but because they argued over profound issues directly, at great lengths, without “aides” prompting every word, and without rehearsals. Along the way they were also crass, racist, vain and willing to appeal to their huge audiences’ lowest common denominator, which was quite low.

Douglas, a white supremacist, didn’t hesitate to whip his audiences into a frenzy at the thought of turning Illinois “into a free negro colony,” or to “think that the negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, and ride in a carriage with your wife,” or to call Lincoln a mere grocer, a traitor, a dodger, a double-talker and, of course, a black sympathizer—the “commie-lover” epithet of the day.

Lincoln was more tactful, but he referred to blacks as “niggers” twice in the same debate ( Douglas used the word repeatedly as a taunt), which can’t be excused as a matter of historical context: when Douglas used the word, his partisans cautiously substituted “negro” in official transcripts reprinted in the press.

The object of the debates was not civility but argument. Nor was it a sin to entertain an audience even when the subject was as profound as the future of slavery in the Union. That’s why people turned out by the thousands and were willing to stand in the sun or in the rain, listening, shouting, heckling for three uninterrupted hours at every debate. And in debating whether slavery should be expanded or restricted in the Union, Lincoln and Douglas had something contemporary politicians don’t inspire: a defining issue on which virtually every citizen took a passionate stand.

”I intend to scream, shout, race the engine, call when I feel like it, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale’s if I feel like it and confess intimate details about my life to complete strangers. I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself,” writes Elizabeth Wurtzel in a 1998 book. It’s called “Bitch.”

Wurtzelism is mild compared to the blitzkriegs scaring public bodies. In the early 1990s a citizen angered over a sewer backup shot and killed the mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and wounded two council members. In 1995, an Austin, Texas, council member threatened to beat up a council staffer and responded to a fellow member’s questioning with two words: “Screw you,” the same words Rush Limbaugh was hurling at the spotted owl about that time.

Even in Polk County it wasn’t so long ago that cable viewers tuned in to their public access channels to watch County Commissioner Marlene Young and then-Commissioner Nancy Hedrick, who’d turned many meetings into laundry sessions stuck on the spin cycle.

”It is hard to sit through public meetings virtually anywhere in the country these days without concluding that courtesy, respect and decorum have been replaced by a new ethic of hostility, antagonism and mistrust,” went an article in a government trade magazine two years ago. “Local debate has rarely been pretty in America, but it has rarely been much uglier than it is in many places at this moment.”

The republic itself, the senior editor of Christian Century Magazine wrote at Christmas, is in danger from an “evil spirit” infecting the national culture. Congress even commissioned a study on the matter. No wonder the U.S. Senate chaplain felt obliged one recent morning to appeal to God: “We know that if we trust You and proceed with honest exchange and civility, You will help us succeed together,” he said from the Senate floor. “Make us so secure in Your love that our egos will not get in the way.”

That was before the Clinton impeachment in the House and the Senate trial.

The culmination of all this is the “Springerization” of America, as the first Esquire cover of the year called it. Cover-boy Jerry Springer is bloodied and missing a couple of teeth from a fresh beating, but smiling his thumbs-up to the “Worst Year Ever.”

Can it be so bad? Of course not. American talk has always been a combustion of spontaneity and energy that has allergic reactions to pretensions of country-club civility. It isn’t any more trashy than when Andrew Jackson was called an adulterer and a blasphemer and John Quincy Adams a pimp when the two men squared off for the presidency in 1828. Only back then voices of dredge didn’t carry as much.

But two drastic changes have taken place since the age of Jackson: More voices than ever are demanding to be heard today, which is good. Public discourse doesn’t belong exclusively to white men anymore. But more than ever, interpretation matters more than truth, which is bad. When everything is relative, truth becomes a matter of power. Whoever can paint the most convincing, or conniving, image, wins.

Which is why spin doctors and speech writers have become almost as important as the people or the concerns they represent. “Like sexual excess and substance abuse, speech writing has been around awhile,” wrote Hendrick Hertzberg, himself once Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter. “What’s new is the fact that we talk about it openly, without shame.”

So even as American discourse has never been as varied and pluralistic, neither has it ever been so cynical and manipulative. And Illinois, the land of Lincoln, but also of Oprah, Springer and Jenny Jones—the land of talk—proved it.

Galesburg is a small town in western Illinois. It claims two scratches on the American map of superlatives: Carl Sandburg’s boyhood home, and the last remaining building where Lincoln and Douglas debated. Other towns have markers. Galesburg’s Knox College still has Old Main, the building outside of which the fifth debate was held on a windy October day in 1858. “At last I’ve gone through college,” Lincoln said as he emerged from one of the windows to step on the elevated platform built for the occasion.

Old Main’s red bricks and paneled windows don’t look their age today. The Sunday I visited, the great lawn in front of the building where thousands had stood listening to Lincoln and Douglas was as still as the mass of maple leaves dead on the ground. The day’s excitement took place a short walk away, under flood-lights in the college gymnasium, where Bob Dole had dropped by on a campaign stop for an ex-anchorman who wanted to be Congressman but was upstaged by an ex-presidential contender who still wants to be a comedian.

The crowd of about 400 was all white, attentive, cheery, and the speeches were as inoffensive as Muzak except when Dole cracked the sort of jokes that have won him more friends on talk shows than at the polls—“About all I do now is give blood and carry on with Letterman,” or “You don’t have to finish first. And I can tell you about that.” It wasn’t necessarily what his candidate wanted to hear (he, too, didn’t finish first three days later).

The turnout was not driven by the anchorman-candidate’s appeal but by Dole’s celebrity. The speeches done, the crowd mobbed Dole for handshakes and autographs or pictures with Grandpa-the-Italian campaign veteran—exactly the way famous talk show hosts are mobbed by their audience after a taping. Never mind that the race gave voters one of the clearest choices in the nation between a liberal and a conservative. The rally’s purpose was irrelevant next to the moment when audience and celebrity—not citizens and issues—could touch. Naturally, Dole’s visit evaporated from Galesburg as quickly as his charter plane headed toward Quincy and a replay of the same one-liners at another rally. The maniacal staging would have made Lincoln claustrophobic.

Despite a superstar line-up and a revival atmosphere, it was the same deal at the Democrats’ Big Rally a day earlier. Held at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition headquarters on Chicago’s South Side, an almost-all-black crowd filled the thousand-seat hall to see Jackson, his congressman-son Jesse Jackson Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, soon to be then-Senator Braun, share the stage where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood.

The Bill-bashing was on everybody’s mind (“enough of this,” the crowd chanted). It was the First Lady’s birthday, so the event quickly turned into a pep rally for Hillary Clinton (“Thank you, First Lady, for the leadership”). With the TV cameras whirring in force, Jackson donned preacher mode and told her “something about your style, something about your grace, something about your strength, something about your motherness, something about your wifeness.” He also mentioned something about maturity and something about patriotism, but by then the applause was deafening. What this had to do with any election, nobody knew and nobody cared.

As in Galesburg, the politics of staging had upstaged any other purpose. I’d filled reams of notes between the two events, but as I write this account I cannot see the meaning for the scribbles. It’s like trying to quote sense from a Harlequin romance, and witnessing 10 years of political rallies was a lot of Harlequins. Same plots, same formulas, same gruel. No wonder people are shouting and cussing, and taking their case elsewhere. Springerization, which is another word for exasperation, is as inevitable as Jesse “The Body” Ventura—a wrestler with a talk show! -- winning the governorship of a state once famous for its progressive politics. That’s what happens when “The Body” Politic is comatose.

The only place anything close to the sort of passion embodied in the Lincoln-Douglas debates anymore is on talk shows, where the public is directly involved. The Limbaughs and Sterns of the day, or their more sober counterparts on C-Span, are not inventing callers but merely giving them a voice, just as Jerry Springer in a different strain is giving a voice to trash.

”There is nothing said on our show that you haven’t heard in the school yard or in the subway going to work. But we’ve never seen it on television before, and that makes some people go crazy,” Springer says. “It’s the No. 1 show in America. But critics, these writers whose job it is to criticize—and I fully welcome that—that’s what they pick on. They’re amazed that this is on television. They say ‘Oh, this is horrible, horrible.’ “ I don’t know where I was more uncomfortable during my talk trail in Illinois—in the Knox College gymnasium when Dole cracked his jokes, at the Push rally when Jackson midwifed Hillary Clinton’s inner child, or on the Springer show when Randall-the-Guest bared his penis. The applause in every case sounded exactly alike. Only the believability of what took place was different, and Springer’s guests were the more convincing.

Any “Springerization” seems, in retrospect, fresher than the usual business of public discourse. When the dons of behavior plead for civility, they may be clinging to that time when talk in America sounded like a John Cheever story clothed in a Brooks Brothers dust jacket—whitish, genteel, clubbish, not yet crowded by so many genders and colors and creeds or the concession that America is neither classless nor faultless. What goes for Springerization is nothing more than public discourse without barriers, or at least with fewer of the rules these new voices never wrote. It is a messy plea for that combustion of energy and spontaneity that has defined American talk, only now the rules, like the rulers, are changing.


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ILLINOIS IN BRIEF

Total area: 57,918 sq. miles (rank: 25).

Population (1997): 11,895,849 (rank: 6).

Economy: Services, agriculture, manufacturing, insurance, finance.

Nickname & Motto: Prairie State; State sovereignty-national union.

Entered union: Dec. 3, 1818.

Notable facts: Illinois is one of America’s richest and most productive agricultural states, with 76,000 farming families and $3.4 billion in annual agricultural exports. But Illinois could also be the harbinger of a farm crisis. The state’s farming income was set to fall to $42.5 billion in 1998, 20 percent lower than 1996 and 43 percent below the five year average, with a total farm debt in 1998 estimated at $172 billion, the highest level since 1985.

The state in quotes: Chicago “was an act of will, a defi, an imposition, a triumph over circumstance. There was nothing ‘natural’ about it. The site was bad in almost all respects. It was a place where stubbornness was its own reward, where entrepreneurs liked to think they had made everything around them—even made the land, even made the water. The weird thing is that much of that boast was true.” Gary Wills, from a 1993 essay.

RESOURCES

Books:
Many editions of the Lincoln Douglas debates are available in hardback or paperback. Books on the debates also are numerous, but mostly out of print. A spate of books on civility and public discourse have recently been published. Steven Carter’s “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy” (Basic Books, $25) is a well-argued, mildly liberal polemic that falters only when it assumes (without proof) that the past was more civil than the present. Deborah Tannen’s “The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue” (Random House, $25) is a lament against Americans’ diminishing ability to compromise. It wouldn’t be fair to Jerry Springer to exclude his contribution to the discourse on discourse, also just published: “Ringmaster” ( St. Martin’s Press, $23.95). Heavily illustrated and written in large type, the book can appropriately read between the commercial breaks of your favorite talk show. The books are available at discount at www.amazon.com

Web sites:

* U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee hearing on civility in Congress (held April 17 and May 1, 1997): www.house.gov/rules_org/hear01.htm

* The Jerry Springer Show: www.jerryspringer.com

* Knox College: www.knox.edu

* State of Illinois: www.state.il.us

* Illinois Tourism: www.enjoyillinois.com

 

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