Let’s go back in history, shall we? Feature this: It was July 11, 1804, and the sitting Vice President of the United States and the former Secretary of the Treasury took separate boats across the Hudson River to a bank below the New Jersey Palisades. They were gathering for a duel.
The events that led to this fateful meeting provide an interesting context for our continuing discussion about political speech in America today. If our major political parties today have their roots in this era, and they do, I think it’s fair to say that the men involved, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, provide us with actors analogous to our current right/left division. Burr was a thin-skinned conservative, earnest as the day is long, but also the creator and product of a machine he didn’t understand. Hamilton, for his part, was a clever urbanite known for his wit and sarcasm, sometimes cheating and deliberately provoking those he deemed as less intelligent, and thus less worthy, than he and his kind.
Burr, a Democratic-Republican, and Hamilton, a Federalist, didn’t like each other, and they competed in the same corridors of power in America at that time—namely New York and Washington. They worked at screwing each other over. For example, when the electoral vote for president resulted in a tie between Burr and Jefferson in 1800, Hamilton used his considerable power and influence in the House to ensure Jefferson, who he didn’t much like either, won. Burr was relegated to the office of Vice President, a pretty powerless position, politically speaking. Hostilities escalated after Hamilton and his family attacked Burr’s character when Burr ran for Governor of New York in 1804.
Now understand that a lot of this involves friends and families. And if you think what you’re reading today sounds like a load of childish garbage, you should read how these men fought it out in letters they published in newspapers back then. Tit-for-tat journalism is apparently nothing new, either. Hamilton, Hamilton’s father-in-law, and Burr, as well as some guy named Charles Cooper all had their letters published in newspapers around New England before things escalated to the duel. The controversy centered on an impolite comment made by Hamilton’s father-in-law at a party. Burr kept demanding retractions of the slander. The Hamilton side feigned memory loss and demanded specifics before an apology would issue.
Apparently unable to accept that, in a country with a Constitution that included the First Amendment, people were free to dish dirt on him at parties, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton for his part, out of an oversized ego or a decidedly suicidal streak (historians aren’t sure which; Hamilton had lost his son two years before in a duel and prepared his will the night before this one), agreed to it. Duels were outlawed in New York, so they convened in New Jersey, which had also outlawed dueling, but which had less harsh penalties. Now here’s where things get tricky.
Hamilton, as the challenged, got to pick the pistols according to the dueling rules. He chose a pretty deadly set for the time (Wogdons, for historic gun fans), which had hair-pin triggers on the inside that could be set for more rapid fire. Reports conflict, but historians believe that Hamilton used the hair-pin trigger on his own pistol, but left Burr unaware of the feature on his. This bit of trickery backfired (pardon the pun) in the end, as Hamilton fired past Burr’s shoulder while Burr’s musket ball penetrated Hamilton’s gut and ricocheted, wounding him fatally. He died the next day.
That’s the basic story as I understand it. There’s lots more to the aftermath, including the fact that Burr eventually returned to Washington and completed his term as Vice President (Cheney anyone?). It was an early warning to our country about the hazards of partisanship, a warning we still have not taken seriously. When this story even comes up in our cultural dialogue, we treat it as a joke a la the “Got Milk?” commercial (in the 1980s, dating myself here) or that funny rap song about being “Aaron Burr ‘cause we’re dropping so many Hamiltons.” But it was serious. It ended Hamilton’s life, and ended Burr’s career, however eventually.
And it was all “just words” until the two decided to bring guns into the equation. And just like today, one side isn’t more to blame than the other. Sure, death is much worse than the loss of livelihood, but they both escalated it until they both thought it was a good idea to resolve it with pistols. It can’t really be classified as political either, even though both actors were politicians. The fight wasn’t over anything substantive; it was about name-calling and mutual othering.
So it is today. Our political discourse still revolves around name-calling and mutual othering. Occasionally, violence comes into play, either through madness or irrational rage, or both. And there’s not much we can do about it, either. Most people are going to gravitate toward wherever the noise machine takes them. It’s too tempting—we hear a baaaah, we instinctively baaaah back. And there will always be a few Aaron Burrs, a few Alexander Hamiltons, a few Jared Lee Loughners. Take away the guns and they’ll bring knives.
But I’m encouraged by recent developments. It seems there is a clamoring for speech that does not name-call and treat people like they are ignorant, wrong, or otherwise disingenuous, and there’s a real desire manifesting for understanding another point of view. It has its roots in the political dissatisfaction of certain groups on the left and the right that arose from the political and financial turmoil of 2008. I don’t think people have yet put into perspective how much changed that year. Between the Clinton-Obama fight and the bailouts, a lot of people on both sides had a few click moments about how effectively the legacy parties served their interests.
Their numbers grow with the continued disenchantment with Obama on the left and with the Tea Party’s disenchantment with Washington insiders. These folks are trying to lead new discussions, but they keep getting verbally assaulted by the partisans who run the noise machine and irrationally shunned by the consumers of that drivel. This always happens with popular movements. Ironically, Frances Fox Piven said it best in a NYT article on Saturday:
“There is a kind of rhetorical trick that is always used to denounce movements of ordinary people, and that is to imply that the massing of people itself is violent.”
She was referring to an article of hers that Glenn Beck attacked, in which she apparently called for a Greece-style uprising of America’s unemployed, but it also applies to the Tea Party. Speaking of which, it’s pretty interesting to hear her views on the Tea Party, which includes the rhetorical trick she deplored in her quote. But I don’t want to get sidetrack on Piven, who is ultimately of no consequence and really is a kind of rhetorical punching bag for Beck and his viewers. That’s just more of the partisanship problem.
The point is that the effect is to keep these pockets of enlightened groups alienated from one another, so they don’t ever see their common interest and get ideas about working together.
I’m interested in this newer crowd, this crowd of people with their click moments, who’ve suddenly realize the parties don’t really offer us much choice, but who don’t want to use that as a reason to disengage. I’ve seen that impulse too often, too, and I don’t think there’s anything enlightened about deciding the parties are the same, the game is rigged, and then ceasing to care. Apathy is not an answer.