My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #2,
January 14, 2000


It seems to me we're in the middle of an epidemic of meanness. The late unpleasantness in Florida left me sickened by the equal-opportunity nastiness of Republicans, Democrats, media, and late-night comics, though at least with the Republicans and Democrats the meanness had a political purpose. The "Sore-Loserman" signs were obviously a ploy to try to make people forget that Gore actually won the popular vote and make him seem unprincipled in not conceding the election. Democrats had every right to question whether Katherine Harris' close ties to the Bush campaign affected the impartiality of her decisions, but no right to call her Cruella DeVil; and though they had a right to state their disagreement with the Supreme Court, they had no right to call Bush a thief (as Gore pointed out to them).

But as far as I can see, Bill Maher had nothing to gain but a cheap laugh from his remark that the Ryder truck full of votes fulfilled our dream that O.J. Simpson might be found guilty of the murder of Katherine Harris. Some jokes go beyond nasty to downright vile.

Even less did I like the politicians' wholesale abandonment of the cherished principle of respect for the courts. Both parties deliberately spread misinformation about the courts and the justices, which is bound to undermine their authority and legitimacy in future contentious cases. Their essential role has been to resolve conflicts between laws and mediate conflicts between different governmental bodies. In theory, they do it impartially, which means the nation is governed ultimately by law, not partisanship. In practice, of course, judges may be swayed by personal political beliefs, but I think it wholly unreasonable to accuse judges who'd dedicated their lives to the law of doing nothing more than twisting it to predetermined conclusions to serve their political masters.

But maybe worst of all was the kind of remarks people were making on talk shows and live chats and usenet groups, like "You mean to tell me that those old ladies in Palm Beach can play 15 bingo cards simultaneously ó but canít punch a ballot?" and various butterfly ballot parodies including one in which the Buchanan box reads "MORON PARTY: I'm such a complete idiot that although I meant to vote for Al Gore I was baffled by this extremely simple ballot. I am clearly too stupid to be involved in the process of electing a president." Blacks were called "whiners" when they complained about numerous obstacles placed in their path when they tried to vote.

It could be argued that this meanness is a temporary aberration resulting from a high stakes election, but nastiness has become part and parcel of our politics. A case in point is John Ashcroft, who, when he was in the middle of an election campaign, defamed a black judge (appointed by Bill Clinton to the federal judiciary) to make a political point that he was tough on crime; he misrepresented Ronnie White as a pro-crime justice, and single-handedly got the Senate to defeat the nomination. I found it remarkable that Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot defended Ashcroft on the grounds that he wasn't a racist, he was only a political opportunist -- as if it didn't matter that Ashcroft casually destroyed a man's career in order to advance his own.

Well, that's just Washington, right? Who expects anything better of politicians? It's not like what happens in Washington leaks out into the rest of the country. It's not like REAL people behave like that, right?

I'm sorry, but I've seen to much nastiness in other places to believe that.

One of the casualties of the new meanness is the humor section in bookstores, where I used to be able to find delightfully fey books like Golfing for Cats and Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown and God: the Ultimate Autobiography. These days it's dispiriting to find those shelves full of books like 101 Reasons Why a Cat Is Better than a Man, 36 Ways a Computer Is Better than a Woman, The Book of Truly Stupid Sports Quotes, The 176 Stupidest Things Ever Done, and Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest: True News of the World's Least Competent People.

It's bad enough that we now seem to have given ourselves permission to make hateful remarks about an entire gender -- there's nothing funny or even especially truthful about the insults being doled out here to both men and women as a species. It's worse that we regard mental lapses with intolerance, because, let's face it, we all do dumb things that we'd prefer not to have immortalized in one of these books. But worst of all are the Darwin Awards which cheerfully maintain that it's just as well these people killed themselves with their stupid exploits and didn't pass on their genes.

All these things seem to me to be signs of a growing sense that the confused, the desperate, the elderly, the poor, and the defrauded, have no claim on our empathy, let alone our assistance, and deserve whatever happens to them. If they're too dumb to fill out a ballot, they don't deserve to vote. If they're dumb enough or greedy enough to fall for a telemarketing scam, or give a down payment to a stranger who promises to repair their roof, they deserve to lose their home or their life savings. F--- 'em if they can't take a joke.

But what does that make the "smart" people who manipulated them, defrauded them, played artfully on their economic insecurities and trustfulness (and if you pay any attention to your e-mail, you must have noticed there are a lot more con artists out there these days)?

When did we decide that "smart" was the only human quality that counted, and that people had to go through some sort of tryouts for the human race before they're entitled to fair treatment, or a helping hand when they're down? Only eight years ago Bill Clinton was elected on a campaign promise that "we're all in this together."

I suppose meanness works well enough if all that counts is making money, scoring, winning the big one. It probably works fine for individual achievement, assuming that your victims don't come back to haunt you. And of course it serves as a nice excuse when you don't want to give up one single cent in taxes to support people who can't take care of themselves.

But it's not how you build a society. That takes a belief that we all matter, an understanding that we all have something to offer. Anyone who's ever raised a child with Down Syndrome will tell you that the child makes up in sweetness what she lacks in mental ability -- and a world filled with Lee Atwaters needs all the sweetness it can get (as Atwater acknowledged, apologizing for his ruthlessness before he died). Talent, imagination, creativity, generosity -- these come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and no society that's truly smart will throw them away because they don't come bundled up with high IQ scores.

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