Have people always engaged in gutter talk? Is it just that recording devices are everywhere? Or are politics and public discourse really becoming more and more polluted?
We know entertainment has changed.
In every episode of “Bonanza,” Pa, Adam, Hoss or Little Joe would get into a scrape and the others would ride to the rescue. It was clear who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, and the good guys always prevailed.
A script for “Bonanza 2016” would likely feature angst over whether Hop Sing’s boyfriend could be his live-in at the Ponderosa. Or whether it was Hoss or Little Joe who impregnated Adam’s girlfriend.
There are those who say television and movies have simply become more honest and more reflective of real life. That’s true. Rare glimpses into the bedrooms of Rob and Laura Petrie or Lucy and Ricky Ricardo revealed twin beds, which were unlikely for couples even in the 1960s. Updated, the show would have Rob and Laura speculating endlessly over whether Buddy and Sally had a thing going on. Lucy would be helping Ethel through a meth addiction.
People who are adults today could watch TV with their parents without events unfolding on the screen that made any of them squirm. Only the most irresponsible parent today would leave a preteen alone with a TV unless settings excluded everything but Disney and Nickelodeon (and some of their shows are dicey).
Somewhat differently, the verbiage of American politics, even a brief amount of research shows, has long been harsh.
The first reference to male potency may have been in 1800. One candidate described his opponent as a “hideous hermaphroditical (look it up) character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
The comment is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, revered founder and prime author of the Declaration of Independence. In today’s vocabulary, he called his opponent a “girly-man.”
As for hyperbole, such as we’re hearing from the Hillary Clinton camp about Donald Trump’s dismissal of climate change, consider John Adams’ response to Jefferson: “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames … female chastity violated … children writhing on a pike? Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction.”
Yes. Two hundred and sixteen years ago.
People are saying that never before have Americans had such poor choices on their presidential ballots. With plenty of evidence to support that view, Trump supporters say they can’t imagine a Clinton presidency. They believe the Democratic Party has nominated a deeply flawed person. Just the same, Clinton supporters say they cannot imagine Americans electing a person whose language is not only raw, but who stands accused of what amounts to criminal sexual battery.
This fear and loathing of the other person may be what truly distinguishes the current contest.
The more important question is, “Can (or will) we go back?”
In the world of entertainment, it’s hard to imaging that world reverting. The slide from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has been steady.
The political context is of greater concern. Will Americans will ever again see elections featuring candidates of character, substance and accomplishment?
Think about it. Adams and Jefferson loathed each other, but both were serious scholars of governance. Clinton has used “public service” to become fabulously wealthy. Trump has never worked in any collaborative setting.
The last president who brought a solid résumé to the White House was George H.W. Bush — veteran, businessman, member of Congress, agency leader, vice president for eight years. Clinton has a résumé, but almost no public trust.
Barack Obama was a community organizer, state lawmaker who often voted “present” and a junior senator.
George W. Bush had been a governor. Bill Clinton had been a governor, too, but he was a default nominee when few thought George H.W. Bush could be denied a second term.
The experience and quality of candidates matter, and it’s the absence of candidates with proven ability that threatens cities, states and the nation more than “extreme carelessness” with national security or casual regard for sexual assault.
Through history, voters have sometimes chosen leaders who trended to the political left, others who trended to the political right. The combination has kept the nation afloat, if not always prosperous.
The nation can survive gutter talk by candidates. The nation can’t survive self-serving or inexperienced leadership.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.