I Sit And Look Out: Point finger at Seminerio for today’s political incivility

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The screamers are on radio and television, face-to-face, in public forums and on the Internet and all forms of electronic interaction. They denounce, deride and defame without letup.

The incivility continues unabated. The temperature of the vituperation reaches a boiling point. What was once considered unacceptable is now looked upon as the norm. There are times when we seem to have become a nation where the notion of “common courtesy” is as dead as the dodo.

A member of Congress shouts, “You lie!” to the president during the 2010 State of the Union speech. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in full view of the cameras, during the same speech, shakes his head and mouths, “Not true” about a comment made by the president. During the final debate on the health-care reform bill, one congressman shouts at another, who is speaking, “Baby killer!” A Republican in Texas, saying, “Our nation was founded on violence,” suggests that violent overthrow of our government is a possibility that should not be dismissed.

In 2004, then-Vice President Dick Cheney used language on the U.S. Senate floor against Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) which cannot be printed in a family newspaper and would cause a non-cable channel to pay a fine. The Senate was having a class photo taken, so that body was not in session. Had it been, Cheney’s outburst would have been a violation of Senate rules. As it was, it was just disgusting. Cheney considers that his remark was “sort of the best thing I ever did,” according to a 2010 radio comment.

Incivility is not a new phenomenon in our country, but I believe the level of it we see today is something new in most of our lifetimes. Today’s wave of incivility, I have discovered, was started by one of our own from Queens.

Ex-state Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio began it when in January 1992 he interrupted the State of the State speech by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. Tony shouted from the audience: “It’s good when you got a lot of dollars. It’s good when you got a lot of dollars, guv!”

That may seem minor and clownish in today’s world, but after that it was all down hill for civility. And most of us thought it started with Newt Gingrich, that eminent husband and family man. Google him — you’ll find out what I mean.

Seminerio died in a federal prison Jan. 6. The trend he started is nearing its 20th anniversary. The shouts get louder, the insults more severe, the intelligence goes lower and the information level is sinking at an ever-growing rate.

Dynamite words and pictures, death panels, Armageddon, don’t retreat — reload! while showing pictures of opponents in the scope of a rifle, gangster government and baby killer repeated again and again can have an effect on many people and lead to acts of violence. Those who spout those words will deny they mean harm and perhaps they do not, but they have sown the wind and all of us are reaping the whirlwind.

The horror of the massacre in Tucson Jan. 8 cannot be separated from the viciousness of the intolerance to civility that has overtaken too much of our country. Where are the voices crying out against the intolerance shown in what should be rigorous but decent public discourse?

Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker who helped save the city from bankruptcy 30 years ago, said recently, “The world demands a relationship of mutual civility.” In his first remarks as governor, Andrew Cuomo, another son of Queens, asked for a return of “decorum” in Albany political life.

Denunciation of incivility, at every level, should be the bedrock of vigorous discourse in a democracy. Who will lead this worthwhile crusade?

Perhaps it could be, among others, our former Congress member when we lived in Richmond Hill and one of my Fordham University Law School study partners: Geraldine Ferraro. In October, Gerry joined more than 100 former members of Congress in calling for more civility in our political discourses.

So what started in Queens, may be tempered by another — former — Queensite and one who is, thank heaven, bright, intelligent, sensitive and decent. Let’s hope Gerry and her former colleagues can help lead us back to the kind of civil discourse which should distinguish a democratic society.

They and all who care about our world may wish to use these words of the mother of the 9-year-old girl killed in Tucson Jan. 8 as their motto: “I think there’s been a lot of hatred going, and it needs to stop.”


Updated 10:33 am, October 12, 2011
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