Diminished Logic and Civility of Public Discourse
Rick Garlikov

The logic and civility of public discourse over the past nearly 70 years has substantially deteriorated.  The most recent example is President Trump's July 3, 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, amplified further by Tucker Carlson on Fox television network.  Protests across America are ensuing over the most recent killings of unarmed black people by police, one such killing in particular recorded on the video seen worldwide of George Floyd with a knee pressed hard to his neck by one police officer for nearly nine minutes, with Mr. Floyd pleading for his life for the first 6 minutes and then unresponsive the rest of the time, while handcuffed and being held down by two other police officers.  Mr. Floyd was saying he couldn't breathe, and people seeing the situation were telling the officers they were killing the man.  The officers showed no concern, while the officer whose knee was pressing the life out of Mr. Floyd nonchalantly had his hand in his own pocket.  Those and other videos of similar kinds of killings have led to unprecedented widespread protests across the country and the world, including protests against  memorials honoring Confederate military officers, and the demand to get rid of the statues of people who did great harm to Native Americans or who kept slaves or wanted to perpetuate slavery.   Protesters do not want memorials to those who mistreated, subjugated, killed, and fought to be able to continue doing so to innocent people, many of whose descendants have to see those statues on a daily basis.  In some cases offending statues and memorials were torn down by protesters who were not causing destruction of other property.  But during some protests, there has been violent indiscriminate vandalism and looting.  However, most of the protesters and protests have been peaceful, with some protesters even protecting police from others who would do them harm; and many police have knelt or walked with protesters, not only to help protect them but as a sign of solidarity in the desire to stamp out racism, particularly any that is institutional or systemic. 

Yet President Trump and Tucker Carlson have chosen to paint the protests as signs of hatred for America and its values, and equate protesters in general with vandals, looters, rioters, and terrorists intent on destroying the country.  Tucker Carlson even called Senator Tammy Duckworth unpatriotic though she lost both her legs in military service of the United States during combat, and neither he nor President Trump served in the military.  He called her unpatriotic for saying that the removal of statues of and monuments to venerated founders such as Washington and Jefferson was worth discussing and he called her a coward for not being interested in debating him on his show unless he first apologized for the attack on her patriotism.  What is most disconcerting, apart from the reprehensible intentional, vehement white supremacy of some (which is often confused with unintentional, unconscious white privilege that is a different phenomenon), in all  this, is the blatant hypocrisy involving character assassination and ad hominem attacks and the conflating of personal character with public contribution and value.  People on both sides are defining the motives and acts of those on the other side by the worst bad apples (whether actual white supremacists, bad cops, or rioters posing as protesters), while ignoring the problems caused by the people on their own 'side'.  The rhetoric of the extremists on both sides is absurd.  But Donald Trump as President, and Tucker Carlson as a commentator with a large major television audience are being particularly reprehensible in using their platforms and bad logic and lies for powers of demagoguery.  Even some of the video clips Carlson uses for evidence against those he is vilifying show them not saying what he accuses of them having said.

I want to contrast that, ironically enough in today's climate, with the civilized and logical debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 Presidential debates.  The irony, of course in using this as an example of how rational debate should go, is that President Kennedy's legacy has been tarnished by accusations or revelations of his womanizing and Nixon's by his Watergate and other character issues, and that will mistakenly render the point of the video below futile to those who need it most.  Nevertheless, it should be meaningful to any rational person who does not automatically deduce that all character flaws, or purported flaws, make every statement a person says necessarily false no matter what the evidence, and every argument they give invalid.

In the 1960 Presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy was predicating his candidacy on the claim that America needed to do far better than it was doing, and that Vice President Nixon would simply continue the status quo, or insufficiently change it if he became President.  Nixon said that Kennedy's claims of problems that needed remedying disparaged America and Americans, and damaged the country's prestige, though he did not attribute that to malice or disloyalty on Kennedy's part, but to Kennedy's being mistaken about what was wrong or what would serve better.  Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump are similarly claiming that those who criticize some aspects of America are wrongly disparaging it, but they go the further step to say that those who claim there are problems to be solved hate America and want to harm it, and want to undo more than 200 years of progress.  What the critics see as the work that yet needs to be done to fulfill the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Trump and Carlson say are the attempted destruction of those same values and ideals.  Pretty clearly, Carlson and Trump are not interested in having a fair discussion or accurately describing the protesters' or Democrats' claims.  And in too many other cases, Democratic leaders act in the same way toward Republican views, too often mischaracterizing, oversimplifying, or exaggerating Republican policies or bills in order to ridicule them, though I think it fair to say President Trump and some people on the Fox network, such as Carlson, take the practice to the extreme, often, as already pointed out, clearly even misstating what is said in video clips they then show or are being shown.  When either side mischaracterizes the arguments and claims given by the other, particularly intentionally and knowingly, it is a disservice to reasonable discussion and to rational progress.

The American people would be better served by a return to the better logic and civility displayed in the 1960 debates.  I am only showing one issue from that campaign here -- Vice President Nixon's claim, and Senator Kennedy's response, that Kennedy's criticism harmed American interests and damaged America's reputation, honor, and prestige.  Nixon claimed it was a criticism of America, just as Trump and Carlson claim Democrat and left wing criticism harm America.  Kennedy points out that he is not criticizing America, but the leadership of the Republican party for not doing enough to make America's ideals fully realized, and he states what one of most significant specific problems is that needs to be remedied.  Many of the points in the debate, by both Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy apply to the American government today.  I have taken one liberty: amplifying some of Kennedy's points with more evidence or different expressions of it which he gave later as President that were recorded in other videos, whose segments I have added here.  There is a brief few seconds where the video I added goes black while Kennedy is speaking.  That is because although the point Kennedy was making was a general one, he was talking at the time specifically about an issue with regard to South America, and the video portion posted suddenly cuts away from him to show instead (beginning at the 31 second mark) scenes of South American affluence and poverty.

One further point.  Part of the deterioration of civil discourse can be reasonably blamed, I believe, on the spiraling decline in attention spans that are both a cause and effect of news media's preference for dramatic footage of grandiose symbolic actions over carefully composed complex sentences.  The news would rather show marches than speeches, looters and rioters rather than a peaceful audience listening to speakers, snappy sound bites rather than detailed descriptions.  Newspapers today would not print the Federalist Papers, written by Madison, Hamilton, and Monroe and printed in newspapers of the day.  The exquisite speech of Patrick Henry's would only have its ending appear on a TV news segment.  All most people today know about the content of the Declaration of Independence is the statements that all men are created equal and that they have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they have no idea, even when given a copy of the document to read, what the argument in the Declaration is or how those two statements fit into it.   But all this shallow coverage causes serious problems.

In the case of large marches and protest gatherings, miscreants can wreak havoc, and in the case of symbolic gestures, they are easily misunderstood and belittled or condemned. For example, the American flag is a symbolic representation of the ideals of America.  When people stand for the flag or fight or die for the flag, it is for what the flag represents, not for a piece of cloth.  But that leads to a misunderstanding of what kneeling for the national anthem or (as during the Vietnam War) burning the flag is intended to signify.  When people take a knee during the national anthem, it is not a protest against America or its ideals, but a denunciation of a government in office that fails to uphold them, fails to live up to them, fails to seek or speak for those ideals, and instead even actively subverts them. Kneeling during the anthem for the flag and nation is intended to be a dramatic, powerfully peaceful, silent, symbolic, remonstration against a government’s not living up to the principles of decency represented by that flag and not sufficiently even trying to. It is showing there is no reason to stand up for, or salute, what has become the false idol, not the true ideal, of a misguided government. It is not a desecration of the flag or its ideals, but a way of showing that the government of the republic for which the flag stands is not itself standing up for the founding principles the flag signifies. But none of that is apparent in just the gestures themselves.  And without the explanation being reported, or something similar to it, those in government against whom the symbolic gesture is directed, can and do, easily then describe it as a protest against, or the denunciation of, American ideals represented by the flag, and make the false claim that the protesters are desecrating the flag and all it stands for.

However, the real desecration of the flag is done by those who wave or hug or kiss and pretend to honor it while not upholding, or while even violating, the Constitution, while not supporting, and too often even denying, equal opportunity or equal justice, while not valuing, and too often denigrating, the lives of many of its citizens as being created equal, merely because of the incidentals of skin color, race, gender, religion, ethical, or political views. Lies, hypocrisy, and injustice are not supposed to be ‘the American way.’

And there is now a terrible irony in the symbolism of taking a knee in prayerful supplication for the ideals of the country in that it also represents the perversion of the American ideal by those who keep a knee both literally and figuratively on the necks of people systemically or widely oppressed. Kneeling is an act of supplication against what is the very same act of oppression. We should all be kneeling together in peaceful pursuit of common cause until we all can rightfully and deservedly stand together in achievement of collective compassion and the common good.

The initial debate video is from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jznAJySwkmM; segments were added from President Kennedy's civil rights address to the country at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BEhKgoA86U and one other section, the portion that includes the blank video, was taken from his speech on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress program, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HahBXAoya6Q.