A question still worth asking

January 15, 2024 3:00 am

Senator Joe McCarthy waves a transcript of a monitored call between Pvt. G. David Schine, left, and Army Secretary Stevens, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, June 7, 1954, in Washington D.C. At one point in the hearings, Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?”(APA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At one point in our history, decency in public life was honored. It counted for something.

For example, in 1954, during testimony in what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, self-appointed crusader against homegrown communism, launched an attack against a young lawyer representing the Army, insinuating he was a communist sympathizer. As the diatribe continued, another lawyer for the Army, Joseph Welch, interrupted McCarthy, famously saying, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Those hearings were televised in the nascent days of the medium, so Americans saw first-hand McCarthy’s tactics, his browbeating, indeed his lack of any sense of decency. For McCarthy, the hearing and response from viewers were the beginning of his rising political star crashing and burning. His name became synonymous with communist conspiracies and demagogy. But nothing so tainted his narrative as Welch’s question of decency.

We should be asking the question again — whether we still have a sense of decency in public life, particularly politics, where ideas and values colliding is the nature of the beast.  

Sadly, it seems to be disappearing, taking with it decorum, simple manners and any semblance of compassion. In their stead we have, with our insistence on winning (which differs vastly from governing), painted ourselves into a corner where the coarser and crasser the discourse, the better. Plus, who cares if it’s pure fiction? As long as we “own” our opponents.

Exhibit A of such behavior is the GOP frontrunner for president. At a recent political rally in Iowa, where the state was reeling after a high school student shot and killed a sixth grader and wounded seven at Perry High School, he said we needed to “get over it.” Get over it? This from the man unwilling to accept the legitimate results of a free and fair election for three years. Sure, he said it after a recitation of words to the effect of thoughts and prayers, our modern response to the insanity of our children dying from gunfire rather than actually addressing why our children are dying from gunfire.

But get over it? The murder of a child? Seriously? 

At least the audience didn’t laugh. They did find it funny when during the same event he falsely (what else?) claimed that President Joe Biden stuttered though a speech earlier that week. He did so by mimicking a stutterer, something straight out of the middle school playbook for bullying … to laughter from the crowd.

He also mocked the late John McCain, miming the senator’s inability to raise his arms, the result of being tortured for years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Some years ago he also insulted McCain for simply being a prisoner of war.

While the candidate’s lack of decency toward his opponents is consistent and, sadly, imitated, it is not unique. To be clear, however, not everybody does it. Despite Biden’s recent use of the dismissive “loser,” whataboutism is not playing here. Politics is rough and tumble, the faint of heart be warned. But even in politics decency and extreme competitiveness need not be mutually exclusive. 

Much has been written about the coarsening of our society in general, so we need not be surprised when poor manners and boorish behavior seep into politics and government. 

That reality, however, should not lower the bar for decency in public life, cheer it on when we see it, or worse, emulate it in our own daily discourse. Rather, we should find ways to call it out, especially at the ballot box for political leaders.

Some — or many — may pass such sentiment off as one snowflake defending other snowflakes, that decency is weakness. I get it. But where is it written that being “tough” and practicing decency is a zero sum game?

Because here’s what happens: When Jones defeats Smith in a hard fought race, Jones  becomes an elected official who represents not simply those who supported the Jones campaign but also those who didn’t. So when, for example, you insist during the campaign that Smith’s supporters are “suckers and losers,” they may wonder if their experience as citizens will differ from the Jones supporters. If not, we’ve lost representative government.

This week, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., who said … “No one can pretend that because a people may be oppressed, every individual member is virtuous and worthy. The real issue is whether in the great mass the dominant characteristics are decency, honor and courage.”

For decency, it’s still the issue. And the question.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.