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Uncivil Debate; Thugs Have Taken Over

The author John Steinbeck said, "If you find yourself in a fair fight your tactics suck." This attitude goes against everything youngsters of my generation were taught. In school, in church and at home we were brought up to believe that it was an individual's responsibility to fight fairly and to get our opponents to do the same. We were peppered with advice like, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," etc. Fighting fairly was the mantra of our boyhood heroes and our community leaders. The one hold-out was miscreants who repeatedly told us that fighting by the rules was for suckers and that "nice guys finished last."

Back in 1977, comedian Steve Allen produced and hosted a series of 24, one-hour shows called, "Meeting of the Minds." For students of history and those loving debate, they were refreshing and exciting. Allen assembled ensemble casts of gifted actors and actresses to play the roles of famous figures of historical importance. In addition to asking them questions about themselves he would introduce subjects that weren't necessary discussed at their time.

These roundtables were the ultimate in civil discourse. Instead of bringing out his spear in anger, Attila the Hun, for example, would dig deep into his mind to answer a question that might explain his aggressiveness, and on it went with other celebrities. Steve Allen was a funny man, but he was also a brilliant man. He wrote 57 books, had his own show on TV in the 1950s was a prolific songwriter ("This could be the start of something big" and over 8,500 others). His infectious laughter punctuated many of his interviews, and you got the feeling that here was a man who knew the importance of a guffaw and wasn't afraid to let one rip.

Allen was always a gentleman, even when it must have been hard to be. Born in 1921 and growing up in Chicago, he lived through the Depression, WWII and the post-war years that unleashed a flood of comedians like himself. The 1950s were times of experimentation and no one was more versatile than Steve Allen. I mention him because his style was reflective of America's style of the time. We realized that diplomacy and understanding the other fellow's position were prerequisites for solving our problems. The airwaves did their part to promote this feeling with superheroes that reminded us of our responsibilities like Roy Rogers, Boston Blackie and Flash Gordon, who, after battling evil doers, always left us with a moral challenge.

After four terrible years of WWII and then three years in Korea, Americans had their fill of confrontation and violence and wanted a world where ideas weren't presented at the barrel of a gun or a sharp word. They wanted civility and got themselves a President (Eisenhower) who exuded it at every turn. Here was a man that had successfully led America's troops to victory years earlier and was committed to lead the country - honestly, fairly and respectfully - to a new future that embraced discussion and debate as the first steps towards problem-solving. In short, he led by example. Congress wasn't his mortal enemy, neither were the courts. Even the media, though not always on Ike's side, didn't use its power to try to take him down. Most people spoke in non-combative tones and rejected insults, innuendo or lies to win arguments. Our universities were temples of learning and populated by young people in search of truth that was dispensed by professors whose moral code was shaped by adversity and sacrifice. In short, we respected each other's right to be heard and valued the opportunity to disagree without raising our voices.

America has changed. We have allowed a thug culture to take over that has no respect for contrary opinions, for civility, for fairness or facts. We have met the enemy and he is now, unfortunately, us. Today, few see virtue in counting to ten. For the ideologically driven, courtesy and the benefit of the doubt have been relegated to the history books and foot-noted as a quaint by-product of a naive era.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written nine books and over 800 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at:

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