The Words They Use
On April 15, David Keene of the American Conservative Union speculated
in "The Hill" about our changing political discourse.
"The problem," Mr. Keene suggests, "stems from the
view that Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives
don't simply disagree, but are, and must always be, at war."
And later: "The world as they see it is divided into two camps-those
who agree with them and the enemy...[such] ideological warfare can
poison a nation's politics."
Bear with me, please, as I take you back once more to Hungary,
1948. My then piano teacher was the best-loved concert pianist in
the land. A first-rate artist, he was also the personification of
charisma. To his misfortune, he was appointed to top positions in
the nation's musical institutions by the democratically elected
coalition government. This was partly a matter of his professional
qualifications, partly a matter of his conduct during the preceding
nazi occupation: He had refused all participation in public life-an
attitude that carried considerable personal risk. In those sensitive
post-war years, such impeccable personal record was in short supply.
Alas, he did not care much for communists either and, once again,
made no secret of his views. By this time a number of music critics
had signed up with the Communist Party, and the Communist Party
was already plotting to seize complete control of the country. Whenever
my teacher gave a concert, a torrent of words was unleashed in the
newspapers-not about any of the musical works he had performed the
night before, but attacks of a most personal nature.
They complained about the posts he held. They insinuated how unsuited
he was to be in office. Each "review" was another declaration
of war. In the end, my teacher was hounded out of Hungary. (Lucky
for him, he ended up over here.)
Thus, when I read David Keene's article, the memories came flooding
back. Turning political disagreement into war is an approach whose
origins are not difficult to trace. It was daily practice in the
two tyrannies under which I grew up, and the practitioners of both
first read it in the same book: It was Karl Marx who saw and portrayed
everything in terms of war. It was Karl Marx who poisoned the debate
already 150 years ago.
If you don't believe it, you might purchase a copy of the gala
anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto, about to be published-described
in vivid colors on these pages a few days ago by Richard Grenier.
Without Marx, there would have been no "Mein Kampf" by
Adolf Hitler. Without Marx, there would have been no "What
is to be done?" by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Without Marx, there
would have been no "Little Red Book" by Mao Tse-Tung.
Civilized political discourse has always been the hallmark of the
English-speaking peoples. Along with our unique political institutions,
it has been a main ingredient of political stability. One of the
real tragedies of the past thirty years has been its displacement
by acrimony, hostility, outright warfare. Indeed, the tone ushered
in during the 1960s has been poisoning the nation's politics, and
it was none too soon that Mr. Keene called it. One still remembers
with pain President George Bush and Senator Bob Dole valiantly trying
in their presidential campaigns to maintain a civilized tone and
keep to the truth, against all odds.
Watching the likes of Paul Begala and James Carville-or members
of the minority in congressional committees investigating the flow
of campaign funds from inadmissible sources-it is impossible not
to recall the newspaper articles that hounded my teacher. Theirs
is the exact same style. The origins of their rhetoric are not in
any known American tradition. Unless someone can come up with a
new, different source, I am left with the one I know. Unbecoming
as it may be to portray fellow-Americans in such a light, the parallel
It has taken centuries to evolve our high standards of political
discourse-standards the rest of the world could only watch with
awe. Decent persons can neither countenance nor ignore the damage
being done to that legacy. Albeit waning in numbers, the Democratic
Party still has eloquent and civilized representatives. They, above
all, should take stock. America as we know it cannot survive for
long that which is being done to the public forum.
Should we adopt and reciprocate their offensive prose? Surely not.
Is there a case for righteous indignation? Without a doubt, for
that ought to be the response when Americans in public service emulate
the rhetoric of regimes defeated at great sacrifice.