The Words They Use

Washington Times  4.28.98
Balint Vazsonyi

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 is inescapable.

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.