Today on the Washington Post’s op-ed page, the dean of the Washington press corps, David Broder, shares an anecdote of how the American public disapproved of the way an angry crowd greeted Lyndon Johnson in 1960, while explaining why he thinks today’s American culture will recoil from “disrespectful” town-hall protests.
(He says he hasn’t seen any polls on how Americans as a whole feel about the protesters;
the Gallup poll came out late last night, probably after his deadline.)
“Old” is not a synonym for outdated or obsolete, and I’m a fan of looking to history for applicable lessons. But Broder is offering himself as a very easy target for mockery when he seems to suggest that we should expect a similar reaction to what we saw in 1960, as if American culture and its standards of behavior hadn’t changed significantly in 49 years.
Look at some of the metaphors applied to the tone of the protesters – “professional wrestling,” or The Jerry Springer Show. Our pop culture is vastly coarser, more vulgar, more confrontational and rude than it was in 1960 – the tirades of reality television, South Park, gangsta rap, Ultimate Fighting, the anarchic fantasies of video games like Grand Theft Auto. We have different standards of behavior in almost every environment: In sports stadiums, we see Cleveland’s Dawg Pound or Oakland’s Black Hole. Code Pink’s disruption of events in Washington has become so commonplace as to become cliché; the group illustrated its opposition to the Iraq War to Hillary Clinton by handing her underwear (the “pink slip”). Talk radio has its angry screamers of the Right and Left – Michael Savage and Randi Rhodes, just to name two – and the sporadic shouting of the old McLaughlin Group has been gradually replaced by the all-out bellowing of O’Reilly and Olbermann. All around us, we see road rage, air rage, parents screaming at umpires at Little League games, anger from the pulpit from Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, or insinuations that deadly hurricanes are just divine retribution for sinful behavior.
Amid all this, Americans are going to look at somebody yelling at Arlen Specter and say, “Whoa, now, that’s beyond the pale”?
This isn’t even an endorsement of modern American culture – perhaps this yearning for old-fashioned, buttoned-down decorum is a factor in the current popularity of “Mad Men” – but if we’re trying to forecast public reaction to expressions of anger, we ought to look realistically at the culture we have, not the culture we would like to have.