Hey … Look at Me!

One good thing that comes with getting older is the ability to reflect on past political campaigns, and to relish those times when candidates made sport of their opponents with style and humor.  Consider, for example, Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, and his slogan “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.”  His opponent’s witty rejoinder of “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts” cut directly to the quick, but it was done with a degree of finesse.

In the 60’s and 70’s, Dick Tuck was a political trickster who engaged in a number of stunts that drove his opponents mad, including one notable escapade at a campaign rally where Richard Nixon was addressing a crowd from the back of a train.  In the midst of Nixon’s remarks, Tuck borrowed a conductor’s hat and waved at the engineer causing the train to pull out of the station as Nixon, still talking, watched the crowd fade into the distance.

Fast forward to 2023, where political discourse features character assassination, slurs and insults of every variety, threats of physical violence to candidates and their families, and a multitude of other forms of offensiveness and coarse behavior.  As an aside, it makes one wonder what would make someone choose to run for political office in our  present day maelstrom of unrestrained viciousness.

The current level of crudity in politics was made abundantly clear to me, recently, as I drove along a residential street not far from my home.  Imagine my shock as, in a neighborhood of nicely tended properties, I came face to face with a flag hanging from a front porch with the message “F*** Biden” emblazoned on it (I have obscured the obvious profanity).   There were no other political signs visible on the property … just that large banner (probably 4’ x 6’) with the jarring message clearly visible to anyone walking or driving past.

It is important to note that my revulsion at this obscenity was not based on the political persuasion of the person being pilloried; I would have been equally offended regardless of party.  But as I paused to reflect on what, if anything, I should do about this public affront, I came to the conclusion that someone displaying a brazen message of this sort on their front porch would likely not take kindly to my knocking on his door to discuss my concerns. 

Instead, I reported what I had observed to the city council, while inquiring about any laws or ordinances that might be in play.  Their prompt reply informed me that they were already aware of this obnoxious display but that, unfortunately, there was nothing they could do about it.  In fact, a Neighborhood Police Officer had even visited this house to ask that the flag be removed but, with no ordinance or law prohibiting its display, the occupant refused to take it down.  All this, by the way, in a community whose Vision Statement declares that it will be the most livable and best-managed city in the country.

For a citizen interested in showing support for a political party, position or individual, there are a number of ways to do so … writing letters of support … attending and speaking at government meetings … donating time or money to a campaign … running for office … and, of course, voting.  But posting a profane message on the front of your house … is that supposed to convince someone of the rightness of your political stance?

I could be wrong, of course, but I doubt the resident here has any expectation of winning others over to his point of view.  Instead, he is telling the world “It’s all about me,” and any impact his crude messaging has on passersby or his neighbors doesn’t bother him in the slightest.  In other words … you don’t like my flag?  Too Bad!  Deal with it!  And, more to the point, he is telling us all … “F*** You”

Other than the obscenity displayed proudly on his front porch, I don’t know anything about the person residing within.  I believe, though, that  the noted business and religious leader, Spencer Kimball, is right in suggesting:

Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly.

Burn Before Reading

If you happen to ask a military veteran what he or she did during their time in the service, don’t be surprised if they respond this way: “Well, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.”  This implies, of course, that what they did was so secret and “black ops” in nature that they are forever prohibited from talking about it.

Having spent my 1960’s-era enlistment assigned to Air Force Intelligence, I would be more inclined to answer this way: “Well, I could tell you what I did, but then I would have to bore you to death.”  In other words, collecting and analyzing data for a living was a tedious enterprise and, for the record, the term “Air Force Intelligence” is NOT an oxymoron.

Yes, the work was often monotonous, but my colleagues and I were never confused about the confidential nature of what we did and our absolute obligation to safeguard secret information and processes.  This point was emphasized constantly, and I had little doubt that a slip of the tongue or a misplaced document would result in my immediate incarceration at Leavenworth.

As you might suspect, this trip down memory lane was stimulated by the current kerfuffle over secret government documents being found, daily, in a variety of odd and insecure places, and in the custody of … well … nobody seems to know.  How, on earth, could this happen?  Weren’t the individuals in possession of these items given the same security warnings as those of us in the trenches? 

Incidentally, anyone interested in buying a shredder in or around Washington these days should not be surprised to find office supply stores sold out.  The reason is simple: politicians and government employees, both past and present and regardless of party affiliation, are likely combing through old files and collected documents in search of the odd misplaced classified material that could put them in the crosshairs of one or another ongoing investigation.

This is not to suggest that security breaches, whether intentional or accidental in nature, did not occur in the past.  They did.  But the cavalier manner in which government officials are treating this current debacle is both disconcerting and worrisome and, in my view, reflective of a  diminution of caution about things that, in the past, were deemed sensitive.  

This became abundantly clear to me several years ago while driving along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland.  As I approached the exit for Fort Meade and the National Security Agency I noticed, much to my surprise, an additional sign providing directions to the National Cryptologic Museum!  A museum!  At NSA!  

To fully appreciate my astonishment, it is important to know that during my tenure at this super-secret agency,  we always maintained that the letters “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency.”  But that was then and this is now … today, the public has access to exhibits and information which, in the past, would never have been displayed or even discussed outside a secure environment. 

When I think about the importance of security and the way that idea was inculcated in us some sixty years ago, I can only shake my head in wonder at what seems, today, to be a thoroughly lackadaisical approach to an issue with serious implications for our national security.  Further, It is disheartening to watch the machinations of various government functionaries performing damage control while, at the same time, casting blame upon others for embarrassing and dangerous security breaches.  

One very well-known individual in the realm of national security said this:

Two things about the NSA stunned me right off the bat: how technologically sophisticated it was compared with the CIA, and how much less vigilant it was about security.

That person just quoted is Edward Snowden, an American and naturalized Russian former computer consultant who, in 2013, stole and revealed highly classified information from the NSA.  By some accounts he leaked more than one million documents, the vast majority of which related to military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques, and procedures of the United States.

Are You Talking to Me?

Do you remember the “good old days” when politicians and public figures behaved as adults, treated each other with respect and spoke only in well-mannered fashion?

I didn’t think so … neither do I.

But given today’s relentless barrage of pseudo-scandals and outrageous behavior, it is easy to understand why past public figures may have seemed a more-genteel bunch than our current crop.  A brief review of the history books, though, reveals a goodly amount of similarity to what we contend with today.  For example:

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson referred to President John Adams as: “… a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphrodite character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Across his political career, two-term President Grover Cleveland had to contend with the assertion that he had fathered an illegitimate child, and his opponent’s relentless consequent chant of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

And who can forget the historic duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804?   In that clash, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton because, well, Hamilton had allegedly insulted him at a dinner.

Today, the super-connected virtual world in which we reside hurls “news” (regardless of veracity) across the internet with but one click, while the vetting of information has become a process with which few seem to bother.  In this environment, it is impossible to ignore the glut of outright untruths and innuendo being paraded before us for the explicit purpose of character assassination or political gain.

Consider, for example, the torrent of vitriol heaped repeatedly upon United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg who, as the first openly gay cabinet member in history, is the target of incessant attacks based simply on his sexual orientation.  As he goes about deflecting these scurrilous insults, he provides us with useful guidance on navigating this confusing and ill-tempered virtual world:

We have to be smart about where we direct our attention. I know the most shocking thing somebody said or did yesterday gets the most focus today, but if I were to make a list of the 10 or 20 or 50 or 200 members of Congress whose commentary or thoughts or words we should be debating or weighing right now, it wouldn’t be those two or three members of Congress who get the most attention on Twitter for the outrage of the day upon which they try to outdo each other.

Buttigieg is right, for racist, sexist and homophobic slurs fall below the lowest threshold for decency.  A major problem, of course, is the anonymity the web provides us for, after all, making these sorts of ugly comments directly to another person’s face can result in a punch in the nose.  Saying the same thing in an internet posting, though, merely puts one at risk of a brief stint in “Facebook Jail.”

Like it or not, we have become wed to the internet in multiple ways meaning we face a daily struggle to avoid being drawn down some digital rabbit hole in pursuit of more “information” on the “scandal-du-jour.”  For our own sanity it is important to be discerning in the information we rely upon, while avoiding those spectacles that are nothing more than just, well, spectacles.

It is safe to state that the principles of dignity and self-respect are at risk among elected officials today … a criticism that applies equally across the political spectrum.  For example, in a recent interview a Democratic senator uttered one “f***,” two “f***ings,” one “bull****,” one “p***ed off” and one “they s**k.”  Not to be outdone, a number of Republican politicians have taken to posing with “Let’s Go Brandon” signs; one even ended his floor speech with those words and a fist pump.  The “Let’s Go Brandon” phenomenon is, of course, code for “F*** Joe Biden.”

These sorts of profane insults have even taken on hybrid form.  At a recent dinner, a Republican governor referred to former President Trump as “F***ing Crazy,” prompting one Democrat to note that Republicans, today, are using “F” bombs more frequently than at any time since the Nixon administration.

It’s getting so that broadcast political events will have to have viewer warnings similar to what we see in movie theaters.

Frankly, this sort of thing used to bother me, but now it just makes me tired.  As a remedy, I have begun following my own advice by taking an occasional break or sabbatical from the digital political battlefield, while seeking out those things that are really important.

Like, for example, watching kitten videos on YouTube.