In early October, Peggy Noonan wrote about the passing of the great William Safire, in a Wall Street Journal article entitled, Keeping America Safe From the Ranters. In it, she bemoans the loss of “the Elders” of journalism, and warns us that the guard is changing, and not necessarily for the better:
We are in a generational shift in the media, and new Elders are rising. They’re running the networks and newspapers, they own the Web sites, they anchor the shows. What is their job?
It’s to do what the Elders have always done, but now more than ever.
Ms. Noonan goes on to give two examples of how discourse is changing (one from a left-of-center mainstream media type, and one from an extremely right-of-center marginal kook) as evidence of how current political conversations are becoming more coarse and inflammatory. From these two small molehills, her handwringing conjures up a mountain of danger:
I see it this way. There are roughly 300 million people in America. Let’s say 1% of them, only 1 in 100, are composed of those who might fairly be called emotionally unstable—the mentally ill, those who have limited or no ability to govern their actions, those who act out, as they say, physically or violently. That’s three million people.
Let’s say a third of them are regularly exposed to political media rants from right or left. That’s a million people.
What effect might “they want to see you dead” and “the Republic is falling right now” have on their minds?
I find Ms. Noonan’s estimate intriguing: One million Americans so mentally unstable as to be potentially violent or a physical danger to others (although she does not distinguish between those who are currently receiving treatment or hospitalized and those who are presumably roaming the streets mainlining Ed Schultz, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann).
Think about that for a moment. One million of our fellow citizens (unless Ms. Noonan numbers you and me among those she fears) lumbering around zombie-like, so infused with hate and fear of “the other side” and incited by bloggers, Twitterers, and Bill O’Reilly, that they are willing to attempt to do violence to our political leaders? Really?
Is political debate getting coarser? Probably. Each generation claims that it’s true, anyway. But it’s also getting more and more open and accessible, which is why we are seeing the rise of things like talk radio, citizen journalism, and Tea Parties. And Peggy Noonan must live in a pretty rarified atmosphere, if she fears the hoi polloi of Power Line, Patterico, and Pajamas Media; and the riff raff of Fox News Channel.
Sure, there’s crime in America. That’s why we have police forces. And sure, there are people who hate Americans and wish us ill. That’s why we have our peerless military. And of course there are kooks who are going to hate whoever is President and even possibly wish him harm. That’s why we have the Secret Service.
But Ms. Noonan, if you believe that the lives of our top politicians are vastly endangered because of these Ranters you fear, then I think you yourself might be among that one million people you worry about.