In this past Weekly edition (November 5), on page 12, Ben Zion Wolff’s opinion contained a passage that struck me: “Long gone are the days when partisan rivals could reach across the aisle, compromise by splitting the difference, or even agree to disagree. Political discourse has descended into character assassination and unfounded accusations of criminality without any attempt to understand the opposing point of view and consider options for cooperation.”
Forgive me, Rabbi Wolff, but this representation of government as a haven full of peace and sunshine has never been accurate. If I may, please direct your attention to the official website of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Office of Art and Archives. Behold “The Most Infamous Floor Brawl in the History of the U.S. House of Representatives.” On February 6, 1858, a fight erupted in the House between Republican and Democratic Congressmen over an issue related to the Kansas Territory’s slavery policies. Nor is that the only instance of violence in Congress. Two years prior, Democratic South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks beat Republican Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner so badly with a metal-topped cane that Sumner suffered from his injuries for the rest of his life.
Yes, both of these examples took place shortly before the American Civil War, a time of enormous tension and boiling conflict. I don’t mean to imply that brawling in the highest levels of government is the norm. Nor do I imply that these are the only instances of inter-party conflict in U.S. history. They’re just the examples I had to hand. There have been cases of bipartisan cooperation and civility, and the kind of extremes I cited above are certainly anomalies.
What I do mean to imply is that anyone who says that the old days were better simply because they’re over is kidding himself. It is fair to say that over the course of the history of the United States, the parties have often been, more or less bitterly, in conflict. And it’s a well-known psychological phenomenon that we tend to remember good things better than bad things.
Let’s not rewrite history. It’s hard enough to hang onto as it is.
Sarah Hinda Appelbaum
Ben Zion Wolff replies:
Thank you for your letter.
While it is true that our long nation’s history contains incidents of brutal political fighting, my feeble memory, as a not-yet-eligible-for-Social-Security senior citizen, only goes back to the 1960s. So for me, the “good ole days” may not be so old, but the political climate of my youth was certainly better than it is today.