Have you no sense of decency, sir?

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

This statement, by Joseph Welch, special counsel to the U.S. Army is remembered as the turning point in Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  The History Channel’s blog summarizes the events:

Senator McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power in the U.S. Senate when he charged in February 1950 that “hundreds” of “known communists” were in the Department of State. In the years that followed, McCarthy became the acknowledged leader of the so-called Red Scare, a time when millions of Americans became convinced that communists had infiltrated every aspect of American life. Behind closed-door hearings, McCarthy bullied, lied, and smeared his way to power, destroying many careers and lives in the process. Prior to 1953, the Republican Party tolerated his antics because his attacks were directed against the Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman. When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the White House in 1953, however, McCarthy’s recklessness and increasingly erratic behavior became unacceptable and the senator saw his clout slowly ebbing away. In a last-ditch effort to revitalize his anticommunist crusade, McCarthy made a crucial mistake. He charged in early 1954 that the U.S. Army was “soft” on communism. As Chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, McCarthy opened hearings into the Army.

One of McCarthy’s bullying tactics was to accuse the people he wished to marginalize of having ties to communists. If he could link an opponent, however tenuously, to communism, he could paint him as a dangerous enemy who should not be heard.

During McCarthy’s army hearings, he charged Frederick G. Fisher, a young associate in Welch’s law firm, with being a long-time member of an organization that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.”

When facing such accusations, most people instinctively responded by denying the content of the attack, proclaiming their patriotism and distancing themselves from accusations of communist sympathy.

Welch did not do this. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” he said. “…Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy, in his responses, demonstrated no sense of shame over his tactics, but the public was tiring of them and Welch had voiced a growing public sentiment.

Welch had refused to accept McCarthy’s framing– that his concern was rooting out communism– and highlighted the underlying truth that McCarthy’s real interest was his own aggrandizement.

Last night the President went on one of his predictable Twitter rants. (Somehow, even though his behavior is so consistent, it never seems to lose its power to shock.) As per usual, he picked on someone weaker than himself, in this case, the mayor of San Juan who is struggling to deal with the emergency on the ground every day. Yesterday she implored the President to somehow cut through the bureaucracy that has stifled rescue attempts.

“I will do what I never thought I was going to do. I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” Carmen Yulín Cruz said.

The message was powerful. When the President saw this on television he was struck to his core. He was determined to do something to eliminate the problem. The thing is, the problem, in his mind, was that he was being embarrassed.

And so he tweeted. He blasted the mayor and accused her of conspiring with Democrats to humiliate him and for good measure blamed the people of Puerto Rico who “want everything done for them when it should be a community job.”

What a bleak window this is into the man’s soul. The degree of his self-focus is boundless and stunning. As human beings with normal senses of empathy and collective responsibility, we’re both appalled and fascinated that someone could actually react this way to a human tragedy. It is hard to look away.

Of course social media has been abuzz with the outrageous pronouncements (and the trolls and bots are chiming in as they’re programmed to do).  I haven’t tuned into the TV news, but I assume it is full of outraged people responding to the content of those messages pointing to the many ways that the community in Puerto Rico has responded. CBS correspondent David Begnaud, just back from Puerto Rico, posted a video on this subject that has been making the rounds. Yet I can’t help but wish we could stop responding to these outbursts. I am tired of living in a world where our national discourse is framed by twitter tantrums,  a house of mirrors where everything is a reflection of Trump. Can’t we somehow stop taking the bait?

Instead of saying, “How dare you? Look at how selflessly people in Puerto Rico have been trying to help their neighbors in the face of incredible hardship,” we should respond with a collective “Have you no sense of decency?”

Did you get that off your chest, Mr. President? I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. But this is not actually about you. So, let’s talk about organizing the distribution of supplies.

How do we do this?

I searched online to read what other people might have said on this question. I found an article in the Columbia Journalism Review with the headline “What We Miss When We Obsess Over Trump’s Tweets.” It is specifically addressed to journalists and asks them to stop taking the bait when they are personally attacked by the Commander in Chief. One line jumped out at me. Here is the context:

Remember when we used to obsess about every presidential tweet? When every story was about us? When Donald Trump’s war with the media was, really, the only thing that mattered?

We need to stop.

When I first scanned this opening, a different meaning emerged. Right now everything that happens in the world is eventually reframed as a story about Trump.

Remember when every story was about us?







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