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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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The Commentary Pages Are No Tea Party


Several columnists recently referred to the tea party "patriots" as terrorists. The terrorist label set off a stormy protest among the group's legion of message writers.

I was one of those columnists. I figured that had some radical sheik sitting in his cave threatened to blow up the American economy — that is, push the United States into default on its debt — if his demands weren't met, few would have questioned use of that unflattering term.

The partiers' most plausible defense was that "everybody knew" the government was not going to default in the end. But everybody didn't know that, certainly not the businesses and investors forced to prepare for that doomsday scenario, even if the odds were against it. And though a last-minute deal did pull us from the brink, the manufactured chaos embarrassed the United States globally and played a role in Standard & Poor's downgrade of our credit rating. It sent the stock market into a paroxysm of volatility and helped ravage consumer confidence just as it was beginning to recover.

That little stunt continues to pain the jobless, investors and U.S. companies while weakening American power abroad. But the hurt the tea party writers most complained of was to their feelings. I had engaged in name-calling, they kept saying. One professing to want more civility in our national conversation, as I do, should not be flinging around the "terrorist" word.

May I presume to disagree? Civility is a subjective concept, to be sure, but hurting people's feelings in the course of making solid arguments is fair and square. The decline in the quality of our public discourse results not so much from an excess of spleen, but a deficit of well-constructed arguments. Few things upset partisans more than when the other side makes a case that bats home.

"Most of us know that effectively scoring on a point of argument opens us to the accusation of mean-spiritedness," writes Frank Partsch, who leads the National Conference of Editorial Writers' Civility Project.

"It comes with the territory, and a commitment to civility should not suggest that punches will be pulled in order to avoid such accusations."

Partsch served as editorial page editor of the Omaha World-Herald for a quarter-century. I'm currently the NCEW president.

Name-calling is not foreign to respectable commentary. Some journalists swear off name-calling altogether. It does not advance an argument. But in the right hands, it can spice up an essay.

Let us revisit some columns by H.L. Mencken, whom conservatives revere for his hostility to government. In a 1925 essay for The (Baltimore) Evening Sun, Mencken referred to the followers of populist William Jennings Bryan as "half-wits," "gaping primates," "rustic ignoramuses" and a "forlorn mob of imbeciles."

Calling Bryan "a walking fever," Mencken wrote: "If the fellow was sincere, then so was P.T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity."

The above was published the day after Bryan died.

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commenters outside the group see what's up and don't bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It's not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It's a strong argument that hits the bull's-eye.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




11 Comments | Post Comment
"That little stunt continues to pain the jobless, investors and U.S. companies while weakening American power abroad. But the hurt the tea party writers most complained of was to their feelings."
That little stunt came after 3 years of relentless spending and policies of government favoritism, ie. "green jobs" and waivers to unionist obamacare obligations. Nah, you called fellow citizens terrorists and you meant it. You put them in the crosshairs and made a target of them. No one's feelings are hurt, that is how your side plays the game. Krauthammer says political discourse in the US is supposed to be loud and angry. He may be right. But it was not that long ago that you were complaining about "civil discourse" in the wake of the Arizona shootings. Maybe some of us thought we had a deal, and then suddenly every liberal columnist is calling fellow citizens terrorists. The pain the jobless, investors and U.S. companies and weakening of our power abroad have all been distinguishing features of this administrations tenure. Because your arguments have been proven to not work, you and your fellows call others terrorists. No one's fellings are hurt, you simply reached the point where you lost the argument. Hoipe your feelings aren't hurt.

Comment: #1
Posted by: Tom
Thu Aug 18, 2011 10:01 AM
Was it terrorism when Obama and his progressive cronies said that they wouldn't pay social security recipients or members of the military if the debt limit wasn't raised? There were many ways to skin that cat but the progressives decided it was in their best interstate to scare monger our elderly and our service members and their families. For me, nothing says terror like 4 more years of this administration.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Fedup
Thu Aug 18, 2011 10:25 AM
Froma, you must be hitting the bullseye, given the crazies you draw out of the woodwork. Thank you for the very civil, intelligent views you offer. I don't agree with every detail, but I don't expect to. I do appreciate that you do not stoop to the tactics of your detractors. Carry on! Bless you. Peace.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Jan Miller
Thu Aug 18, 2011 4:23 PM
Re: Jan

By the ninth word of your comment you stooped to namecalling. Empty argument, hope your feelings aren't hurt.

Fromma defines incivility as nonfactual and uninformed opinions. Look at the past three years and tell us how great things are. Tell me , but be civil because we wouldn't want to offend anyone who is supersensitive. Try to string a couple of paragraphs together before you resort to calling fellow citizens "crazies". Show SOME respect for others.
Wouldn't that be part of a liberal credo: respect others? Is that really too much to ask? Or ist it "Do as I say, not as I do"?
Comment: #4
Posted by: Tom
Thu Aug 18, 2011 8:01 PM
Tom, What I said was merely my opinion, not an argument. My opinion is that I like Froma's essays, and I dislike many of the responses she gets, including yours. I want her to know that her writings are appreciated by me. I don't claim to be an expert, I just know what I like, what seems logical, honest, and good-spirited. If you want an argument, look to someone else besides me.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Jan Miller
Thu Aug 18, 2011 8:48 PM
But Jan, when others express their mere opinion you call them "crazies". That seems neither logical or honest. We all love Fromma, just for different reasons. Diversity, you know. Don't call people "crazies" and then cloak yourself in the mantle of "good-spirited". It's not "good spirited" and you know it. I think a psychologist would call your stance "passive/agressive", sort of "I'll call you crazy, but I don't want to argue with you." Nice work if you can get it. But you don't, do you? Always easier to find fault with others than looking in the mirror and confronting the mask of "good spirited" you pretend to.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Tom
Thu Aug 18, 2011 9:39 PM
Your reasoning is very tempting. It is ok because they deserve it, according to your logic. Of course, your logic starts with the false premise that refusing to raise the debt ceiling equals default (if you deny this is a false premise then follow it logically to “the only way we can afford to pay for the money we have borrowed is to borrow more money” and you realize how absurd it is.) People who don't want to borrow any more money are terrorists, and they deserve the label. Fine.
People who demand we borrow more money, lots more money, literally inconceivable amounts of money, create a burden for our children to pay off those debts in the future. It is obviously then fair to describe them as financial pedophiles.
By borrowing more money we can avoid cutting funding to our military, currently the largest in the world. We can continue to keep troops in over 100 other countries and wage war in three nations. So clearly if you want to borrow more money you are a Nationalist.
By borrowing more money we can continue to fund social programs including but not limited to an expansive welfare state and Federally dominated education. The proper label for that is socialism. So people who want to borrow more money are socialists.
National Socialists. We have seen them before. Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. Nazis is what they called themselves in Germany.
The last time we borrowed a bunch of money the Federal Reserve bought the debt in something they called “quantitative easing” which translates to “they printed more money.” That is by definition inflationary. Inflation hurts some people more than others, in particular single mothers. So people who want to borrow more money are misogynists.
Historically, surges in inflation have led to surges in prostitution, as that may be the only available means to earn money at the new and necessary exchange rate. So, logically, people who want to borrow more money are supporters of prostitution. And, logically, people who support prostitution are more likely to participate in it themselves.
So, by your own logic, people who want the country to borrow more money can rightfully be described as Pedophile Misogynist Nazi Whores.
And there we have it, the debate between Terrorists and Pedophile Misogynist Nazi Whores. What an awesome dialogue we can have. Pick your side and be proud.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Scott
Sun Aug 21, 2011 12:08 PM
Dear froma harrop:

I am going to let my tampa tribune subscription lapse. I am tired of their editorial staff leaning so far to the right! I am one of those terrorists who is sympathetic to the "Tea Party" and conservative causes! I have been getting the Wall Street Journal along with the tribune, not for the business news, but to get the truth about current events. I think I understand why the liberal media has gone so far over the cliff, you have been brainwashed by the marxists and socialists running our educational institutions. When someone like you can be president of the "national conference of editorial writers' civility project", it just shows a total lack respect for civility!

Ronald Johnston
Comment: #8
Posted by: Ronald Johnston
Mon Aug 22, 2011 4:50 AM
For you to call the TEA PARTY terrorists, you are part of the axis of evil(obama pelosi reid), and we will not go straight to hell, we will be in your face for the next year until we win, and then 8 more, like it love it live it, jan 20, 2013 the end of an ERROR
Comment: #9
Posted by: dave carlson
Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:20 AM
Froma, maybe you could let this go if you just admit to yourself you made a mistake. You, supposedly a passionate advocate of "civility," called people "terrorists" just because they did not want our country to borrow more money. Rather than simply acknowledging that you may have strayed a little from your own personal standards, you decided to explore the notion that it's okay to call people names (rather than debate their ideas) if their ideas are wrong. I'm sure you smart enough to work out the tautological problems with this approach. If people have wrong ideas, you should just explain why. If you find yourself resorting to name-calling, it's a strong indication that you cannot address the merits of their argument. Either way, it's simply inconsistent to claim to support civility except when you don't personally feel like being civil.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Sarah
Mon Aug 29, 2011 2:58 PM
Sarah (above) has it right, Froma. True civility in discourse and dialogue is reasoned language -- that which is designed to change minds by changing perceptions and assumptions. In contrast, the use of argumentum ad hominem, or invective, is designed to change minds by manipulating emotions -- an illogical, unreasoning process. Humanity has been trying to master its emotionality for thousands of years. Your logic takes us a step backward -- particularly for one claiming to support an organization encouraging more civility in our public discourse. As our pluralistic rationalist .org (The Circle of Reason) says in claiming that ad hominem invective should be regarded as immoral in public society, "Ad hominem is bad hominem."
Comment: #11
Posted by: Frank Burton
Thu Jan 12, 2012 9:10 PM
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