Since when?

Human beings have long had the idea that the Golden Age was at some point in the mythical past, a state of being that we have since fallen away from.  An early expression of this is found in Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod.  Writing during the eighth or seventh centuries B.C.E., he described a period during which Cronus, the chief Titan god, ruled and people lived in peace with each other.   The ancient Romans celebrated this past with their Saturnalia festival, a time of feasting and giving of gifts around the time of the winter solstice.

To the ancient mind, the Golden Age was something lost, something that could only be seen in briefest glimpses in the present time.  Since the Renaissance, though, we’ve adopted the sense that the best times can be yet to come, if only we’ll get to work.  This is especially true in the United States, as illustrated by Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad.  In this election cycle, Bernie Sanders has celebrated who we are, and Donald Trump wants to “make America great again.”

And some among us labor under the idea that some time in our past, we were paragons of civility, a condition that we’ve abandoned and need to restore.  Tamar Abrams, blogger for The Huffington Post, complains about the level of discourse she received in response to tweeting, “America will never be great until we value human life more than gun ownership.”  In response, she received comments calling her a coward and questioning her race.

She wonders whether twitter [sic] started a trend in abusive behavior, due to the many accounts with pseudonyms and avatars.  The social media site, Twitter, is almost ten years old.  While I can testify from personal experience about the rudeness in tweets, I’m not sure I want to say that everything was sweetness and light prior to 2006.

Perhaps Abrams isn’t familiar with the presidential election of 1800.  John Adams was referred to as a crippled hermaphrodite who wanted war with France and desired to import European mistresses.  A Jefferson presidency would lead to the open practice and teaching of incest and rape, according to one newspaper.  And let’s not forget that Jefferson was accused of being an atheist who fathered children with a slave—the latter of those was true, and the former is probable.  In 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks repeatedly pummeled Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in reply to a speech by Sumner that included attacks on supporters of slavery.  And, of course, there was that four-year period in 1861 – 1865 that some may remember.

The point here is that Americans have always been a raucous bunch, and our debates are spirited.  There never has been a period in our history when we’ve felt ourselves to be disciples of Emily Post.  Now I have argued that some things—sexism, for example—ought to be beyond the pale, and attacks on a person’s race only show the lack of facts and logic on the side of the racist.  But at the same time, when Abrams makes the claim that we who defend rights somehow value gun ownership over human life, she has given up the high ground of delicate sensibilities.  She makes a sneering remark about supporters of gun rights, then runs off to tattle when she finds out the depth of feeling that we have for those rights.

Perhaps Abrams was never told by her mother, “you should have thought of that before you did it,” and perhaps she hasn’t said it to her child.  But it’s a good piece of advice.  If you want civility, start out being civil.  Otherwise, you have no business crying over how the treatment you receive is in the same spirit as the treatment you gave.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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