Much of the reporting in the press since the attack of Sept. 11 has focused on the anti-United States propaganda being dished out in so many parts of the world.

Religious fundamentalist schools in the Mideast and Asia have painted us as the personification of evil itself, and inflamed the passions of zealots eager to do us harm. We have begun to question the motives of nations previously thought to be allies, as well as those we acknowledge as unfriendly or enemies. Indeed, there are even reports of such groups in our own country who, in a more covert way, are espousing the same line of thought.

Needless to say, it is very difficult to conduct a sane foreign policy amidst such hate and distrust. It seems, at times, that virtually every move we, as a nation, make is immediately subject to scorn and suspicion. I do not believe that such hatred serves the cause of freedom anywhere in the world, and we should rightly condemn its proliferation.

And yet, when I am in the car and turn on the radio, it seems to me that I am hearing a lot of similar thoughts being expressed by our own people. Talk shows, it would appear, have become one of our favorites pastimes and they extend from the far right to the far left with very little in between. Liberal or conservative, the enemy appears to be our own government. Hosts and callers alike spout venom that would fit nicely into a good many foreign propaganda mills.

I guess the part I dislike most about such programs, in addition to the hatred they dispense, is the colossal ignorance they spread. Callers and hosts alike are often “down on what they are not up on.” Or, in many cases, they take a half-truth and enlarge it into a great lie.

An ancient cynic once remarked: “You musnt enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.” And yet, the talk show debasement of all branches of government continues unabated. No wonder it is so hard to govern and to find qualified candidates willing to expose themselves to such treatment.

I mention this because it is that time of year again when we elect people to represent us at all levels of government. Elections also seem, in some strange way, to bring out the worst form of criticism of government and the people who compete to be its leaders. Mud flies in copious amounts from election campaigns stretching from the local school board to Congress.

The media has a field day reporting and analyzing each and every allegation, whether they be true or false, germane or inconsequential. Invariably the enemy nationally is Washington and locally the state legislature, and everyone else but the candidate generating the charges is either derelict in their duty orworse yetcorrupt.

No wonder lawmakers generally have such low esteem in the publics mind; they are their own worst enemy as they spread such negativity. Unfortunately, though, most polls show that in the final analysis negative ads sella sad commentary on both the candidates and the electorate. It reminds me of the ward heeler who said, “My people dont vote for anybodythey always vote against somebody.”

I take some comfort, however, in the knowledge that such behavior at election time is not new. Several books that have appeared on best seller lists dealing with our early history and its leaders have detailed similar behavior in elections since our nation was founded. Some of the conduct of politicians and the media during the latter part of the 18th century was outrageous. Even the actions of some of the most revered of our founding fathers would make a present day politician cringeor at least blush.

There is no question that occasionally a person gets elected to Congress who is unfit for such service. But by and large, my own experience in working with members of Congress has been that most are hardworking and perform the very difficult tasks of balancing the wishes of their constituents against the needs of the nation and the dictates of their conscience. They deserve better treatment and respect than we give them and more considerate treatment from each other.

Despite all the fuss about election reform (whatever that is), I do not believe we have struck at the heart of the problem. Control of the money and what it is spent for may be important, but improving attitudes is far more important. True, we have survived 200 years of muckraking, and that is reassuring as a testimony to our basic strength. But we no longer live in isolation and the rest of the world is watching. Do we have to continue to tear each other down, thereby giving live ammunition to our detractors?

Passing laws will do nothing to stop the problem and, in fact, may trample our constitutional rights. However, as the noted historian Will Durant points out, “The first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.” Over the years we have paid a high price for the freedom of speech, but we had better start taking better care of it.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 9, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.