Cal Thomas covers a lot of ground in his latest column. Having already dismissed the notion that any exterior stimulus could have influenced the Tucson amoklaufer, he proceeds to a history lesson that he hopes will discourage any attempt to censor or regulate political discourse. After scorning the "Left" as hypocrites for desiring to censor inflammatory speech but not TV sexuality, gangster rap or flag burning, Thomas takes us back to the late 18th century and the beginnings of American journalism. "Compared to 18th-century journalism in America, today's media are tame," he claims. His guide is historian Eric Burns, who described some Early Republic reporting as "journalistic savagery." Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans freely slandered each other, Thomas notes, making no distinction between straight news and partisan opinion and brazenly lying about each other. Despite such beginnings, "Journalism survived, even displaying responsibility on occasion." The moral, Thomas informs us, is that "The public can sort out the good from the bad and ugly. They don't need politicians doing it for them."
Like many Republican sympathizers, Thomas has wandered away from the immediate subject of the inflammatory potential of political rhetoric to make his preferred stand against the usual "left" conspiracy to suppress the "right." Once we remind ourselves of the original context, however, the example of the 18th century proves less reassuring than Thomas thinks it is. If we're concerned with possible links between political rhetoric and violence, the Early Republic showed the most obvious connections. It was the era of dueling, climaxing with the murder by the Vice President of the United States of a former Treasury Secretary who was also one of the most important Framers of the Constitution. If the era is different from our own, it's because it was less likely then that rhetoric would inspire an assassin, but more likely that it would get the actual author shot. But Thomas's implicit claim is that the hair-trigger discourse of 200 years ago, though less "tame" than today's rhetoric, was still acceptable by proper American free-speech standards. Somehow, dueling and other forms of reprisal typical of the period don't figure in Thomas's history. Should we assume that those were acceptable to him, so long as "journalism survived" without government interference? Should we infer that he'd accept such practices today as an alternative to censorship? I suppose it depends on whom he assumes would get shot first.