NEW YORK — There is a meanness in the land. You can hear it in the angry howls on talk radio or in the conservatives' savage gloating in the halls of Congress as they prepare to dismantle 60 years of history. You can read it on the proliferating hate bulletin boards in cyberspace. You sense it in the passage of Proposition 187, which targeted illegal immigrants; or in the increasing emphasis on punishment as the solution to problems; or in the general indifference to the plight of people in other nations when more than a CARE package is required; or in gay-bashing and black-bashing and welfare-bashing; or in Rush Limbaugh's cruel comments about Chelsea Clinton's looks. It is the triumph of Archie Bunkerism--and it is ugly.
Civic meanness is nothing new. Philosophers from Plato to Augustine to Hobbes have argued that man is inherently evil and his baser instincts need to be controlled forcibly. In this country, we have seen the evidence of public indecency in slavery and, later, in the resistance to civil rights, in the nativist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, in anti-Semitism, in red-baiting and in dozens of other chapters of intolerance.
Happily, we think of these things as blots on our history because most of us, liberal and conservative, revere the country's sense of moral purpose--its traditional role as the beacon of liberty and decency. That may be why the episodes of mean-spiritedness in U.S. history have usually met with such stiff resistance. Intolerance and scapegoating traditionally mobilize large and powerful countervailing forces, not infrequently government itself, that are determined to shame the evildoers and quarantine them from the political mainstream.
In the Depression '30s, when there was understandably great public disaffection, Father Charles E. Coughlin, a rabble-rousing priest from Royal Oak, Mich., took to the airwaves, largely to demand inflating the currency as a form of relief. As long as Coughlin stuck to economics, he was invited to join the political discourse, and his golden voice and radicalism won him an audience in the tens of millions.
But when his rhetoric devolved into demagogic attacks on Jewish international bankers and mean personal sallies against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he branded "the great betrayer and liar," the Administration and the Catholic hierarchy both roundly condemned him, driving him to the political margins. There he remained.
Similarly, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin burst on the national scene in 1950 to general public approval as he cited scores of alleged communists who had infiltrated the government. Though McCarthy's charges were largely reckless and unfounded, he wasn't marginalized until the viciousness of his attacks was exposed during the famous Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. As the public watched the meanness of McCarthy and his brilliantine sidekick, Roy M. Cohn, on television, the senator's popularity plummeted and even Republicans were emboldened to criticize his tactics. Anti-communism, yes. Mean-spiritedness, no.
The forces of decency triumphed then, but I suspect they will have a much harder time imposing a quarantine in '90s America, should they even try, because the meanness is different now. For one thing, it is far more widespread. It seems to cross all regional boundaries, sectarian groups and most social and economic lines--though white males are, by poll results at least, the most disgruntled.
For another, where the old meanness was largely a function of interest politics, the new meanness seems to have a spiritual basis as well as a political one. As the late Christopher Lasch observed in his book "The Culture of Narcissism," we are a much more solipsistic people now. We have turned from the community to ourselves, from the common good to our own good, becoming fixated with our personal development, our material well-being, our emotional satisfaction. Certainly the '80s testified to that.
More, the new meanness is not as easily categorizable as the old, when opprobrium could be narrowly focused at, say, racism or anti-Semitism--things clearly indefensible in any larger moral context. Today, everywhere one turns in America people are angry--though no one is exactly sure what the people are angry about. Yet all seem to feel they are victims--victims of the government, of crime, of minorities, of feminism, of special interests, of cheap foreign labor. The list is endless.