170 Million Americans: Speak Up


OK — so I’m going to be a shill for a minute here: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service (which you may know as “public TV” or “Masterpiece Theatre”), National Public Radio, and local public TV and public radio stations across the country are campaigning to turn back an attempt in Congress to cut public media funding. The move is part of a much larger effort to reduce government spending.

The public media response is called 170 Million Americans. That’s the number of people the CPB says watch public TV, listen to public radio, and use public media digital services each month. That’s a lot of people, more than half of the U.S.A. Public media people–I’m one, as it happens–are urging friends, family, coworkers, passers-by, and complete strangers to let their folks in Congress know how they feel if they value the service we deliver. So consider yourself urged if you’ve read this far. Here’s where to go online if you’re inclined to take action. And if you’re wondering, here’s how public media funding works.

Fuller disclosure: Yes, I work for a public broadcaster, KQED in San Francisco. And I’m responding in part to a call to action from by company’s CEO, and in part to a comment from a usually well-informed friend who said he “wasn’t worried” about the CPB cuts because public financing isn’t all that much of the corporation’s budget. In the case of KQED, we get about $5 million a year in federal support. That’s about 8.5 percent of the company’s annual budget. If you run a business or pay close attention to your household finances, think about what kind of hit that would be. Some public broadcasters–those in smaller markets and rural areas–reportedly get 30 to 50 percent of their funding through federal support. For them, this becomes a life-and-death matter, and for their audiences, it’s a matter of having continued access to a source of diverse news, information, and entertainment programming.

(Click on image for larger version of poster, which has a kind of goofy reference to The Count from “Sesame Street.”)

A Brief History of Congressional Decorum, II

1880: The Weaver-Sparks Affray

During deliberations on December 21, the House took up a funding bill–“a measure from the consideration of which no one would suspect a disgraceful riot could possibly arise,” The New York Times noted. But debate over the bill, or rather a debate over how the bill should be debated, quickly deteriorated into accusations of party disloyalty and political skulduggery. Soon, the quarreling centered on two members: James Baird Weaver, a member of the Greenback Party from Iowa, and William Andrew Jackson Sparks, Democrat of Illinois.

sparks.jpg weaver.jpg

While Weaver (left) inveighed against Democratic monetary policy, Sparks (right) and several others tried to shout him down, and someone was heard to call Weaver a liar. Sparks apologized for getting exercised but said he wasn’t the one who called Weaver a liar. Weaver accepted the apology, then issued a warning. Here’s how The Times described the scene in its December 22 editions:

” ‘I would not harm a hair of your head [Weaver said]; but don’t make any mistake about me. My fighting weight is 185 pounds, and my address is Bloomfield, Iowa.’

“This increased the general merriment and increased Mr. Sparks’s anger. Shaking his fist at Mr. Weaver, he shouted: ‘I have a contempt for that man’s arm. It can’t be used to hurt me. The manner in which he received my explanation shows that he is not a gentleman, a fact of which his conduct in the Presidential campaign has given abundant proof.’

“At this point, for the first time during the long controversy, Mr. Weaver lost his temper, and replied to Mr. Sparks by saying: ‘In the presence of the House of Representatives I denounce you as a liar.’

” ‘… And I denounce you as an unmitigated scoundrel,’ rejoined the irate Sparks.”

Weaver and Sparks rushed at each other but were restrained from fisticuffs as dozens of members rushed toward the Speaker’s desk. The Times again:

“At this time, the commotion on the floor of the House had the appearance of a mob fight, and from the galleries it looked as though such a termination was inevitable. At least three members were struggling to encounter each other in combat, and at least 60 others were wrestling and shouting to prevent the threatened conflict. … In the midst of the uproar some wag from the rear of the hall shouted: ‘Trot out the American eagle,’ referring to the silver mace surmounted by that bird, which is the emblem of the authority of the House when borne by the Sergeant-at-Arms. Finally, Sergeant-at-Arms Thompson made his appearance, bearing the silver mace, and parading with it among the members forced them to be seated, thus quelling the disorder.”

The House adjourned. When it met again the next day, Reps. Sparks and Weaver were taken to task for what other members termed a “pot-house brawl” and “gambling-house quarrel.” Members debated whether the would-be combatants should be censured or simply required to apologize. Rep. Selwyn Zadock Bowman, Republican of Massachusetts, thought a mere apology wasn’t sufficient for the “gross outrage” committed against the House. “The two gentlemen … had bandied between themselves the vilest and the most opprobrious epithets that could pass from one man to another. They had boasted of their fighting weight [here the House reportedly erupted in laughter]; they had treated it as a joke; they had … endeavored to strip off their coats, and had only been separated by force.”

“The vilest and most opprobrious epithets”? How times have changed. Notwithstanding Bowman’s plea to preserve the dignity of the House–“a sacred tribunal,” he called it–Sparks and Weaver were allowed to end the affair with apologies to the chamber.

A Brief History of Congressional Decorum


1856: Sumner and Brooks

The House of Representatives has rebuked South Carolinian Joe Wilson for his “You lie!” outburst during President Obama’s speech last week. Wilson’s behavior is an outgrowth of something ugly that’s stirring among us. I don’t know how to summarize what that something is, but its hallmark is an intolerance that skips over debate and argument and rushes straight into hate-mongering and an insistence that those who dare disagree be denounced and silenced. I’m mindful I’m writing in a town, Berkeley, that has its own history of trying to shout down voices it doesn’t want to hear. There’s always a good reason to muzzle your foes and to caricature them as the spawn of the devil or worse.

I look across this bleak landscape and I find some ironic solace in the fact we’ve been here before. When I was a kid, I liked to read about the Civil War. A pictorial history we had included a chapter or two on the prelude to the war. One of the episodes that made an impression was the brutal beating of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The attack took place May 22, 1856, on the Senate floor after Sumner, an abolitonist, denounced pro-slavery forces in Kansas and their allies in Congress. Here’s a description of the incident by James M. McPherson in “Battle Cry of Freedom“:

“All spring, Charles Sumner had been storing up wrath toward what he considered ‘The Crime Against Kansas’–the title of a two-day address he delivered to the crowded Senate galleries May 19-20. ‘I shall make the most thorough and complete speech of my life,’ Sumner informed Salmon P. Chase a few days before the address. ‘My soul is wrung by the outrage and I shall pour it forth.’ So he did, with more passion than good taste. ‘Murderous robbers from Missouri,’ Sumner declared ‘hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization’ had committed a ‘rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery.’ Sumner singled out members of the F Street Mess [a group of southern senators instrumental in writing the Kansas-Nebraska Act] for specific attack, including South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler, who had ‘discharged the loose expectoration of his speech’ in demanding the disarming of free-state men in Kansas. Butler’s home state with ‘its shameful imbecility from Slavery’ had sent to the Senate in his person a ‘Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to who me has made his vows, and who … though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight–I mean the harlot, Slavery.’

“Sumner’s speech produced an uproar–in the Senate, where several Democrats rebuked him, and in the press, where even Republican praise was tempered by reservations about the rhetoric. The only thing that prevented some southerner from challenging Sumner to a duel was the knowledge that he would refuse. Besides, dueling was for social equals; someone as low as this Yankee blackguard deserved a horsewhipping–or a caning. So felt Congressman Preston Brooks, a cousin of Andrew Butler. Two days after the speech Brooks walked into the nearly empty Senate chamber after adjournment and approached the desk where Sumner was writing letters. Your speech, he told the senator, ‘is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.’ As Sumner started to rise, the frenzied Brooks beat him over the head thirty times or more with a gold-headed cane as Sumner, his legs trapped under the bolted-down desk, finally wrenched it loose from the floor and collapsed with his head covered with blood.”

The House voted 112-95 to throw Brooks out–but the motion failed because southern members voted against it and deprived it of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. The reaction at home? As McPherson notes, “From all over the South, Brooks received dozens of new canes, some inscribed with such mottoes as ‘Hit Him Again’ and ‘Use Knock-Down Arguments.’ “

I note that in looking up “Joe Wilson” on The New York Times site today, at the top of the page was an automatically generated ad: Support Joe Wilson Today: Stand for Joe. Stand for truth. Make a contribution today.” By some accounts, he’s raised millions since he screamed at the president.

Surrender Date

Opponents of the congressional effort to attach an operational timetable to new funding for our Iraq War and World Improvement Project (IWWIP — trademark pending) have long since adopted a catchy label for the proposed troop withdrawal schedule. Led by the likes of John McCain, the critics condemn timetables as setting a “surrender date” in the war.

McCain and the critics have one thing right: It’s messy for Congress to step into managing the war this way. But there’s nothing unconstitutional or unprecedented about it — in fact, the Constitution gives Congress the power and responsibility, by way of its control of funding, to participate in warmaking decisions on the people’s behalf. The “no surrender” types apparently would continue to cede their power and responsibility to an executive who has proven careless and arrogant in its exercise. The timetable critics’ alternative — to continue writing blank checks and waiting for the executive’s current plan, or the next, or the one after that, to work — is an extension of the same plan that’s killed thousands of U.S. troops, tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and laid waste to a place that was supposed to turn into the Eden of Mideast democracy.

The “no surrender” types speak of the awful consequences of leaving Iraq “before our work is done.” What I’d like to hear someone in Congress talk about is the awful consequences of surrendering again and again to a president who ignores both the lessons of experience and the clear voice of his people.

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