It’s a silly old world, and it’s getting away from us


In Americans’ off-again, on-again quest for greater civility in public debates, I’ve been one of those renegades who defends, at least intermittently, the value and long tradition of contention. No-holds-barred contention often suffers from the assaults of editorialists, letter writers, and now bloggers and commenters, themselves rather shockingly sharp-tongued, who bemoan the death of civility in modern political conversation.

But harsh contention, I argue, is not unique to Americans, or even to Vineyarders. I’ve mentioned before an article years ago by James Ledbetter in Slate, the online magazine published by the Washington Post, in which he writes about obituaries in English newspapers, and he observes that it’s not all as respectful, not to say fawning, as we are accustomed to having it. And these are memorials to the dead, who ought to get a little respect for having made it to the finish line, shouldn’t they?

“A classic of the genre ran in 1989, also in the Telegraph,” Mr. Ledbetter observed, “upon the death of Lt. Col. Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport, a longtime Conservative politician who was said to have had the loudest voice in Parliament. The paper noted that his voice’s ‘stentorian tones from a sedentary position — more closely akin to barks and growls than accepted human speech — tended to be employed in interjections or in questions rather than speeches.’

“The Telegraph also asserted: ‘Bromley-Davenport — who had, perhaps, a somewhat simpliste view of politics — laid no claims to intellectual prowess or political ambition. His vocal contributions in the chamber generally reflected either shock at what he perceived to be the latest socialist outrage, or unqualified loyalty to his own party.'”

In my memory, Americans, even Vineyarders, have treated their most benighted leaders more gently than that, including members of the opposite party. But my memory is not what it once was.

In the great tradition of incivility, there is a long list of vile practitioners one can cite as evidence that the sharp tongue spirit has crossed the ocean with our former English masters. For instance, take H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore columnist of the first half of the last century, who famously said of politicians (when he wasn’t calling them baboons), that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” And, in this irreverent age, as younger, full-throated slash-and-burn commentators come into their own, there’s The Onion, whose practice is, as an editor once described it, to make their reporting piercing, but with a smile. “We don’t really draw a line. We try to be as offensive as possible. … There’s no subject we really shy away from … Laughter and humor is a natural part of human coping mechanisms.” But, it’s not always easy to laugh More troubling than the national (and local) predisposition to rhetorically disemboweling one’s political opponents, now we find that there is spreading across the online and in-print worlds of political commentary a cavalier attitude toward punctuation. Capitalization is, of course, a lost cost, but now they’re trying to tear down punctuation. Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware who is now working on a book called “How Not to Write Bad,” outed the punctuation threat in Slate, here.

“For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks. This rule still holds for professionally edited prose: what you’ll find in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post [and, one hopes, The Martha’s Vineyard Times] — almost any place adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) or AP guidelines. But in copy-editor-free zones — the Web and emails, student papers, business memos — with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting.”

No, you hear the punctuation purists wail. Flay the opposition, if you must, never mind capitalization, LOL and BTW all you want, but don’t shift the punctuation paradigm. Leave us something.