My monthly take on Our Community, Our State, Local Events & Politics

I talk often about the need for civility in politics and society as a whole.  Some of this is because of my position as a county commissioner.  Some of it is simply because I see a lot on television and (prior to last month) social media that concerns me for our direction as a nation.  I have often said that Wyoming is what the U.S. used to be.  I’m sure this can be attributed to a very bright speaker; unfortunately, I can’t find the one to directly credit it to – my sincere thanks for a very succinct analogy.

In many ways, this remains true.  Wyoming is a place where you can come, work hard, and be rewarded.  Many of our residents still have the work ethic that built America.  As time goes on, however, there are many other ways in which we are starting to look more like the larger U.S. – and in some ways like parts of the nation and world that Wyomingites would likely openly refer to negatively.  One of the most noticeable changes in Wyoming is the decay of common decency, civility, and general respect for government and elected officials.

I find the need to have to put the above in writing disheartening.  Yes, there have been many elected officials who have given the service a bad name.  However, I also find it ironic that many who claim to be strongly American and are upset over the trajectory of the U.S., Wyoming, and Campbell County, to be some of the worst offenders and who have most contributed to the decay of our great state.  You can’t claim to be a proud American defending our rights, liberties, and the Constitution, while at the same time displaying actions which show you have little understanding of what America stands for.

The founders were tired of being under the thumb of a tyrannical government when declaring our independence from the British.  For this reason, they enshrined in the First Amendment a freedom of speech for all Americans.  As stated in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It has been said many times, that in order to have free speech for all, you have to protect the most vile of speech.  However, I would not say that those who spew vile speech are patriots or engaging in “American” behavior.  Though they may have the right, they have the responsibility to engage in decent and appropriate discussion.  That’s the difference between America and the rest of the world.  What do I consider decent and appropriate?  I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we speak honestly and plainly.  I also think that we should not misconstrue or seek to confuse the electorate.

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Recently, our county commission adopted broad guidelines (what some will say are “rules”) for offering public comment to the Board.  It’s a sad state of affairs to have to enumerate in written form common decency, but that is the point at which we find ourselves in Campbell County.  What are we asking?  Not to address specific members of the board, but instead the board as a whole.  Not to use profane language.  To try and be brief.  Not to use the public comment opportunity as a time to engage in personal attacks. 

What I think many forget is that the founding fathers believed in a right to free speech, but they also believed heavily in decorum.  In preparation for this month’s piece, I spent time reading Jefferson’s 1801 Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States.  It has been incorporated into a document by the Senate which was most recently updated in 1993.  It’s voluminous – 161 half pages.  Jefferson, an undisputed American, founding father, and patriot, believed that in order for there to be a good government, there also had to be a sense of decorum and expectations of behavior in the sacred chambers of the Senate.

I feel the same about the Chambers of the Board of County Commissioners.  Though, those who wish to offer public comment are free to do so, it’s not too much to ask that you rightly display respect for the Board, the government it represents, and the room in which you are sitting.  I’m not asking you to respect me.  I ask that you respect your government.

You can feel angry with your government and you can offer advice on how to fix it.  Even still, you should respect and appreciate that you live in a country that protects your freedom enough to allow you to have direct one-on-one conversations with the government and its elected officials.  You may speak directly and honestly to those with power, but you need to do so in a respectful manner. 

Unfortunately, people forget that the decorum is what allows the business of government to get done.  There is a reason the Senate forbids its members from talking directly to each other – and the same of those offering testimony – it helps to prevent bringing petty arguments and disagreements to a place deserving of respect.  According to the manual, “In Senate every member, when he speaks, shall address the chair standing in his place, and when he has finished shall sit down.  […]  No person is to use indecent language against the proceedings of the house […]  No person in speaking, is to mention a member then present by his name; but to describe him by his seat in the house, or who spoke last, or on the other side of the question […] nor to digress from the matter to fall upon the person.”

Why would Jefferson and the Senate focus so much on decorum?  Because it’s hard to sit in the Senate chambers and do work with somebody who just called you an S.O.B.  If you allow that kind of discussion, the work never gets done for the country – because when the people make it personal, the personal feelings make it hard to get the work done.  An “American” knows that decorum is important.  >An “American” also knows that in order to have a respectful conversation, both sides have to be respectful.

 

The Caning of Senator     Charles Sumner –May 22, 1856

On May 22, 1856, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate’s entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate Chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.

The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.”  Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina

kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.

Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away.  Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions.

Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37. Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.

Courtesy of U.S. Senate: Public Domain
Caning of Sumner
Image: NY Public Library

This is the difference between the U.S. and parliaments and other bodies of government around the world.  We look upon other countries where their members are throwing chairs at each other, choking each other, talking over each other, as deeply un-American.  This is because we have been given a framework and an example of what it should be.  And for it to be that, it needs to be respectful.  There have been times when decorum wasn’t observed and it caused problems.  I have included a story about a “caning” in the Senate chambers 156 years ago next to this piece.  As you read it, stop and think to yourself, how did this happen?

I personally feel it should come as no surprise that parts of our government are getting very little done.  They have failed to observe the necessary decorum and now it is too hard to work together.  This isn’t just a problem at the federal level: lobbyists and groups within Wyoming have contributed equally to the problems we have.  Citizens who come and offer comments that are inappropriate by standards of decorum have done the same at other levels.

I also find it unsurprising that we are having problems as a society in general.  Part of this is the lack of decorum that we have all contributed to via social media.  I generally believe if you aren’t willing to say it to somebody’s face, you probably shouldn’t say it on social media.  If it’s inappropriate and you’re still willing to say it to their face, you’re probably not a decent person… that’s on you.  I left Facebook last month and I don’t see myself ever going back.  I’m more productive, happier, and spending a lot more time on the things that are important.

Where do we go from here?  Think twice before you post something hateful or vile or stupid.  Don’t put out clickbait you know to be false.  If you’re running for office, focus on what you can bring, rather than making up things about the other guy.  Make the right decision, even if it isn’t the popular one.  Live your life so that when you get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, you can say, “that’s a person of integrity”.

Mr. Christensen is a Gillette real estate developer, owner of a holding company which owns this publication, and member of the Campbell County Board of Commissioners. Mr. Christensen is married with two children and lives in Gillette. He has a B.S. in Finance from the University of Wyoming and a M.S. in Real Estate and Construction Management from the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

Mr. Christensen’s opinions do not reflect the opinions of this publication, the boards upon which he sits, or any organizations or agencies referenced within his comments.

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