The state of the national conversation

What do you call an ad hominem attack when it's made against a woman? That's the question that popped into my mind the other day when I read a reader e-mail taking issue with a story by one of the women on our staff.

The message didn't discuss ideas or facts. Its tone was acid and the criticisms intensely personal, and directed to my colleague specifically as a woman.

Almost all reader comment can be useful to a news organization, and most of us learn more from our critics than our flatterers.

But in this case I responded, "This message is beyond the pale of civil discourse and is being deleted."

What's happening to the national conversation in America? Why are so many people screaming?

Do people say things on a recorded message or in an e-mail form that they wouldn't say face to face with another live human being? Similarly, do political actors say things of their opponents that they wouldn't otherwise, because their real audience is the 24/7 news cycle?

This is a time of national soul-searching; we are caught in a war in Iraq, and it's not clear how we will get out.

Many people are frightened, angry, or dismayed - perhaps because they see an administration in Washington that has lost its compass, or because they feel those pesky liberal media just won't give President Bush credit for any of the good that is going on.

We've seen Rep. Jack Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania break down in tears as he called for withdrawal of US forces from Iraq "at the earliest practicable date."

We've heard Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) of Ohio booed off the House floor for insinuating that Mr. Murtha was a coward who would "cut and run." Now we read that she's apologized.

Much of the president's trip to Asia was consumed with damage control, and then damage control for the damage control.

The White House staff at some point realized that comparing Murtha, a decorated former marine and staunch advocate of the military, to "ultraliberal" filmmaker Michael Moore was too risible to be an effective response to Murtha's call for an exit strategy.

Since then, both Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have taken the high road of commending Murtha's character, even as they dispute him on policy. Whew.

Reality check: Washington hasn't yet fallen back to the low point it reached on May 22, 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the chamber of the just-adjourned US Senate and beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a passionate voice against slavery, into unconsciousness.

It would take a while after the Civil War for public discourse to get back to the level Abraham Lincoln suggested in his Second Inaugural: "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Meanwhile - how do you say "ad hominem" (literally, "to the man") when you are referring to a woman?

Some experts stoutly maintain that the neologism is unnecessary, because the "man" in this sense is generic; that is, better translated for moderns as "person."

Others say there's a need for a specific feminine form, and the locution that seems to be catching on is "ad feminam."

And that would have been the way to characterize the blast from our uncivil reader.

This weekly column appears with links at /verbal_energy

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