"Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn't require that vigorous advocacy be avoided.... What civility requires is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on one another." -- Former congressman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), in an op-ed, quoted in "Can a new 'civility institute' calm political rancor?"
Obviously, in a country of more than 300 million people, many of whom have access to the Internet, examples of extremism, hypocrisy and dishonesty are virtually endless, and will never disappear. But one does hope that among political and journalistic professionals, and among enlightened members of the public, the atmosphere can improve.
I thought Obama hit just the right notes at his speech in Tuscon, and since he reportedly stayed up much of the night writing the speech himself, it obviously came from his heart. As a number of my conservative friends remarked, "He was presidential." Words for all of us to keep in mind:
"To sharpen our instincts for empathy...(to) make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” Mr. Obama said. “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle." Text.
In the age of the Internet, where billions of people can speak their mind, there will always be unreasonable and extremist voices out there. By reacting so frequently -- indeed by defining ourselves mostly in reaction -- we give extremist voices the thing they desire most -- attention -- and don't communicate what we really stand FOR in a positive way, just what we stand against.
That sort of clear-eyed, even-handed, common sense commentary exemplifies the “discussion” some of the town criers around here claimed to be conducting, even as they seized the earliest unwarrantable opportunity to smear the victims’ blood on the hands of their chosen political targets. Their shamelessness in that regard apparently has no limits.
You and I are probably miles apart politically but I agree completely with what you said, and have tried to convey the same message (quite unsuccessfully) since this thing began. Actually you haven’t really said much at all over and above what could be said based on what is known,, which is why it makes so much sense.
It is good to know that there are people remaining on both sides who can disagree on most issues yet refrain from trying to rip the opposition’s throat out in blame every time some random lunatic snaps, or at the very least wait until some semblance of supportable evidence comes to light. Hearing you alone (I think)on the left echoing my exact sentiments gives me some badly-needed hope because the depths of the political sewer-dwelling on this one is among the most indecent and depressing of any “discussion” I think I have ever followed around here, from people who I thought were above it.
The sewer is always out there for anyone who wishes to dwell in it. I know "liberal" activists who have long since abandoned Daily Kos because of the acerbic attacks on them and on Obama from the left. I used to be disturbed by the Internet's empowering of the voices of the fringes. And yet I don't think they represent a statistically larger percentage of people than they did before the Internet was invented.
It's easy to attack one's opponents at their weakest point, to presume their motives are always base or self-serving, to denigrate and demean through distortion and ad hominem attacks. That's a kind of pollution. The challenge is to honestly wrestle with their strongest points.
Some of us define ourselves by what we are against, the unreasonableness of the left or the right. But it's impossible to sustain that outrage on a daily basis forever -- at some point you do have to look inward and see the flaws in your own logic.
Joel Achenbach: "Will Obama's appeal to the better angels of our nature succeed? It hasn't yet. It probably never will. Because the market favors rancor. The technology favors the judgment-rushers, the instant reaction, which by definition can't be terribly thoughtful. The TV ratings favor the furious."
Living outside the United States, I have far less interest in the hyper-partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans, as reflected on Fox News, MSNBC, on blogs and talk radio. Living abroad and seeing real, deep-seated, historic conflicts and ethnic strife among peoples, I'm struck by how many values Americans on the right and left hold IN COMMON. Living outside the US certainly makes me far more aware of what it means to be an American, how blessed we are as a nation to be largely free from the centuries of ethnic antagonisms of Europe and the Middle East. Compared to other countries, we have a democracy that functions quite well and a government that is relatively transparent, relatively free of corruption, and I believe, relatively free of the dark secretive alleged conspiracies of powerful anti-democratic "deep state" groups that fuel paranoia in Turkey and other nations. (Fortunately, Turkey is now doing a good job of removing the "deep state" cancer from its body politic and seeking to become more democratic.) Even considering the Great Recession, the material blessings that most people in America enjoy are far greater than most other nations. Yet we take so many of our gifts for granted.
Sure there are Americans who believe there is a secretive, conspiratorial "deep state" consisting of high-ranking elements of the CIA, FBI, corporate interests, Congress, the media, the courts and the federal bureaucracy that, for example, may have assassinated John F. Kennedy, that led the U.S. into Vietnam and Iraq to increase corporate profits, that directs an imperialistic foreign policy around the world, that bails out Wall Street while average citizens are left to sink or swim on their own, that engages in violence against dissidents, and that plants evidence against innocent people. I'm not one to believe in these conspiracy theories; I don't believe there is generally enough evidence to support such wild accusations.
Political bickering in the U.S. is frequently driven by what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of small differences," in which negative feelings "are sometimes directed at people who resemble us," and we "take pride in the 'small differences' between us." As Marion Maneker pointed out, "a dispassionate
observer of U.S. politics would have trouble locating the kinds of divisions that used
to drive elections. Since 1994, we have had a de facto political consensus around a form of libertarianism." She links to a George Will article in The New York Times in 2007 that illustrated this point.
Recent examples: the same Republicans who vilify Obama and the Democrats for the health care law have supported changes in the health care system that were just as significant and far more disruptive. Both parties express far more concern about deficits racked up by "the other party." Part of the problem may be that American media magnify conflicts and differences among people because conflict is more interesting than disagreement. And part of the partisan warfare is not about differences over principles but simply a struggle for power between factions.
At the end of the day, we all ought to be able to shake hands, sup together, and realize we are all part of the same American tribe or family.
"What Sen. Kennedy profoundly understood was that we are a nation of incrementalists who like our progress in bite-size pieces," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former chief of staff in the Reagan White House. "He made the art of compromise not a four-letter word and yet, for many [outside Congress] it is."
Rising above political caricature to try to truly listen and understand where a person is coming from politically is more difficult than it used to be. But I was impressed by the statements of various political adversaries, including Joe Biden, after the death of Jesse Helms in 2008. As I wrote then, Helms' memorial service revealed a man of considerable complexity, not a cardboard cutout of a racist.
Kim, a poster over at Ed Cone's blog, pretty well captures the back and forth "debate" between liberals and conservatives in online discussion groups:
"gotcha...no, I got you...gotcha...no, I got you...gotcha...no, I got you...YAWN...BIG SIGH."
Online debates can be informative, challenging and stimulating, but rarely do they lead to a meeting of the minds. In person, there is usually peer pressure if not internalized pressure to meet others half way, to acknowledge they are right about some things, to show your manners, your generosity, your willingness to listen.
Online discussions have opposite pressures -- to score another point for your side with a brilliant insight or sharp quip, to one-up, to have the last word. These discussions end not when people agree, or even when they agree to disagree, but when they simply run out of steam (energy) or participants get bored by the repetitive circular arguments.
I saw a cartoon in which wife asks husband why he is staying up so late. "I have to finish this debate," he says. "Someone on the Internet is WRONG." To persuade all the people on the Internet of the errors of their ways is quite an undertaking!
The kind of name-calling, shouting and mob action we've seen in recent days (as illustrated in the video clip from Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show above) is the result of "progressives" and "conservatives" not engaging in enough dialogue and understanding each other's point of view. "Conservatives" are panicked because they know the Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a large majority in the House, and can ram through major legislation without their input. Sure, some of them are acting hysterically, making ridiculous and bogus charges about the pending health insurance reform legislation. And some overly passionate supporters of the legislation have reacted hysterically as well.
Sometimes I wonder if Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News, MSNBC and certain bloggers who routinely demonize the opposition would like to see America dissolve into civil war because it would be great for ratings and hits.
The fact is that many of the concerns about health care reform expressed on blogs and at town meetings held by members of Congress -- particularly about the depth of the proposed changes, the broad lack of understanding (even among progressives), and the true cost of the legislation -- are legitimate. "Act in haste and repent in leisure" is an axiom we all need to ponder at this stage.
I'd like to see at least several more weeks of consideration of health insurance reform legislation by Congress, at least until I feel I have a working grasp of it, understand it, and can explain the major provisions myself.
I know the fear among supporters of the legislation is that the longer we delay passage, the easier it will be for lobbyists and "astroturf" groups to rally special interests to scuttle it. And that health care reform has been discussed and discussed for 60 years. But I think the greater danger at this point is if the people who need to understand the 1,000-page legislation haven't fully absorbed it and can't confidently explain the general principles, much less the details, or the unintended consequences.
Continued dialogue is important, an essential part of democracy. If nothing else, it helps sharpen one's own thinking. That's why I'm venturing out to other blogs to discuss health insurance reform legislation.
Staying insulated in a partisan echo chamber does not help one develop or sharpen critical thinking skills. Justice Learned Hand once said that "the spirit of democracy begins with the notion that I might be wrong."
I'm sure I'm wrong about some things. I've lived long enough to know that I have been wrong about some things. My mind has changed about some things. I'm sure you're wrong about some things. I'm sure your mind has changed about some things. No one, no political ideology has a corner on absolute truth.
Near Greensboro, NC, News-Record reporter Joe Killian was kicked
and knocked to the ground by a hostile McCain supporter at a Sarah Palin
event. Read his account on his blog. Just as disturbing are some of the reactions from McCain-Palin supporters. "It made my day to read about Joe getting kicked in the leg at a Sarah Palin rally," said one. ""I wasn't there to determine whether it was deserved," said another, an attorney who should know better. (Source.)
In Sacramento County, CA, the Republican Party posted on its OFFICIAL party Web site material linking Sen. Obama to Osama bin Laden and encouraging people to "waterboard
Barack Obama." After even state GOP leaders were offended, the party has removed the material.
Sam Spagnola, Greensboro lawyer and blogger, lies that Obama "urged his supporters to engage in violent confrontations." This statement is comparable to his assertion that Hillary Clinton seriously called for Obama's assassination. Sam's educated, a lawyer, and should know better than to stoop to this crappola. In the heat of political battle, some hyper-partisan hotheads are losing all credibility. (Update: Sam claims he was just being sarcastic, and didn't mean the statements seriously, but his sarcasm is lost on me.)
Meanwhile, the charming and humorous Christopher Buckley, son of Bill (who I always liked and found intellectually stimulating), has resigned from the board of the National Review after endorsing Barack Obama. For that, he was blanketed with hate mail. "I have been effectively fatwahed by the conservative movement,” he says. "The only thing the Right can’t quite decide is whether I should be boiled in oil or just put up against the wall and shot. Lethal injection would be too painless." (Source)
He writes that his colleague at the NR, Kathleen Parker, "had written in NRO that she felt Sarah Palin was an embarrassment. (Hardly an alarmist view.) This brought 12,000 livid emails, among them a real charmer suggesting that Kathleen’s mother ought to have aborted her and tossed the fetus into a dumpster."
This is not to say that intolerance only emerges from one side. As CM points out on Ed Cone's blog, "intolerance is an equal opportunity emotion," pointing to a video of uncivil treatment McCain supporters received in New York City. At that small McCain rally in NYC, "a hostile local grabbed a woman's sign, broke it and hit her in the face," according to Politico.com. Republican Fred Gregory posted a link to that story in response to a video Ed posted of uncivil treatment Obama fans received from McCain supporters.
And certainly John McCain was correct when he stated in the third and final debate that if you attract a crowd of 20,000 people, there are likely to be a few bad-behaving fringe elements.
But civility and mutual respect -- even the fun -- of intellectual stimulation from political debate -- seems to be in short supply this year. We would all do well to remember the wise words of Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand: "The spirit of democracy begins with the notion that I might be wrong."