Politics & Policy

Can Civility Be Lost If It Was Never Found?

Authentic civility requires some incivility.

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of cloth these days about the death of civility.

Apparently, like Cupid with his arrow or a pixie with fairy dust, some magical sprite used to enchant America’s political combatants, ensuring that all public discourse was full of beg-your-pardons and please-and-thank-yous. But we have offended our little leprechaun. He’s taken his Lucky Charms and gone home, leaving Americans angry, cranky, and rude.

Or at least that’s what I gather from all this talk of lost civility. Personally, I’m not sure I know what people are talking about. When was this Golden Age of civility?

Was this glorious era of politeness during George W. Bush’s presidency? Funny, that’s not how I remember it.

So maybe the 1990s was the last great outpouring of lovingkindness? Hmmm, no. At least I don’t think Clarence Thomas would say so. Nor do I think anyone who watched the Clinton show would claim it was a hallmark of sober debate on either side. Clinton’s minions attacked victims of his sexual aggression or revelations about his accomplices in his adultery as “bimbo eruptions.” Was civility the norm when Rep. Charlie Rangel said of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, “Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things”?

Was it the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was routinely dubbed a nuclear-trigger-happy “amiable dunce”? I was young then, so I’ll check with Robert Bork and see what he thinks.

Perhaps it was in the 1960s and 1970s? Sure, there was admirable civil disobedience in the beginning, but there was a lot more uncivil disobedience, what with all the domestic terror attacks and the protesters asking LBJ how many kids he killed today.

The 1950s? Who knew the McCarthy era was such a high-water mark of domestic tranquility? What about the 1930s? America saw its worst labor violence, and FDR had to put up with demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin (who attacked him from the left, by the way). How about the 1910s, when Woodrow Wilson threw political opponents in jail? Or in 1919, when he dubbed “hyphenated Americans” (i.e. German-Americans) traitors? “I cannot say too often — any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic. . . . If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic.”

Okay, enough of all that.

And yes, let me offer a sincere denunciation of rudeness for rudeness’s sake. Let me also concede that there is no shortage of bilious, nasty rhetoric on the right.

But here’s the thing. First, it was ever thus. American democracy has always been a hurly-burly. More important, a lot of the complaints about incivility today are really complaints from the people in power or their supporters in the media, aimed at the folks who won’t shut up and get with their program.

And there’s something distinctly undemocratic about that.

The civility caterwaulers claim that Obama’s opponents are trying to “delegitimize” the president, often suggesting that such efforts are racist. But what some see as delegitimization, others see as criticism. What strikes me as truly uncivil is the effort to demonize critics of the president with racial bullying.

In fact, I think Obama really does have a problem with dissent. In August he said: “I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to get out of the way.  . . . I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking.”

On health care he’s been saying the time for debating his plan is over, even though the president didn’t even have a plan to debate.

Now his White House is targeting Fox News and urging other news outlets to ostracize it. Does any serious person in America believe that if Fox News were supportive of the president’s agenda, this White House would be bemoaning the network’s lack of objectivity?

Democracy is about disagreement, arguments. Citizenship in America requires speaking your mind. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment always envisioned a partisan press. “Objective” journalism is a 20th-century confabulation, as alien to the Founders’ vision as transporter beams and time travel.

Civility came to mean politeness in the 16th century; before that it meant being a citizen. It seems to me that authentic civility requires some incivility.

– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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