Posted by: justawriter | September 9, 2009

Far Afield – Let’s be realistic about civility

Hardly a week goes by without hearing some pundit or the other bemoaning the lack of civility in the various political debates going on in government. This caterwauling is usually directed at whatever debate happens to be concerning Congress at the moment, but you hear the same song in a different key about every city, county or state council, commission or board at some time or another. Most of it is hogwash.
Don’t get me wrong, polite and considered debate is the grease that keeps the engine of government moving. The thing is, most of government’s work is decided smoothly and efficiently. It’s only when someone tries to gum up the gears that most people take notice of what’s going.
Conflict sells, and with the creation of 24-hour news networks, more conflict and controversy is needed to fill airtime and draw viewers. Good news gets short shrift when deciding what goes to air. When was the last time you saw a headline like, “schools safer than ever” or “plane arrives on time without incident”? Good news, sadly, is boring news.
I don’t hold anything against the networks for concentrating on politicians’ harsh words rather than the work they’ve accomplished. That’s just part of ratings game. What irritates me is the self-righteous punditry that harkens back to some imaginary golden age when lawmakers apparently engaged in Socratic debate on golden thrones like Olympian gods. They look at our current crop of lawmakers and weep crocodile tears that if they would just stop being so mean to one another, then something would get done.
What they are really saying is that if all these darned rabble-rousers would just sit down and shut up and agree with me, things would be much better. It is just a tactic to shut down debate without addressing the merits of the opposition’s arguments.
I don’t like this gambit for a couple of reasons. Not only is it a poor debating tactic but it also creates a false sense of United States history. We are led to believe that we are living in the most degraded period of history with small men and woman hurling vicious insults rather than coming together to solve problems. Well, as the song says, it ain’t necessarily so.
The fourth presidential election produced some of the dirtiest campaigning in history. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was portrayed as a tyrant who would march armies across the country burning churches and confiscating Bibles. Sound familiar? His vice president, Aaron Burr, fought a duel with arguably the most influential man in the rival Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton, and killed him.
I wonder what the pundits who bemoan every harsh word out of a lawmaker’s mouth would have made of Rep. Preston Brooks. Brooks, who represented South Carolina in the 1840s, took offense of a strongly worded abolitionist speech by Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Brooks marched off to the Senate and beat Sumner with a cane until he was bloody and unconscious. Another South Carolina representative brandished a gun to keep other senators from coming to Sumner’s aid. Brooks resigned from the House after the attack, but the good people of South Carolina re-elected him.
“Never has this country been so divided,” is a common cry of those seeking a more peaceable debate. They forget, I think, of that greatest incivility of all, the American Civil War. The nation suffered four bloody years of war, often with brother fighting brother. More than 600,000 people died – 2 percent of the total population at that time. Somehow I don’t think calling your opponent a dope measures up.
Pull out any era in this country’s history and you can probably find similar examples. After the Civil War, violent gangs such as the Klu Klux Klan went on a rampage of terrorism to keep blacks as second class citizens. Later, companies hired private armies of thugs to prevent their workers from joining unions. During the Depression the Army fired on WWI veterans, called the Bonus Army, who marched on Washington seeking early redemption of their service pensions so they could afford to eat. Even more recently were the dogs and fire hoses turned on marchers seeking equal rights in the South during the Civil Rights era.
This country has a long and bloody history. The miracle is that we, as a nation, have started to turn our back on that legacy. Since the 1970s, all sides have largely renounced violence as a means of political change. Those who choose violent methods are no longer lauded. They are hunted down like the common criminals they are and imprisoned or, if their crimes warrant, executed. The Eric Rudolphs and Timothy McVeighs of this era are not lionized and elected to public office.
So I say, let conflict ring out in the halls of Congress, on city councils and school boards. As long as the weapons are only words, vigorous partisan debate only makes this country stronger. For the lily-livered pundits who swoon into their fainting couches whenever they hear an idea described in harsh terms, like “dumb” I will leave the last word to Frederick Douglass:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

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