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Civility and Honesty

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

We missed President Obama’s speech last Wednesday in Tucson. We were at dinner celebrating Jessica’s birthday. I read about it later in the evening, have seen a few clips, and have read a lot of commentary, but I still haven’t gotten around to watching it in full online. Among the commentary, I was particularly struck by the praise by one of Obama’s most persistent, articulate, and forceful critics, Gary Wills, who in The New York Review of Books the next day called it Obama’s finest hour. Wills, who has written a book on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, connects the two speeches:

Obama came to the speech from the bedsides of those who had been wounded. Their message to him was one of dedication: “They believed, and I believe, that we can be better.” This rang a bell with me. It reminded me of the lesson of the fallen that Lincoln took from Gettysburg—“that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” At Gettysburg Lincoln might have been expected to defend the North and blame the South—which is what Edward Everett did in the speech preceding his. Rather, the bulk of his speech was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them.

Lincoln might have been expected in his Second Inaugural Address to trumpet the gains of the North and the setbacks to the South. Instead, he invited all Americans to grieve for the tragic war and to share blame for the historical crime of slavery. God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Death should forge a bond among the living. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.” Obama stepped around the obvious and divisive sifting of wrongs done, to urge the doing of right.

I don’t wish to violate this spirit, which is perhaps one reason I have been mute for the past week. We’re all being told we need to be civil. Okay, I’m being civil.

But listen, being civil doesn’t mean being quiet. Being civil doesn’t mean you can’t point out errors, lies, and falsehoods. Being civil doesn’t mean that you have to read lame columns by David Brooks and his ilk and agree. Speaking of which, last Friday, in his NYT column, Brooks wrote:

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.

President Obama’s speech in Tucson was a good step, but there will have to be a bipartisan project like comprehensive tax reform to get people conversing again. Most of all, there will have to be a return to modesty.

Here we go again. Those selfish athletes, liberal parents, and their self-centered children! Really? Is that the problem? What about limited gun control? What about a political establishment that won’t even talk about guns, except to say that guns don’t kill, people do. What about huge corporate and wealthy individual support for mental Neanderthals who support the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the elimination of regulation? What about the banishment of science, reason, and logic in favor of faith in a god who (proponents say) assures us that we can do whatever we wish to the earth, so let’s not worry? And what about the leading cable station airing lies 24 hours a day, claiming to provide fair and balanced coverage when it is in fact an arm of an extreme political party? (I know, I have it backwards. The party is in fact an arm of it.) And what about the mainstream media not being willing to call lies lies, but preferring to hide behind “he says, she says” coverage? Sure, let’s be civil. But let’s be honest too.

Actually, now that I think back, I realize that in counterpoint to David Brooks, Paul Krugman had a column last Thursday that is much closer in its thoughts to my own views. No surprise that I would agree with Krugman over Brooks. But he seems to be addressing reality in a more serious way.

Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

Read it all.

As for the Ted Rall cartoon at the top — sorry, I couldn’t resist. It is telling commentary in its own way, about Obama and about our country.

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