Tuesday, January 18, 2011

James Fallows, civility, and me

When the recent brouhaha about Sarah Palin’s responsibility for the massacre in Arizona turned to talk of civility, James Fallows of the Atlantic asked for reader comments. He was kind enough to publish mine – though, as is his wont, anonymously. You can find them here and here.
Mr. Fallows’s willingness to republish my emails led directly to this blog – so he has, perhaps, a lot to answer for!

My two contributions follow:
I think the effort to bring ‘civility’ into public discourse is both doomed and ahistorical. Political rhetoric was much rougher in the 19th century, after all, and a greater proportion of the population was armed, yet political assassination was a remarkable rarity.

Note, too, that the rhetoric surrounding sporting events (and sometimes the events themselves – football, boxing) is quite violent: “Kill ’em”, “Kill the ump!” &c. Yet umpires and players are not often murdered in this country – or not on the field, anyway. Of course, the sport the rest of the world calls ‘football’ is quite different in this respect: how many other sports spark wars?

Most of us are perfectly capable of understanding that when Clinton, Begala, and Carville create a “war room” they're not actually plotting to kill Republicans. Ditto Palin’s ‘targeting’ – which is, after all, a very common metaphorical usage throughout American society (as is “blow x away”). To censor speech based on the evidence-free speculation that some words might just possibly nudge some lunatic to violence is irresponsible.

That having been said, I would like to see political debates which do not begin and end with the Left asserting that the Right is evil and the Right asserting that the Left is stupid. But see, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”: and Lord knows we have plenty of stupid politicians – and a long tradition of pointing that out.

On yet another hand, sometimes ad-hominem arguments are not out of place: Obama’s tobacco and fast-food habits do rather conflict with his wife’s enthusiastic hectoring of everyone else to eat more healthily.
Your correspondents on civility (and perhaps you, yourself) assume a level of reasonableness in public discourse that does not actually always exist. When, for instance, Dennis Kucinich inveighs against mind-control rays from outer space, the only reasonable response is, “You're an idiot.” Or when Charlie Rangel doesn't pay his taxes, what can one say but, “You’re a crook”? Ditto William Jefferson and his freezer cash. And when Clinton is shown to have had some kind of relations with Monica Lewinsky, how can one not say, “You’re a cad and a bounder”? One more: former Representive Paul Kanjorski’s explicit call to assassinate the now-current governor of Florida: “That Scott down there that’s running for governor of Florida. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him.” (See The Scranton Times-Tribune.)

I know all my examples are from the Left; consider it a corrective. Your readers will enthusiastically supply dexterous examples. However, I’m willing to bet a doughnut that they will not be able to find a Sarah Palin quote explicitly advocating the murder (as opposed to the ‘targeting’) of a Democratic politician.

Of course, most politicians are not so far removed from either reality or normal standards of adult behavior. Still, any standard of civility that prevents one from calling a spade a spade is likely to be either ignored or used by ne’er-do-wells to mask their misdoings.

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