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Make Our Ugly Discourse Better: Join the Civilogue

5 years ago
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I cannot analyze the economic impact of the new health care law. Neither can I create a corporation to contribute millions of now-legal dollars to the candidates of my preference. I cannot transform the world. But I can do this:

I can knock down political nastiness when it presents itself to me. It is time to say "enough."

When partisans on the left try to tar their opponents as all agreeing with racists and thugs. And when partisans on the right attack their opponents by invoking Hitler, Stalin and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When either side accuses the sitting president (whoever that might be) of being a criminal -- absent actionable evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. When either side simply makes stuff up -- death panels and 911 conspiracies. Whether on the floor of Congress ("You lie!" or "It's a baby killer!) or on the pages of Facebook ("Our Democracy died at 12:01 AM Mar 22, funeral today on the White House lawn"). On the comments of a blog or the Op Ed pages of a newspaper. On the radio or the television, on YouTube or Twitter or MySpace.

It is time for those of us who still believe in the American experiment, who still believe that the passion of our disagreements need not overwhelm the common values that bind us, to take back the rhetoric. Every cliché becomes such because it contains an essential truth. So do not roll your eyes when I pull this one out: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." (Which was not first said by Edmund Burke, by the way.)

What do I call for? Action!

Any time you see or read or hear anybody step over the line, call them on it. Do it politely, with kindness and consideration. But do it clearly and cleanly, with a humble explanation of what they did wrong.

So when your liberal friend says "they're all like that" when she hears about a Tea Partier who utters a racial epithet, correct her gently. There are many people who are authentically disturbed about the power of government who are neither racists nor insane and can cite examples from history to support their fears.

And when your conservative friend compares Obama to Hitler and the health care bill to the USSR , correct him gently. Not all slopes are equally slippery. And the belief that government is the best solution to some of our biggest problems is an idea with a long and honorable American history -- one that includes notable successes.

Here's an example from last week. A Harris poll suggests that many millions of Americans -- largely but not exclusively Republicans -- believe things about President Obama that are demonstrably false or, I'm sorry, simply crazy: That he's Muslim, that he "wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government," that he may be the anti-Christ. I'm sure a similar poll taken three years ago would have identified somewhat smaller crowds with equally repugnant opinions about President Bush.

Friends, these are our neighbors, our colleagues, our relatives. They are not all stupid or nuts. Surely we can take a minute to let them know that this is not the right way to express legitimate anger against the people in charge.

Unless you have the kind of proof to the contrary that would convict a felon, assume that your opponent's motives are at least as pure as your own. That they want America to succeed and that they want the best for its people. That they are also patriots, even if they disagree as bitterly with you as did, say, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

I allow for no exceptions, even for humor. History's greatest satire, from Swift's "Modest Proposal" to the National Lampoon's fake VW ad attacking Ted Kennedy, is deadly in its accuracy and funny without pulling the reader into the mud. (I'm looking at you, Jon Stewart. Once in a while you go too far.)

Yes, this will require time and effort. Reply to every such example you stumble across, in person or online? It's a big job. I'm not calling for a reflexive "Howard Beale" angry bellow. Neither is it a wimpy risk-free descent into what is derisively called "political correctness." It will likely set you up for ridicule and attack from those who profit from or take pleasure in the poison.

Yes, there are such hateful people out there: bigots and idiots, the corrupt and the dishonest, traitors and thieves. They can be found in politics -- and among accountants, bartenders, CEOs and doctors. (And, to jump forward a few letters, journalists.) But just as you would not condemn yourself because others in your line of work have fallen, do not claim you have special insight into the range of sin within other professions.

Here is my manifesto:

To be wrong is not necessarily the same as to be evil. Those with whom I disagree count among their number many whose love of country and adherence to moral standards are as admirable as can be found in many who stand on my side.

I will defend their right to be utterly, totally wrong without having anyone cast aspersions on their ancestry, loyalty, or compassion -- even as I will demand that they recognize the same right for me. (As Pete Seeger put it in a 2003 recording of his anti-war song "Bring Them Home": "Isn't that the wonderful thing about America? You got a right to be wrong!")

I will assert this right at every opportunity. And where possible, I will correct simple errors of fact.

I'm an old-school journalist. That means I still believe someone who covers the news needs to make a powerful attempt at public objectivity. But there are matters about which there is no other hand. If I write about cancer treatments, I do not feel obliged to quote someone who is in favor of illness. And when it comes to the hateful, divisive, inaccurate, dishonest, hypocritical language that sets itself up as so much political discourse these days, I need not tweeze out some specious justification in the name of illusory "balance."

Lest I fall prey to the very ills I'm attacking, I will recognize here that there have been admirable efforts at civil disagreement during recent months among pundits and politicians and the general populace. Unfortunately, they've become as difficult to pick out from the background as a perfume bottle in a cesspool.

But there has been recent movement in High Places on the civility front. On a blog run by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, a spokesperson calls for a lowering of the heat (though there is a backhanded swat at pro-life Catholics who disagree with the bishops' understanding of legislative consequences). A broad swath of Christian leaders signed a "Civility Covenant" (though the signers tend to lean left and not to represent groups who have had a huge problem with civility). And even on the secular political front, apparently the Democrats tried to float a trial balloon statement in support of civility. That the GOP apparently shot down out of fear that, I dunno, there might be a political downside to agreeing to be civil. (Could a resolution in favor of apple pie get bipartisan support these days?)

That last example is proof that cleaning up the mess will not be easy. But it can be done. One polite rebuke at a time. We need a name, of course. I suggest "Civilogues," those whose speech is civil. Civilogues unite!

Who is with me?

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