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Tucson Shooting: A Call for 'National Political Civility Month'

3 years ago
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Maybe the biggest frustration for most people after an inexplicable event like the Arizona massacre is finding something to do other than condemn and mourn. I have an idea.

I've always considered Black History Month to be unfortunate, in a way. Given how inextricably the history of blacks is entwined with the history of America and the world, what's the point of a separate month? As if we needed, say, an "Agricultural History Month." Is it possible to understand American history without understanding the history of American farming?

And yet, I get it. There's a reason to focus attention on that which would otherwise not get a look. And black history was too long all but ignored in this country. In that spirit, I suggest that January be named, now and forever, National Political Civility Month.

Yes, I'm reacting to the horror of the Arizona shootings. But I'm not blaming that terrible event on the poisonous incivility in our political discourse.

The accused shooter was clearly unbalanced. Based on his writings, he might have been set off by a dangling participle or the difficulty of obtaining gold coins. If he eventually says that he did it because of voices from Alpha Centauri, that would not be cause to change the way we do astronomy.

Sarah Palin was right about that in her Facebook address. (Though she was dead wrong in her use of "blood libel." Leave aside the religious and historical baggage the term carries. The phrase doesn't mean what she used it for. A blood libel, broadly speaking, is a lie told about a group of people with the intent to provoke or justify an attack, usually physical. Nobody is suggesting that Palin et al intended to provoke an attack. Not all libels associated with violence can accurately be called blood libels.)

I'm suggesting, instead, a way to honor and memorialize the victims. Jon Stewart, who once again rose above a tragedy to speak truth, said this on the Monday after the shooting:

"Wouldn't it be a shame if we didn't take this opportunity, and the loss of these incredible people, and the pain that their loved ones are going through right now, wouldn't it be a shame if we didn't take that moment to make sure that the world that we are creating now, that will ultimately be shattered again by a moment of lunacy, wouldn't it be a shame if that world wasn't better than the one we'd previously lost?"

So let us honor values exemplified by the woman who was the target of the attack.

On the day before she was shot, the AP reports, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sent this note to the new head of the Harvard Institute of Politics:

"After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation. I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down."

And last year, she spoke on MSNBC after the door of her district office was kicked out in the middle of the night.
"I mean, most of the country is in the middle. But we do have, you know, these polarized parts of our parties that really get excited. And that's where, again, community leaders -- not just, you know, the political leaders -- but all of us have to come together and say, okay, you know, there's a fine line here."

It's easy after an event like this to turn victims into martyrs and people into saints. I've never met Giffords. I assume she has her positive attributes and her flaws. But everything I can find makes it clear that she was civil when civility wasn't cool. And has been that way as long as she'd been in public life.

January is a good month to promote political civility for other reasons. It's the month when the president is inaugurated and when a new Congress is seated. It's also the month that Mohandas Gandhi, the "great souled" Mahatma, was assassinated. And it is the month we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like Gandhi, King is useful as a reminder that there need be nothing weak about civility. King's critique of American society was pointed, specific, and even heated. But just as he was steadfast in his use of nonviolent civil disobedience and protest, his use of language famously did not stray to the cruel or vicious or dehumanizing.

Read his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It is angry and passionate and painfully explicit in its indictments of racism. It is also relentlessly, even defiantly civil in its every ringing clause.

How would we celebrate the month? By reading King. And appropriate passages from Paine and Jefferson. ("Common Sense" was first published in January.) And maybe some satire. A "Modest Proposal," perhaps? Schoolkids could take part in an essay contest to write the most strongly worded, passionate argument that does not stray over into dehumanizing or delegitimizing their opponents.

We could have "civility fun runs" where nobody's toes get stomped. Civility-themed reality shows where everybody survives. A Civility Bowl for two college football teams somehow overlooked by all of the other bowls. Debates on the most heated topics of the day -- civilogues, if you will -- where speakers demonstrate they need not spew poison to make their points. Hey, this is a country that knows how to party. I have no doubt that we'd be able to figure out how to have fun in the name of civility.

Sure, it would be no more than symbolic. Just like the Fourth of July and Presidents Day and Thanksgiving are no more than symbolic. Symbols are worth what we make of them.

As President Obama put it during Wednesday night's memorial service in Tuscon:

"And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

So how about it, you who declare official months? Is there a member of Congress who would like to take this up? A governor? Mayor? City council member? A newspaper editorial board? A foundation? A philanthropist? Bill O'Reilly? The Daily Show?

It would beat the heck out of hand wringing.

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