When I first heard that my 'Goodbye Girl
'-era crush Richard Dreyfuss
was coming to town to push civility and literacy in civics
– hey, just like we are
! – I couldn't have been more excited if Colin Firth
had challenged me to a game of Scrabble
. But then Slate's Dave Weigel
had to go and drag out some ancient interview Dreyfuss gave Joy Behar
(OK, this was three months ago) explaining that to "play Dick Cheney,'' in the movie "W.
," all I had to do was find my Dick Cheney
. And you can find all the villainy in the world in your own heart, and that's what an actor's job is. I always say to kids, inside you is Hitler and Jesus. And you got to find the appropriate person and bring them out.''
The guy Dreyfuss brought out at a National Press Club speech this week was erudite and provocative, but not exactly the Ron Howard
nicenik I was expecting.
"There should be an IQ test for those lawmakers" with no sense of history, he says as I'm walking in, "or at least, an island to send them to.''
His purpose in taking up a second career creating a civics curriculum? "What I want to do is ignite your outrage and (convince you) how much villains take advantage of your lack of outrage." (Really, we don't have enough outrage?)
And which villains? "People who interrupt the person they're interviewing, or call them names."
Someone in the audience asks what he thought of MSNBC's Ed Schultz
saying of Cheney, "He's an enemy of this country, Lord; take him to the Promised Land.'' Was that civil, in his opinion?
"That's not uncivil; civility is not not
saying negative or harsh things; it's not an absence of critical analysis; it's the manner" in which we communicate.
Yes, and much of Dreyfuss's argument I buy completely; Americans would without question argue better if we had even the kind of basic grasp of history that would discourage us from ever comparing anything to the Holocaust. (And wouldn't it be exciting to expand our range of Other Awful Events from which to choose?)
But is Dreyfuss himself being less than civil? Well, there are few enough of us who even aspire to the kind of civil dialogue Politics Daily's Jeffrey Weiss has dubbed "the Civilogue
" without trying to define anybody out of the club. (Next thing you know I'd be eyeballing people in the communion line, self-appointed arbiter of correct Catholicism with a possible sideline in sizing up patriotism.)
Certainly Dreyfuss's definition of civility is broader than my own. (What Weiss wrote on the topic is as good a definition as I've seen anywhere: "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.'')
But the difference in how we view civil speech raises more questions than I have easy answers for: Does civility preclude all
name-calling? Was that radical Jesus civil when he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple? Can one be both civil and a provocateur? (OK, that one is easy.) And how to tell righteous anger from plain old self-indulgence? (Hard, if you ask me.)
In an interview after his speech, Dreyfuss said it isn't as though he feels all the good guys are on the left and all the baddies on the right; his own politics and positions, in fact, are changing all the time.
He founded the Dreyfuss Initiative
, he said, after the 2000 election – but maybe not for the reason I'd think. "It was the reaction to it,'' that bothered him, "the reaction that Bush was a villain and I thought no, we are the villain because we can't sustain curiosity!''
The following pronouncement nearly landed him a spot on my "villain" list: "I don't read the news or watch TV as I did; I'm so wary of the hidden pressures'' on the result.
But there's no denying that just as civility breeds more of the same, so, too, do rudeness and know-nothingism, in the media as in life. Of TV talkers, he said, "If you interrupt you don't know what your opponent is thinking, and not everything is reduced to a sound bite or something that can be expressed within a short amount of time.'' Civility, of course, requires a lot of that. And a fair amount of trial and error.
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