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Civility Lite: Civil — Yet Robust — Discourse

When someone goes way over the line, reaction will force retraction. But most of the time debate should be "uninhibited, robust and wide open."

by
John C. Wohlstetter

Bio

January 18, 2011 - 11:12 pm

In his Tucson speech at the memorial service for the victims of the horrific shooting attack by a mentally deranged man, President Obama stated that while lack of civility in America’s political discourse did not motivate the shooter, public discourse would be improved were more civility shown by participants in the debate. Liberals instantly blamed the right’s “incivility” for the horror in Tucson.

It is hard to quarrel with a call for civility. And surely some especially extreme formulations are out of bounds. In 2005, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said of treatment of detainees at Guantanamo meted out by American personnel:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings.

Durbin was pressured to apologize for likening Guantanamo jailers to genocidal regimes, and did so. This episode did not prevent Durbin from being one of the few high-ranking politicians to blame the shootings on inflammatory rhetoric by prominent conservatives. High-powered liberal pundits were the prime culprits.

Target Number One was Sarah Palin, who was blamed by prominent leftists for the incident even before the name of the shooter was known, let alone his motives. It turned out that the shooter was a paranoid schizophrenic who was entirely apolitical. He had been stalking Rep. Gabrielle Giffords since a 2007 encounter, and according to friends paid no attention whatsoever to cable TV or talk radio. His world was, in effect, his own deranged mind.

Yet Palin was even blamed for her own response to a fusillade of attacks on her, especially for using the term “blood libel.” That term has a specific meaning in Jewish history — false accusations that Jews drink the blood of non-Jewish children on Passover — but has acquired a broader secondary meaning in domestic political discourse. It denotes accusations that are maliciously, outrageously false. The charges against Palin fit the bill perfectly.

Palin made an important historical point: From the earliest days of the American republic debate has frequently been nasty, including duels. Andrew Jackson killed several people in duels defending the honor of his wife, Rachel, before he became president. Indeed, the debates around the time of the founding were often conducted under pseudonyms. The Federalist Papers, in which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton — killed by Aaron Burr in a duel — and John Jay made the public case for ratifying the Constitution, were all published under the pen name Publius. Today’s 24/7 Internet world with millions of blogs has given us at worst to-date hacking into online accounts, including Palin’s.

Use of martial metaphors has long been common in political campaigns. Liberals cite Sarah Palin’s cross-hairs ad targeting Democratic candidates. They ignore the Democratic National Committee’s own bulls-eye ads during President Bush’s re-election campaign. There is zero evidence that such terms prompted any of the violence against political figures in recent decades. JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was a deranged Marxist; RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan was a Palestinian militant angry at RFK’s support for Israel; Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray was a white racist; would-be assassins of Gerald Ford were an ex-Manson-gang female member (Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme) and a deranged woman (Sara Jane Moore). Would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster. The last member of Congress assassinated, California Rep. Leo Ryan, was killed in Guyana in 1978 by followers of cultist Jim Jones, whose acolytes then committed mass suicide.

In the landmark 1964 libel case New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court erected a high legal wall to libel suits brought against the press by plaintiffs deemed public figures, justifying their ruling by stating that in a free society debate must be “uninhibited, robust and wide open.” A debate which caters to every sensitivity by eliminating even use of images like the “bulls-eye” would be a sleep-inducing affair limited to goody two-shoes exchanges. Even the term “campaign” is itself a martial metaphor. Do we want this?

Yes, some formulations are rightly shunned — racial epithets, profanity, Nazi (“Bush-Hitler”), Communist. Such outbursts add nothing useful to debate. In January 2005 Howard Dean said: “I hate Republicans and everything they stand for!” In February 2005 — the very month that the former Vermont governor was elected chairman of the Democratic Party — Dean said: ”This is a struggle between good and evil and we’re the good.” Liberals in the main agree.

Yes, I have focused on the left’s abuse; there is abuse from the right as well. But because liberal pundits and bloggers went ballistic in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, such examples serve as a corrective. Invective is everywhere and always has been. When someone goes way over the line, reaction will force retraction. But most of the time debate should be as ever “uninhibited, robust and wide open,” with lots of sharp witticisms, acid analogies, and the like. Even Calvin Coolidge fans should chuckle at what humorist Dorothy Parker said, when told of famously taciturn Silent Cal’s passing: “How can they tell?” And yes, Sarah Palin can channel Tina Fey’s perfect Sarah twin — and did so, when they met on SNL.

Call it Civility Lite — civil, but robust — and thus not too civil.

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a trustee of the Hudson Institute, author of The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.
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