Civility Lite: Civil — Yet Robust — Discourse

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.