Civility Lite: Civil — Yet Robust — Discourse

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.