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Dr.Phool Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:00 PM
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The need for civil discourse in politics in America.
The need for civil discourse in politics in America

By Jim Leach, Special to the St. Petersburg Times
In Print: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Few subjects seem duller than concern for public manners. But little is more important for the world's leading democracy than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness in the public square. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify or cloud thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts. The concept of civility implies politeness, but civil discourse is about more than good etiquette. At its core, civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the context of history and life experiences. Recent comments on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land. Public officials are being labeled "fascist" or "communist." And more bizarrely, significant public figures have toyed with the notion of "secession." One might ask what problem is there with a bit of hyperbole. The logic, to paraphrase literary critic Marshall McLuhan's observation about the media, is the message. If 400,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands more gave their lives to hold communism at bay, and if we fought a civil war to preserve the Union, isn't it a citizen's obligation to apply perspective to words that contain warring implications? There is, after all, a difference between supporting a particular spending or health-care view and asserting that someone who prefers another approach or is a member of a different political party is an advocate of an "ism" of hate that encompasses gulags and concentration camps. One framework of thought defines rival ideas; the other, enemies. Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.

Words matter. Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance, perhaps impelling violence.

Conversely, just as demagoguery can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing language such as Lincoln's call for a new direction "with malice toward none" can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.


Literature 101

In a set of four books called the Alexandria Quartet the British author Lawrence Durrell describes urban life in Egypt between the first and second World Wars. In the first book, Durrell spins a story from the eyes of one character. In each subsequent book, he describes the same events from the perspective of another character. The surrounding events are the same but each story is profoundly different, informed by the narrator's life and circumstances.

The moral is that to get a sense of reality it is necessary to see things from more than one set of eyes. This moral can apply to interactions in a courtroom or town hall or to the international stage, where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective, but look very different to a European, African, Middle Easterner or Asian.

Reality 101

In the most profound political science observation of the 20th century, Albert Einstein suggested that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Human nature may be one of the few constants in history, but 9/11 has taught that thinking must change not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb, but because of the implosive nature of small acts. Violence and social division are rooted in hate. Since such thought begins in the hearts and minds of individuals, it is in each of our hearts and minds that hate must be checked and our way of thinking changed.

Reality 102

In one of Western civilization's most prophetic poems, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats suggests that "the center cannot hold" when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Citizens of all philosophical persuasions are displaying increased disrespect for their fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance. Much of the problem may flow from the fast-changing nature of our society, but part of the blame falls at the feet of politicians and their supporters who use inflammatory rhetoric to divide the country. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down rather than uplifting, but if elected, they cannot then unite an angered citizenry. Negativity dispirits the soul of society just as it raises the temperature level of legislatures.

Past Congresses have often been feisty, but what is so confounding about today's politics is the break with a central aspect of the American political tradition. Historically, legislative decisionmaking has been based on a give-and-take between the parties. Over the last several decades, however, a trend has become accentuated where legislative compromises are coming to be made almost exclusively within whichever party controls Congress, rather than between the parties. As the majority party finds itself, either by choice or default, the exclusive vehicle of legislative governance, the minority taps into the European parliamentary tradition and becomes a noncooperative opposition.

Far better it would be for all legislators to be considered responsible for governing and for both sides to recognize that the other has something to say and contribute. In a society as complex as ours, it is irrational to think that Republicans cannot find some Democratic initiatives helpful and that Democrats cannot, from time to time, vote with Republicans.

The challenge for citizens mirrors national politics: whether we the people want a united, socially cohesive country, or be led into a cultural war with each other.

The question must be addressed: If we can't respect our neighbors, how can we expect others to respect us, our values and way of life?

Civilization requires civility.

Editor's note: Jim Leach, the new chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a well-respected former congressman from Iowa and one of the more intellectual thinkers in politics. A moderate Republican, he is embarking on a 50-state "civility tour." His stop last week was Florida. This essay reflects the substance of his message.
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Captain Hilts Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:02 PM
Response to Original message
1. True. But Leach was integral in the deregulation of the financial industry. nt
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GMA Donating Member (467 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:10 PM
Response to Reply #1
3. And?
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hfojvt Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:03 PM
Response to Original message
2. Why are you posting this?
Don't you disagree with the thesis?
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GMA Donating Member (467 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:11 PM
Response to Reply #2
4. You disagree with the idea that we need more civility
and less name calling?
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hfojvt Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:21 PM
Response to Reply #4
5. no, but I think the OP does
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KILL THE WISE ONE Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:22 PM
Response to Reply #4
6. when your side, are the only ones being polite.
you may as well not show up. the republicans are banking on if you repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth. yet not since Maddow was on sunday morning have a sean a single lefty even call of a republican on a single lie.
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hfojvt Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 04:02 PM
Response to Reply #6
8. here's one

but thankfully (for the people who don't have to look at me or listen to me) I am not on TV.
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Igel Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 07:25 PM
Response to Reply #6
10. I don't see many being polite.
I don't see many being civil.

So again it's the old tribal maxim, The worst of my tribe is better than the best of their tribe. Rampant generalizations and stereotypes help this along. Wilfully misconstruing what's said, subtle linguistic games based on what's possible but not plausible are the rhetorical tropes of the day.

Sad, really. Certainly not a dominant theme in Obama's campaign, and certainly not what a majority of the electorate cast their votes for. However, I guess once you win an election you certainly have the right to speak power to truth.

That's the usual way of putting it, right?
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Dr.Phool Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 03:43 PM
Response to Reply #2
7. Not that I'm a fan of any republican.
But I did like some of his examples of how people in different places and different perspectives can see things a completely different way.

Example: Compare any American History class with Howard Zinn's "Peoples History". He tells the history of America from a different, more honest perspective.

A call to civility could also apply to this place lately. The whole atmosphere is poisoned, with name calling, questioning of motivations, and screaming on all sides. I'll admit, sometimes I get frustrated and get involved in it too.
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GMA Donating Member (467 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 04:40 PM
Response to Reply #7
9. Well, we could just be fans of people, in general,
and THEN find out what their political views are. Oh, wait. That's what we do in real life, isn't it????
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Doctor_J Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 09:19 PM
Response to Original message
11. This must be some sort of joke
Obama and the rest of the Dems have been engaging in "civil discourse" for a year now. It is time to fight fire with fire. Show up at a Palin book signing with a couple loaded automatic weapons, or a picture of her with a noose around her neck. Go to a David Vitter appearance with a picture of him in a diaper, accompanied by an STD-riddled hooker.

The most depressing thing about the fascist takeover of the US is that we haven't done a thing about it (except the gun loons, who are still convinced the president is going to grab all of their guns next Wednesday)
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burning rain Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 09:22 PM
Response to Original message
12. I wish we lived in a time when civility was possible, but this is not such a time.
Edited on Sun Jan-17-10 09:25 PM by burning rain
With rare exceptions, reasonable compromise is not possible with today's Republicans, because they are not reasonable. They are almost all destroyers and not builders. They are hellbent on destroying government and letting private interests have everything their own way. Sorry to say, I think we're better served to embrace conflict, put together the largest majority coalition we can, steamroll the opposition, and drag them kicking and screaming into a better future for all of us.
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bemildred Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 09:31 PM
Response to Original message
13. We need a government that is legitimate, competent, and honest first.
If the government has no respect for the people, it has no argument when the people have no respect for it either.
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tonysam Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-17-10 11:15 PM
Response to Original message
14. "Etiquette" is why our Congress is in such a mess
Democrats especially must be nice to these filth peddlers in the Republican Party who continue their scorched earth tactics.

It's always Republicans who bellyache about "manners" and "civility."

If you want that crap, read Emily Post. It doesn't work in politics.
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