The Summer Civility Died
We Americans are not particularly noted for our civility and decorum. As travelers abroad we are considered loud and rude.
We respect “straight shooters” in conversation and don’t much care for those who “beat around the bush.” (Read the sexual politics into that sentence as you wish.)
But we still try to pay some lip service to the idea of just being polite if only for the sake of our mothers.
It seems like that was shot to hell this summer.
we have apparently decided that America is the land of the free and the home of the asshole.
Of course this is not new or unique. Brawls break out in legislatures around the world. The British pride themselves on fierce and somewhat raucous exchanges in parliament — although that is not the same as interrupting a leader’s speech. John McEnroe’s post tennis career success is due not to his athletic prowess but to his fame for throwing foul-mouthed fits on the tennis court. And South Carolina politicians have a long history of embarrassing themselves in the legislature by acting like ill-bred hillbillies. We practice a form of Democracy that seems to think that equality means we all sink to the lowest common denominator. That’s what we had with George Bush.
However, this summer it seemed like we really went off the rails. It is like we decided that no venue is worthy of a decorum and no person is worthy of respect. It is like we just gave up on the social contract altogether. Every man for himself. Fuck human dignity.
There are two town hall moments that stand out for me as being illustrative of the question I’m getting at.
This first is an extended version of the New Jersey town hall meeting I mentioned above, where people heckled and booed a woman in a wheelchair who was talking about living in fear of losing her health insurance. It is the following exchange at the end that had me looking into emigrating to Canada.
Interviewer: “This is a handicapped woman who is afraid she’ll lose her home because of medical bills.”
Heckler: “Well, I don’t know why a woman in a wheelchair should have more rights than me!”
Secondly, there is a moment of incivility that I actually appreciated. That is, when Barney Frank is faced with outrageously offensive images and statements that conflate Obama and Hitler he calls it as he sees it in his own inimitable style while also defending the first amendment rights of people to spew hateful bile.
This isn’t about free speech. I’m not against free speech. People have a right to incivility. People have a right to be rude, stupid and boorish. The question is why? To what end?
I suppose what I’m wondering is what role civility plays in American public life. Part of the charm of American culture is its resistance to stratification. We call it “putting on airs.” I think that is a generally good thing. Americans do not bow and curtsy to the Queen of England. It doesn’t mean we are disrespectful. Authority in American is earned not bestowed. We seem to have forgotten that individualism is balanced by civic virtue. Our rights are granted because we are participants in a social system, not because we are individuals each living according to our own rules. The word “incivility” is from the Latin incivilis, meaning “non-citizen.”
Why is this happening when we now have a president who is noted for his even-handedness and his decorum and for treating everyone with respect, including people who are not treating him with the respect he deserves?
In contrast, Bush was imperious and dismissive and rude. His “good” behavior was to treat people with a kind of embarrassingly immature frat boy jocularity. Bush strutted around calling enemies “evil doers” and telling them to “bring it on.” Cheney was just a snarling, bile spewing hate monger. Both were of the conservative philosophy that believes in a more authoritarian obedience to the father (of the family, of the country).
The Republican base (which is now the majority of the party — making it primarily a party limited to Southern whites) is unable to truly recognize the validity of President Obama. This is seen through their challenging his birth certificate. They can’t accept the reality that they lost the election and they are no longer in charge (and hence the talk of states rights and even secession).
The fact that they see the election and Obama’s leadership as a form of “tyranny” instead of democracy illustrates their profound belief that something they feel entitled to has been lost. It is their sense of entitlement that is key to understanding their behavior, because if this (i.e., power, privilege) is rightfully theirs, then it follows that it must somehow have been wrongfully taken away.
By de-legitimizing the president, and the Democratic majority, they give themselves permission to be no longer beholden as citizens to the laws and customs of civil (in terms of being both political and polite) society. They are behaving with incivility, or as “non-citizens”: uncivilized.