[In]civility & Its Discontent (Yes, It's Meant to Be a Play On Words)
One would have to be all but comatose not to realize that when it comes to politics, Americans are about as polarized as can be. For the most part, things are pretty much black-and-white. Case in point: According to a recent poll undertaken by Axios's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, '45's approval rating with Republicans is hovering at 90%; among Democrats, the figure is no more than 8%. A survey underwritten by The Economist and reported in the conservative National Review showed that a majority of Democrats (82 percent) are in favor of banning semi-automatic weapons, which include handguns as well as rifles, while over half the Republicans (53 percent) are against any such proposal. The partisan black-and-white split is just as obvious when it comes to repealing Roe v. Wade: A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that while 81% among Democrats and 67% among Independents are against the SCOTUS overturning the landmark 1973 decision, nearly 55% of those polled who identified as Republicans are in favor of its repeal. Then too, in yet another Axios poll, 61% of Republican voters firmly believe that the FBI is framing the POTUS, while 78% of Democratic voters firmly believe the opposite.
Talk about black and white!
Of late, there is a highly contentious issue which divides Democrats and Republicans even within their own camps: the matter of civility in political discourse versus political correctness and outright attack in public places. The issue has been brewing for quite some time. More than four years ago, then pre-candidate Trump began assigning cutting nicknames to politicians in both parties - not only as a means of garnering added attention (as if he really needed it )but as a way of building himself up at the expense of those who were more politically experienced and civically mature. As time went on, the slurs became nastier and more obvious. Then came the almost daily diet of half-truths and outright lies, as well as the assignment of blame to the evil monolith called "Fake News." Topping all this were the litany of inane executive orders, the all-but total dismemberment of anything and everything Obama, the incompetence, corruption and revolving door quality of his administration and the utter blind devotion of his "sheeple." All this led to the hyper-pyrexic (feverish) state we are currently in.
It all came to a head when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by the the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia to leave her establishment "because," as she stated in a tweet, "I work for POTUS." Shortly thereafter, protesters drove Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of a Mexican restaurant by yelling "shame" at her, after a press conference in which she defended her agency's policy of separating children from their parents at the border. At another Mexican restaurant in D.C., one patron went up to Stephen Miller, who is the reported architect of many of the president's immigration policies, and called him a fascist. Protesters have also staged rallies outside of Miller's and Nielsen's homes.
It was at this stage that '45, his staff and much of the Republican hierarchy started bemoaning what they called "a lack of civility in public life." In response to what she saw as utter hypocrisy within the GOP, California Representative Maxine Waters voiced support for the public confrontation of Trump officials at a rally in Los Angeles, using the word "harass," which really got people hot and bothered. "The people are going to turn on them, they're going to protest, they're going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they're going to tell the president 'no I can't hang with you, this is wrong,'" Waters said.
In response, the president tweeted "Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person, has become, together with Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Democrat Party. She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max!" Some, reading between this tweet's lines, saw the president throwing down a threatening gauntlet. Almost immediately, Rep. Waters -- who admittedly, has been without a functioning rhetorical "off-switch" for much of her political career -- had to cancel several public appearances due to "a very serious death threat." Shortly thereafter, the fired-up Waters told a gathering of supporters "If you shoot at me you'd better shoot straight."
More than one commentator has, in my estimation correctly, pointed out that the debate over the lack of "civility" in political discourse has taken our attention away from issues which really, truly matter - such as the Supreme Court's decision upholding the Muslim ban; the separation of children from their parents at the border; the Commander-in-Chief's decision to discharge immigrant recruits from the U.S. military, and our new - and potentially disastrous - tariff policies. Then too, there is a secondary debate over precisely what is the difference - if indeed, there is any - between "civility" and "political correctness." The Republican call for "civility" is loud and clear . . . while at the same time lambasting Democrats for engaging in the unforgivable sin of "political correctness."
Both Congressional Minority Leaders - Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelos -i have weighed in on the side of civility in political discourse . . . and against their colleague Maxine Waters who has urged fellow Democrats Americans to confront individuals who work for President Donald Trump and “tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Senator Schumer has counseled:
“We all have to remember to treat our fellow Americans, all of our fellow Americans, with the kind of civility and respect we expect will be afforded to us, No one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American. The president’s tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated.”
So there it is in the proverbial nutshell: Should progressives respond to irrationality, bigotry and cupidity with civility or, fight fire with fire by being just as uncivil as '45 and his robotic sheeple? Many Democrats (and non-sheeple Republicans as well) favor taking the high road - of obeying the Golden Rule and "Doing unto others as we would have others do unto us" (or as the Jewish sage Hillel's Talmudic version [Shabbat 31a] goes, “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” Or, giving in to our communal anger and frustration, should we give 'em a taste of their own medicine by matching insult for insult, barb for barb, incivility for incivility?
My response is neither. As angered and frustrated as so many of us are about the childish locutions coming from the "Make America Great Again!" crew, just as many are even angrier and more frustrated over how far these puerile, inconsistent mottoes and phrases have taken us as a nation. To "fight fire with fire" by speaking as harshly as those on the other side of the fence is to sink to a level which, although on one level can be psychologically gratifying, is on another, not only beneath dignity; it is a losing political strategy. Regardless of what Trump and his sheeple may say, we are simply not accustomed to boisterously damning the darkness. But to merely ignore and/or remain mute to what is being said (as a means of redirecting attention from what is being done - and in our names) is both cowardly and an even worse political strategy. Anger, panic and frustration can and must act as catalysts for speaking up about what really and truly is on a majority of people's minds: affordable healthcare regardless of personal financial assets or prior medical conditions; public education which is both sufficiently and sensibly funded; a public American face which can and must lead the world in addressing climate change, international trade, war and peace. And oh yes: at least a paragraph or two about the wisdom of steadfastly supporting our democratic allies, while just as steadfastly staying out of the beds of blood-stained autocrats.
So share with me your thoughts: Shall it be Civility or Incivility or perhaps a meaningful mixture? And which issues, do you believe are the most important for restoring hope?
Now I know that many of you, reading the title of this week's essay [In]civility and Its Discontent (Yes, It's Meant to Be a Play on Words), brought to mind Sigmund Freud's most important, widely-read and self-reflective work: Civilization and It's Discontent first published in 1930 under the title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ("The Uneasiness in Civilization"). There is a reason for this not-terribly subtle play on words. This is no coincidence. For in this book, which Freud wrote in the last decade of his life, he discussed whether it were possible to discover a purpose in life . . . quite a challenge which the good doctor admitted right at the outset ". . . has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one." Nonetheless, Freud plodded on contenting himself with "the less ambitious question of . . . what men themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it." Freud correctly explained that in a vacuum, deeds and dreams are largely fueled by our most instinctual desires: to be maximally happy, free of pain and fear, the ABILITY (as opposed to THE RIGHT) to exercise our libidos however and whenever we choose, and being totally unfettered.
Of course, civilizations - which create cultures - enact laws and promote social norms which help shape our lives, thus making both civilization and culture possible. Most accept that laws are necessary. But then there are those who rebel against boundaries and seek a civilization that is their mirror image. As such, civilization can and does leave people in a painful, often debilitating state of discontent. This, I fear, is what we are currently facing. While Freud offered no explicit answers for how to deal with and overcome our discontent, he did strongly urge against the "Do unto others as you would have others to do you" approach to solving what ails us. Why? Because, he argues, on a subconscious level, we desire doing whatever in the hell we feel like doing - of tickling the itch he calls "The Pleasure Principle." Heady stuff, no doubt, but it does offer a bit of direction in the "shall we be civil or uncivil" debate. For if we go toe-to-toe with others, matching bluster for bluster, resentment for resentment and discontentment for discontentment, we are, both singularly and collectively, aiding in the dismemberment of civil society.
I urge you to ask yourself where you stand: do you think it wiser to return curse for curse, epithet for epithet, or to take a different less bellicose tact. It is an internal debate which can help us, together, begin healing a civilization which has, of late, befouled the pathway of life with the stench of discontent.
537 days down, 936 days to go.
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone