The other day I noticed that the liberal-ish press had suddenly become obsessed with civility and had begun hectoring us to listen to our better angels — to “play nice” with the Deplorables. Someone denied a cheeseburger to a White House spokeswoman who lies for a living, defending the cruelest of policies. And you’d have thought the end of civilization was near.
On the importance of maintaining “good form” both CNN and FOX News were in total agreement: “Fox Business host Trish Regan defended CNN’s Jim Acosta on Tuesday, calling verbal attacks on the reporter at a Trump rally are ‘not only bad manners, it’s bad form,’ while calling out both sides for a total lack of civility.”
Lots of people noticed the break from reality and bizarre lack of perspective. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff (author of “The Poverty of Liberalism”) wrote, “The norms of public political discourse vary considerably from country to country, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within a country. The British Parliament is much more raucous than the American Congress, and I will not even talk about the Israeli Knesset. Only in the world of the Washington elite does being denied service at a restaurant appear to be a violation of sacred norms calling for serious discussion of the foundations of democratic society. […] But whatever the local norms of civility may be, it can always be asked under what conditions it is right, even required, to violate them as part of a political protest.”
On December 12th, 1964 Malcom X spoke at the Oxford Union Club in England and, with a sly wink to Barry Goldwater, talked about “the necessity, sometimes, of extremism, in defense of liberty, why it is no vice, and why moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. […] I doubt that anyone will deny that extremism, in defense of liberty, the liberty of any human being, is a value. Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.” Earlier that year Malcom X gave his Ballot or the Bullet speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, reminding listeners of the incivility and extremism of the American Revolution. Turns out, for much of American history dissent usually trumps decorum.
Media Matters observed that the “right-wing media are criticizing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) after she encouraged people to publicly protest Trump administration officials who are complicit in the atrocious family separation policy at the U.S border. But the ‘civility’ these outlets are touting has been absent in their many vicious past attacks on Waters.”
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting took the liberal-ish press to task for its preoccupation with manners and distaste for speaking truth to power. FAIR pointed out that the Washington Post had run “three articles between Sunday, June 24, and Monday, June 25, calling for ‘civility’ and criticizing those who interfered with the dining experiences of Trump administration officials.”
In a Bloomberg News editorial, Jonathan Bernstein wrote, “Civility Is Important in a Democracy. So Is Dissent.” Bernstein observed: “In these times, however, it’s a joke to focus on incivility by Democrats even as the Republican president routinely says things that are as bad as or worse than the attacks of the most irresponsible Democratic no-name precinct chair.” In an unusual footnote, Bernstein reminded readers that when it comes to civility in a democracy, “of course incivility wasn’t the most important problem with U.S. democracy; indeed, restrictions on the franchise and full citizenship were so severe that there’s a good case to be made that it wasn’t a real democracy until at least 1965.” Whatever temporary gains we’ve made were made in the street.
Finally, Nation writer Sarah Leonard spoke my mind with her article, “Against Civility: You can’t fight injustice with decorum.” Among Leonard’s excellent points: “Throughout history, activists have seldom won battles against injustice by asking politely. […] The people being targeted [for protest] are adults living and working in a democratic society; facing consequences for their actions, as conservatives would agree, is what grown-ups should all do. […] To cling to civility is to allow the powerful to commit crimes, as long as they do so with a smile and a handshake.”
If we are truly listening to our better angels, they’ve been whispering — “#resist.”