What Civility Requires…Perspective from Living Abroad

“Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn’t require that vigorous advocacy be avoided…. What civility requires is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on one another.” — Former congressman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), in an op-ed, quoted in “Can a new ‘civility institute’ calm political rancor?

Obviously, in a country of more than 300 million people, many of whom have access to the Internet, examples of extremism, hypocrisy and dishonesty are virtually endless, and will never disappear. But one does hope that among political and journalistic professionals, and among enlightened members of the public, the atmosphere can improve.

The sewer will always be out there for anyone who wishes to dwell in it. I know “liberal” activists who have long since abandoned Daily Kos because of the acerbic attacks on them and on Obama from the left. I used to be disturbed by the Internet’s empowering of the voices of the fringes. And yet I don’t think they represent a statistically larger percentage of people than they did before the Internet was invented.

It’s easy to attack one’s opponents at their weakest point, to presume their motives are always base or self-serving, to denigrate and demean through distortion and ad hominem attacks. That’s a kind of pollution. The challenge is to honestly wrestle with their strongest points.

Some of us define ourselves by what we are against, the unreasonableness of the left or the right. But it’s impossible to sustain that outrage on a daily basis forever — at some point you do have to look inward and see the flaws in your own logic.

Living outside the United States, I have far less interest in the hyper-partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans, as reflected on Fox News, MSNBC, on blogs and talk radio. Living abroad and seeing real, deep-seated, historic conflicts and ethnic strife among peoples, I’m struck by how many values Americans on the right and left hold IN COMMON.

Living outside the US certainly makes me far more aware of what it means to be an American, how blessed we are as a nation to be largely free from the centuries of ethnic antagonisms of Europe and the Middle East. Compared to other countries, we have a democracy that generally functions and a government that is relatively transparent, relatively free of corruption, and I believe, relatively free of the dark secretive alleged conspiracies of powerful anti-democratic “deep state” groups that fuel paranoia in Turkey and other nations. (Fortunately, Turkey is now doing a good job of removing the “deep state” cancer from its body politic and seeking to become more democratic.) Even considering the Great Recession, the material blessings that most people in America enjoy are far greater than most other nations. Yet we take so many of our gifts for granted.

Sure there are Americans who believe there is a secretive, conspiratorial “deep state” consisting of high-ranking elements of the CIA, FBI, corporate interests, Congress, the media, the courts and the federal bureaucracy that, for example, may have assassinated John F. Kennedy, that led the U.S. into Vietnam and Iraq to increase corporate profits, that directs an imperialistic foreign policy around the world, that bails out Wall Street while average citizens are left to sink or swim on their own, that engages in violence against dissidents, and that plants evidence against innocent people. I’m not one to believe in these conspiracy theories; I don’t believe there is generally enough evidence to support such wild accusations.

Political bickering in the U.S. is frequently driven by what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,” in which negative feelings “are sometimes directed at people who resemble us,” and we “take pride in the ‘small differences’ between us.” As Marion Maneker pointed out, “a dispassionate observer of U.S. politics would have trouble locating the kinds of divisions that used to drive elections. Since 1994, we have had a de facto political consensus around a form of libertarianism.” She links to a George Will article in The New York Times in 2007 that illustrated this point.

Recent examples: the same Republicans who vilify Obama and the Democrats for the health care law have supported changes in the health care system that were just as significant and far more disruptive. Both parties express far more concern about deficits racked up by “the other party.” Part of the problem may be that American media magnify conflicts and differences among people because conflict is more interesting than agreement.

Joel Achenbach: “Will Obama’s appeal to the better angels of our nature succeed? It hasn’t yet. It probably never will. Because the market favors rancor. The technology favors the judgment-rushers, the instant reaction, which by definition can’t be terribly thoughtful. The TV ratings favor the furious.”

And part of the partisan warfare is not about differences over principles but simply a struggle for power between factions.

At the end of the day, we all ought to be able to shake hands, sup together, and realize we are all part of the same American fabric, tribe or family.

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