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The "Lack of Civility"

When the people protest against losing their rights, the Powerful complain about their bad manners.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 17, 2010

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The "Lack of Civility"

In recent years, you've heard about the "lack of civility" in politics. The rise of the Tea Party movement and the popularity of Glenn Beck seem to make many people nostalgic for the days they only had Rush Limbaugh to complain about.

The American Conservative's Dan McCarthy, one of the most civil voices in the world, puts the issue in perspective. This post about the federal court's decision on CA's gay marriage law was the context, but the observation cuts across all issues:

"Americans are encouraged to believe that politics is fundamentally a matter of opinions — what one thinks about gay marriage, for example, or about the Constitution itself. For most of human history, however, politics has been less about "issues" and opinions than about the distribution of power among institutions. Today, mainstream conservatives and liberals are highly inconsistent about their institutional philosophies, however firmly they may adhere to their cultural convictions. If the voters oppose gay marriage, liberals are for the courts; if the voters support gun control, liberals are for the voters. The same is true in reverse for conservatives. Winning with respect to the issue at hand is more important than having a coherent view of institutions and power."

For me, it was this very concern over "distribution of power among institutions" that drove me, somewhat naively, into the conservative camp in the 1990's. For example, when President Clinton expressed a positive opinion about school uniforms as a means of correcting discipline problems in the public schools, I was greatly offended. In retrospect, it seems like an insignificant thing because, to my knowledge, Clinton never took action on the issue. But the very idea that the President could style himself as Principal-in-Chief, as if the Constitution empowered the President to be an educator, greatly troubled me.

Clinton's invasion of Haiti, the bombings in Bosnia, and ultimately the war on Serbia over Kosovo caused me even more consternation:

  • where was the attack on America that demanded immediate retaliation?
  •  where was the threat to America's national security?
  • where was the threat, even, to "international law" that justified Bush I's Persian Gulf War?

Eventually, such a long train of unjustified military adventures led me to go back to the Constitution and wonder how the "Commander-in-Chief" decides to unilaterally start wars. Looking back to post-World War II history and the (mostly failed) wars, I began to wonder:

Where was the Congressional Declaration of War, as authorized by the Constitution?

After 9-11, Bush II's military retaliation against Afghanistan may have seemed to a conservative like the right thing to do, as a matter of self-defense. But the run-up to the invasion of Iraq - a country absolutely powerless to do America harm - brought up the question, again:

 Where was the Congressional Declaration of War?

Conservatives who protested Clinton's foreign military adventures now cheered for Bush II's. As McCarthy suggests, opinions about the "threat" replaced skepticism about Presidential power.

And I knew, deep down, that this had been true all along. Conservatives didn't mind executive power under Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, and went along with absurd proposals like the War on Drugs. In the "conservative" view, if you opposed the Military-Industrial Complex you wanted the Communists, and then the "Islamo-fascists" to take over. At the core of it: if you supported the military and police, you were a true American. If you criticized the military and police, you were a liberal out to destroy America and her proud institutions.

But this "lack of civility" did not originate just with the Right, even though people whose memory spans go only as far back as the rise of Rush Limbaugh may think so. Those who criticized absolute Presidential and bureaucratic power over the economy and domestic policy have, since FDR, been smeared as uncompassionate supporters of the "free market" who are determined to starve children to death.

In every instance I see since FDR, those who promoted federal Statism - the concentration of power in the federal government and especially the Presidency - has been the first to smear opponents. The anti-war America First committee members were called Hitler apologists. Those who opposed the very idea of a House Committee on Un-American Activities were called communists. From then on it went: those who had legitimate reasons to oppose federal executive power were smeared has un-American, racist, uncompassionate, Maoists, anti-cop, anti-military, anti-family, unpatriotic, Saddam apologists, terror apologists, backward Global Warming-deniers, anti-Semitic, anti-health, anti-safety.

In the face of such hate, opponents will call these apologists for the Powerful such things as totalitarians, pigs, thugs, murderers, etc.

Whether originating from the so-called conservative party or the so-called liberal party, if you oppose the concentration of power in the Presidency, you are labeled anti-government, anti-American, and, in some way, anti-human and less-than human. While it might be good and loving for the victims of these assaults to respond in humility and kindness, they can not be expected to turn the other cheek.

Ultimately, it is those who want more unchecked government power who are the most uncivil. They reveal a mistrust of the individual: if I do something that creates no involuntary harm to anyone else, and you are an activist who seeks to prohibit what I do and punish me for doing it, you are being mean and uncivil to me. It is not unreasonable for me to react harshly and defensively in the face of such an assault on my liberty and character.

With liberties trampled, wealth looted, and unwinnable wars being waged, I find it ironic that the powerful who want to extend and enlarge this status quo blame the powerless for a "toxic" political environment and "uncivil" political discourse.

But the blaming of others for the problems oneself has created is not a new thing.

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