Of George Washington, Donald Trump, and Civility

Weekly Article
Flickr Creative Commons/Wilson Hui
Feb. 16, 2017

Last week Senator Marco Rubio spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about civility. As upset as many were with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s silencing of Senator Warren, Rubio pointed out, with genuine emotion, that “If we lose this body’s ability to conduct debate in a dignified manner, … then where in this country is that going to happen? In what other forum in this nation is that going to be possible?”

These were not rhetorical questions. Rubio spoke of the things he has heard said in this country that he never imagined would—or could—be said, concluding that if the Senate does not succeed in upholding norms of mutual respect and dignified deliberation, then “everyone of us, to our great shame, will live to regret it.”

The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza, a hardened and invariably cynical DC veteran, picked up Rubio’s speech and advised his readers to spend 8 minutes of their lives listening to it. Cilizza observed that the people he talks to about politics frame the same lament: “When did ‘reasonable people can disagree’ stop being something we believed in? Why can’t genuine debate not descend into name-calling? Why is confrontation the only way the two parties—and their leading politicians—seem to interact these days?”

I observe the same phenomenon daily on my Twitter feed. When the Washington Post tweeted out a recent op-ed that I wrote on America First, in which I tried to take Trump’s foreign policy ideas seriously and respectfully while nevertheless hitting back hard on his treatment of other countries and his concept of patriotism, one of the first tweets I got back said, to the Post: “what a wonderful vocabulary put in the hands of an imbecile. I bet you are very proud of this piece. Clown.”

That was one of the milder responses—at least it does not contain obscenities.

Of course, the degradation of our public discourse is nothing new. Our founders prized civility above all things. As historian Gordon Wood explains in his book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, “The 18th-century Anglo-American Enlightenment was preoccupied with politeness, which … meant affability, sociability, cultivation; indeed, politeness was considered the source of civility, which was soon replaced by the word civilization.” As citizens of a young and raw country, our early leaders were determined to show the world that we could be just as “civilized” as the European powers we had left behind.

George Washington in particular was obsessed with politeness and etiquette. Having never attended college, he fashioned his own code of manners, drawing heavily from an “English translation of a 1595 Jesuit etiquette book” that was itself derived from an Italian book entitled Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between our first president and our 45th.

But Wood’s great contribution to the study of American history was to show persuasively how the political revolution that a group of propertied white men put in place spawned a social revolution that quickly overtook them, sweeping away 18th-century civility and replacing it with 19th-century political brawling and the rise of Jacksonian America. Then, as now, civility was seen as a delaying tactic that moderates use against radicals in ways that block real change.

In her recent piece in the Weekly, “Beyond the ‘Peaceful’ Protest,” Rachelle Hampton reminds us that civil rights activists in the 1960s had to move from peaceful protest to civil disobedience—e.g., breaking the laws in a just cause—and that “the majority of the country did not support or even approve of the tactics employed by its activists.” She quotes Martin Luther King Jr. to remind us that he fought not only radical white supremacists but also white moderates, those who said, “‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” Don’t rock the boat—or at least don’t rock it too much is too often the mantra of the comfortable who do not want to be made uncomfortable.

I grew up in the South, where the dominant social rule was “never discuss politics or religion.” Those were subjects where tempers would invariably flare, and it was too darn hot: an environment of sweltering seasons and ready guns. But the result was a lot of polite small talk and no real debate about things that mattered. I’d rather have heated debate, even with slammed doors and the occasional descent into ad hominem attacks, than a veneer of civilization with a murky brew of anger and resentment roiling just beneath the surface. And I’d rather see protests, strikes, and disruption of daily life than apathy, disengagement, and despair.

So bring on vociferous debate—even rude at times—and direct action when necessary. Words can and should be met with words, with often surprising results.

Although other Twitter followers told me to “ignore the trolls,” I responded to the person who called me an imbecile with “why so nasty? What’s the point of just hurling abuse? I’m a patriotic American just as much as you are.” He responded much more civilly; we went back and forth in a way that led me to see that he thinks the Washington Post is biased in the same way I think Fox News is biased; he ultimately apologized for calling me names. There is a line here that may seem ambiguous, but that we must draw and defend. It is the line between vigorous, even vehement debate and the politics of hate. Hatefulness cannot be answered with words; it seeks only to denigrate and dismiss the object of hatred, indeed to make it disappear. In his appeal to his fellow senators, Rubio warned: “I don’t know of a civilization in the history of the world that’s been able to solve its problems when half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of the people in that country.”

He’s right. We must engage those who disagree with us as much as we can, insisting on at least the basic manners our parents and teachers taught us and holding ourselves to standards of citizenship that require mutual respect, even in the midst of sharp disagreement. But we must also call out hatred and face it down. Our democracy itself is at stake.