Friday, October 12, 2018

Civility and Its Discontents

By Isaiah Thomas
For the Editorial Board of The Massachusetts Spy

In the wake of the recent unpleasantness about shoehorning a drunken perjuring sex criminal onto the Supreme Court, those who committed the bag job are desperately trying to change the subject from their own misdeeds.  Their chosen vehicle is lamenting the supposed lack of “civility” on the part of those, including many survivors of sexual assault, who dared to oppose the evil deed in a way that hurt the feelings of, well, drunken perjuring sex criminals and their enablers.

The category-four hurricane of fake outrage has whirled around the usual sources of wind and hot air, but let's take former George W. Bush coatholder and mouthpiece Michael Gerson's latest effort as a fair example of the genre.

After first graciously demonstrating his scrupulous regard for fairness by admitting that the Bigot-in-Chief's torrent of lies and abuse is perhaps less than Socratic in its respect for the power of ideas and argument, he then proceeds to ape his old buddy David “Complete National Disgrace” Brooks's fair and balanced denunciation of both sides.

As examples of Democratic assaults on civility, he cites Senators walking out of rigged Committee hearings, demonstrators banging on the locked bronze doors of a building that in fact belongs to them, and what really chills the gonads of every entitled white conservative, people, especially female people, daring to confront their elected representatives and demanding to be listened to.  I mean, who do these gals think they are, anyway?

According to Gerson, these alleged delicts constitute “surrender[ing] to the irrational, to practic[ing] harassment and humiliation, and . . . turn[ing] to verbal and physical violence.”

Do they though?  When a candidate for President invites his mob to physically assault protesters, that sounds like surrendering to the irrational.  When women who are appalled that the credible testimony of a sexual assault victim is being ignored or mocked by reactionary white men in pursuit of a partisan political agenda, is it really irrational to confront those men and demand that they take your concerns seriously?  To the Republican “civility” police, such demands are no different from running over protesters on the streets of Charlottesville.

And wtf is verbal violence anyway?  That's one of those oxymorons that the fake outrage squad tries to slip by us.  Is it telling Orrin Hatch something he doesn't want to hear?  Is it calling a United States Senator “Pocahontas” because her mother told her she was part Cherokee?  Is it a boozy mob moll shlurring out “lock her up” on her pisspoor TV show?

There are two distinct objections to Democrats forcefully confronting their political adversaries, neither of which upon cursory inspection holds water.

First is the argument that somehow it is immoral for Democrats to respond to Republican invective in kind, on the theory that, unlike torture, lynching, and screaming at women trying to get reproductive health care, it degrades civil discourse.  Anyone who has observed the flaming clown car of the U Bum campaign and Presidency has to doubt how that is even possible.  How could civil discourse go lower than mocking a reporter's physical disability or the parents of a young man who gave his life for his country?

Of course every day the Groper-in-Chief digs the hole deeper, whether by mocking and smearing a survivor of sexual assault or inviting a raging schizo to rant in the Oval Office in an extra-special episode of “The Grifter's Apprentice.”  There's nothing that Democrats could say that could ever approach the daily descent of Republican political discourse into new depths.

The second objection is that if Democrats speak up, it will work against them, either because it degrades civil discourse (see above) or will somehow turn off those who might be inclined to support Democrats.  If anyone can find these mythical beings who were thinking about voting Democratic until they heard women demanding that Jeff Flake listen to them or saw them demonstrating on the Supreme Court plaza, which last we looked was public property, please have them call our dedicated tip line, 1-800-BULLSHIT.

Oddly enough, those who tell the Democrats that such speech will work against them don't provide that advice to Republican white reactionaries, who have been pounding out verbal outrages since the New Deal.  They've won elections they had no business winning advocating policies directly contrary to the interests of any Republican voter making less than $250K per year. When you ask these marks why, the answer you get is that they like what they hear.

If you're a Democrat and you want to motivate your base to turn out, why not tell them what they want to hear: that you understand their anger over the hijacking of their country and their uteruses and you will take action in response?

A related practical argument is that forceful Democratic responses only fuel the fire of reactionary screamers.  Keep your voices down, we are told, and starve the right-wing fake outrage machine.

Does anybody believe this?  Fox News has to feed its three prime-time geek shows and its four-hour AM Three Stooges revival every day.  They'll always find or create something.  They spent months raving about some guy standing in front of a polling station in Philadelphia for an hour and by the time they were done their loyal viewers thought we were in the midst of the worst slave revolt since Nat Turner.

Let's face it, Cruella de Vil and Fox's two boy sopranos will find something to rave about every night no matter how well behaved the Democrats are.  We might as well inspire our own.

Remember the good old days of civility in American politics?
But the most serious objection to all the hot air about civility is that it's really not a debate about civility at all.  It's really a debate about whether we are going to normalize and tolerate hate speech and hateful acts.  The answer to white Republican reactionaries trouncing every civilized norm by putting a sex criminal on the Supreme Court isn't a disquisition about the legitimacy of the Court; it's to remind each and every yes vote each and every day how vile their conduct was.  If that means that Jeff Flake and Susan Collins have their feelings hurt, we'll worry about that as soon as Justice Creepy McBrewski steps down.

Likewise the answer to Republican enabling of the most corrupt and disloyal President in our history isn't reaching out and caring or whatever horsesh*t Complete National Disgrace Brooks is peddling; it's getting citizens angry enough to mobilize and vote.  Forcefully calling out the disgraceful Republican Congress also makes clear to even the meanest intelligence that covering up subversion and corruption is outside the bounds of democratic politics.

The more faux-intellectual of the Republican apologists, like Gerson and Complete National Disgrace, also feign sadness over the loss of some Platonic ideal of discourse that supposedly once ruled our politics, presumably some time before or after the attempted murder of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate.

We all wish that political debate sounded like disquisitions among Socrates and his followers under olive trees of ancient Athens.  But it doesn't, and Democrats who risk demoralizing their base and legitimizing the Republican subversion of our Republic might want to remember how all that dialogue turned out for Socrates.

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