What has become of civility in our society? Civility is inherent in civilization. To civilize is to instruct on the arts of life, to enlighten and refine them, to bring our society out of a state of barbarism. However, a wave of incivility has us headed back to barbarism, diverting us from any sensible dialog or progress, especially as we consider health care reform. My concern here is not just for health care.
Our health care system is exemplified by Paul Goodman’s comment about the organization of our society in general: “an interlocking system of semi-monopolies, notoriously venal, an electorate, notoriously unenlightened, misled by a mass media, notoriously phony.” Georges Clemenceau, quipped we’re the only nation in history to go directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.
“This world is a comedy for those who think,” said George Wallace, “and a tragedy for those who feel.” We pay twice as much for health care as similar societies for half the benefit. We glitter with gizmos the serve the wealthy and well-insured, but we fail to meet typical needs. We’re lost in scattered reasoning and incomprehensible paper work. There’s big money to be made off of the anxiety and anguish of the people. But to say so might seem unpatriotic. Patriots might shout you down, call you a communist, bully you into silence.
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious,” said Oscar Wilde. It isn’t just the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said, lately it’s the first, as Amrose Bierce wryly noted. It’s the patriots who bring guns to friendly town-hall meetings on health care deliberations, and those who might condemn that, don’t, and instead repeat their misreading of the Second Amendment and “their right to defend themselves.” From what, ideas?
More than Canada’s single-payer health care system, we need to import some of their basic civility. It isn’t easy doing democracy when irate indignation is the new civic thrill. The timid are overpowered and the thoughtful are ignored. To some, critical thinking and argumentation are ways reasonable people can rationally disagree in order to explore and refine ideas and policies. To others, critical thinking is biting criticism and arguments are angry fights to be won by any means that work.
This incivility comes after the recent model of our last president [G.W. Bush]. He didn’t debate; he decided. He didn’t bother with science; he ruled by gut. He gave the uninformed but adamant something to emulate. Our current president tries to think inclusively. He serves not just “his base,” but all. He repeatedly invited even his adversaries to the table in a deliberate effort to change partisan divisiveness into a synergistic process that reunites and improves our society.
Death threats are up 400% for our current president over our last one.
Why? I think some people are so used to fear and hate they get a kind of high from it. Self-righteous indignation masks selfish sins. It lets us pretend to be virtuous by projecting our viciousness on others. That way we created “no-fly zones” that only we flew in while we attacked an innocent country for having imaginary weapons that only we wielded. That way we justified the Vietnam War by the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” when we really knew it was merely an accident involving only us. That way we can get all puffed up with pride pretending to rescue our society while plundering it.
“You lie!” shouts the congressman, disruptively. It fit right in with the fad in town-hall meetings where disrupters end all civil discourse with angry outbursts designed to divert. Frank Luntz, the wizard behind Newt Gingrich in 1994, advising repeated insults over respectful dialog as a successful tactic, is back. His recent twenty four page “Talking Points” memo teaches operatives at such town-hall meetings how to insult and dismiss ideas leading to health care reform. His scripted tactics show up in those meetings and Congress as well as on most news reports of such events. That Joe Wilson was just plain wrong about the lie he accused President Obama of doesn’t stick in the American mind as much as maybe Obama is a liar – just like he is a fascist, communist, grandma-killing baby killer. Joe Wilson’s reward? Millions pour into his coffers.
Nor is incivility limited to the right. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, laments that his stance defining marriage as between a man a woman for purposes of assuring paternity and ongoing care for offspring was met, not with respect and dialog, but with angry words and waving fists. Lumping him and those who share his perspective on marriage in with those who are violently homophobic creates a misunderstood, maligned group of people who, besides being slighted, will fall into a needless “enemy” category in a “culture war.” We needn’t see the worst in people when that’s not what they are.
All of this comes in an era of wild anonymity. Tired of being civil? Take an assumed name and have at it on the Internet. Blogs are full of bad spelling and worse comments. You don’t have to stand by your words, for there is no “you” there. Joe the Plumber was neither Joe nor a plumber. He was an image – big, bald, and brazen, but without substance. Quickly, he was in Israel to solve all mid-east tensions from his uneducated vantage as an evangelical Christian. Anyone can rile; we all go reeling.
When I taught critical thinking and argumentation at the university I was always a bit uneasy that the fallacies of circular reasoning, attacking the person rather than addressing the argument, changing the terms to fit the conclusion, etc. were logically wrong but psychologically effective. All the proper reasoning in the world is no match for a well-timed sneer. Fox News doesn’t so much engage those with differing views as ridicule and dismiss them with near-snarls. Bullies aren’t smart but they know how to prevail.
I’m reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit of ancient cavemen. The leader wasn’t smart but he was bossy. He was so stupid he’d step into the fire, burn his feet, and then do it again later. Smarter ideas like not stepping in the fire got ridiculed. The leader wasn’t smart, but he was bossy, so his rule prevailed.
Bullies will prevail when they can. I was once so afraid of conflict I became the class wimp. Not just the tough guys, but every boy and some girls would pick on me. I decided I had to fight back, scared though I was. A tall bully was known for picking on little guys like me. When he got to me and started his act I swung out and smacked him in the face. Stunned, it took him a moment to throw me down. But I had prevailed, not so much over him as over my own fear. From that moment on I walked with a new confidence. I wasn’t going to take it. So no one tried to dish it out to me anymore. People in society need to not be bossed by bullies. We need not be paralyzed by our own timidity or fear. Bullies don’t respect those who won’t stand up to them. They’ll hold you in disdain while leading you into the fire.
Bullies have been leading us into the fire for decades now. Perhaps you remember the 2000 election being contested in Florida. You probably didn’t hear then of the over ten thousand blacks systematically denied their vote. Instead, your eyes were riveted on small dimples in pieces of paper, the few so-called hanging chads. You may also remember an unruly mob of suited super patriots storming an election-monitoring office. You may not remember that these angry men were flown into Florida from Texas on Ken Lay’s private jet. Lay was the CEO of Enron, soon to be exposed as a gigantic fraud, a needless middle-man organization sucking enormous amounts of money from public utility coffers into private banks. His mob of patriots weren’t concerned with fairness; they were bully poseurs hired to undermine it. Their self-righteous anger was really a ploy to position their candidate president to enable hundreds of Enron-like corporations to prevail, privatizing public money into private pockets.
From welfare to warfare, such privatization ploys have worked to prop up the rich by tearing down the government that might have regulated and restrained them. The commonwealth and the commons were systematically raided. Already poorer and weaker than the transnational corporations, government was blamed, burdened with debt, and de-funded. Those conservatives who believe in balanced budgets were slow to alarm, unready to admit that those feet being held to the fire included their own.
We have let the magic of the free market run its course, and it is bankrupting us. We have neither health nor care; we have sick profits. We have vague corporations running things for their own benefit no matter the cost to others and our society. We have the sensible conservative restraint expecting individual responsibility coupled to governmental caution lost amidst the cheap tactics of Frank Luntz, Karl Rove, and their mobs. We have hate-talk radio riling up the uninformed with repeated lies. We have scared people – afraid of terrorists, job-loss, strangers, and the flu. We have desperate, confused, riled people. We have scattered people attempting to get health care from a bewildering system that is more designed for exploitation than service. We have denied coverage, denied payment, and denied accountability. We have massive millions of dollars coming from entrenched lucrative industries funding political prostitutes. We have a gullible populace dittoing an assumed ideology that “government is the problem,” further weakening the only collective balance to national and multinational corporations reaping their vast rewards from an unprotected public.
Government is the problem when we do not view it as “us taking care of ourselves.” We will always have some sort of government or other. It is suicidal to think government can do no good or that undermining it will help us. It should intercede on our behalf where the free market doesn’t. That said, I am not confident this current round of “reform” is that. The mere one percent we spent on Medicare and Medicaid in 1966 has grown to twenty percent, eight times more than we spend on education, 830 more than on energy conservation. Mandating insurance that feeds an interconnected system of doctors, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and their lawyers doesn’t reform the system. Too many people are making too much money off our illnesses and worry. A single payer system might serve to reduce their lucrative hold on our health care, but it would have to be part of a more comprehensive change to our diet, exercise, life-style habits, work, sleep, stress, media information, etc. The current plan only marginally changes some parts of this overall approach to health.
Last year, when I reached an economic low, making only about $7,500, I applied for and was granted a generous subsidy for health insurance through the federally-funded, state-run FASVA Program. I would have to pay only 10% of my premium. For $60 a month I could get a standard policy costing $600 a month. I turned it down. One, I wasn’t sure I could spare $60 a month, given my essential expenses. Two, I didn’t want to drain public coffers to the tune of $540 a month to pay for medical expenses I rarely need. My existing insurance program, DGS (Don’t Get Sick) has served me well all these years. I already gratefully accept food stamps to the tune of $140 a month. Shunting public money into the absurd insurance system on my behalf is not OK with me. I’d rather rely on healthy habits and luck than feed limited public money into an already bloated system. This was more a subsidy to it than me. I wrote the director thanking and explaining, but I doubt that will sway the policies he must administer.
What mechanism is there to elicit, sort, review, and try out truly innovative reform? Where is there a fair and analytical comparison to what other societies do? How can thoughtful ideas be processed in this era of campaign finance lobbying and irate shouting? Can we believe in ourselves and our ability to have a civilized government amidst all the negativity and nay-saying? Can we stave off staged mobs of belligerent bullies getting their way simply because they act mad? There will always be bullies. Democracy is built on not letting bullies rule, be they monarchs or mobs.
When we each go around demanding our own point of view, when we adamantly insist on our own rights, when we push “I and mine” irrespective of “them and theirs,” we become a society of “each against all.” Too much, that’s what we’ve got now. Evasive, because of Internet identities and geographical mobility, abrasive because of the example of no-rules fighting on one channel and no-shame lies on others, worn by years of fear, egged on by “git-cha/gott-cha back” political games, we avoid and annoy each other as we fend for scant resources in a strife-ridden world. But what becomes of peace and friendliness? What becomes of civility in civilization? What becomes of “e Pluribus Unum”?
Instead, we come to civility by practicing it. We gain respect by granting it. We call incivility what it is – boorish and bullyish. We practice and praise civility for what it is – the grease that keeps our society running smoothly. The end of free speech isn’t when someone stands up and falsely accuses our president of being a liar; it is when others go on to say such outbursts are inappropriate. In the long run, our First Amendment rights are a learning experience. This is not the first round of boorish bullies trying to push their way on all others. It takes others to talk back, speak up, and set the tone of the conversation on a higher, healthier level.
Of course, our little lives won’t sway the grand momentum of cultural change very much. What it will change is us. Like my stepping through my own fear into an “I’m not going to take it” strength and liberation, we each step up to our own nobility and responsibility when we move as citizens with civility. Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Rather than poke our fingers in other’s eyes, may our civility help us and all to see that much better. If we can’t see our way to a healthier, more civil society, how civilized are we?
(Rev) Brad Carrier, for the UU’s of Grants Pass, © October 4, 2009