The recent indictment of Tom DeLay has brought his name to the forefront of public debate, and brought the extremes of partisan feeling that surround Mr. DeLay into full view. In one center-right web log and discussion forum I frequent, one participant, gloating over DeLay's predicament, pictured Mr. DeLay in some future prison shower room, vulnerable and grotesquely humiliated. It brought out for me, again, the kind of extreme partisanship which leads to a thoroughly venomous discussion. The same venom arose in the context of Rachel Corrie's death, a case in which one commentator suggested the Israeli government sue her grieving parents for the cost of cleaning the bulldozer, and others compared her to a Nazi. Whether by the distance promoted by electronic media, or by the increasing intrusiveness of government, or perhaps just the frustrations that come with life in our industrial society, politics in most democracies has suffered a catastrophic decline in civility and empathy. Too many people simply ignore or deny the humanity of anyone with whom they disagree.
This in turn feeds an equally catastrophic decline in the substantive content of political debate. If we content ourselves with indignant posturing, personal attacks, and sheer venom in public life, politicians have no incentive to discipline themselves to address ideas. A political climate that thrives on hate-filled speculation about people like Tom DeLay and Rachel Corrie cannot expect to produce substantial approaches to critical questions. As long as we content ourselves with imagining Tom DeLay in a prison shower, or the persecution of Craig and Cindy Corrie, we will never see a discussion of the real questions before us. At a time of unprecedented and bitter national division, the United States managed to produce the Lincoln-Douglas debates. With the Luftwaffe raining bombs on London, and producing casualties equivalent to 9/11 every three weeks, Winston Churchill managed a dignified tribute to the memory of Neville Chamberlain. Public decency can go hand in hand with strong and substantive public debate.
A discipline attaches to empathy, to the effort to see things from the other person's point of view. You do not have to agree with someone to see their point of view; indeed, empathy often entails an effort to imagine what things look like to someone you strongly disagree with. It starts with a view of the facts; with the question: given this evidence, could someone not completely insane or evil believe what this person did? For a dedicated partisan of the Israeli cause, it may seem hard to see Gaza the way Rachel Corrie did. But even most supporters of Israel will admit that Palestinian civilians have suffered in this conflict, and it does not take an impossible effort to see how Rachel Corrie could have found this suffering unacceptable and intolerable. You do not have to believe what Rachel Corrie did in order to see that her beliefs do not make her insane or evil. In the same way, while I do not agree with much if any of the official acts and positions of Tom DeLay, I can still imagine what he must see when he looks at his career: over twenty years promoting the ideas and policies his conscience dictated and his constituents supported. From his point of view, his service must rate more than a shower room in a Texas prison. I can have compassion for the man without in any way moderating my criticism of him.
As a side benefit, cooling partisan fury allows us to address the cases of real scoundrels in politics. Politicians who act in a blatantly self-interested way, who violate the basic ideas they claim to stand for, deserve our deepest scorn whether we nominally agree with their positions or not. When we ask whether someone other than an out and out knave could act or speak in a certain way, and can find no answer but that they could not, then we can in turn accuse them honestly, not of disagreeing with us or of advancing a point of view we find wounding, but of violating the compact of trust at the heart of any civilized society.