November 2009
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Our Uncivil Society

How far we've come and not for the best.

by Toni Seger


Civil discourse is the life blood of a democracy. Anyone who professes to love freedom would be expected to embrace public debate. It is the continual stimulus of conflicting voices that lends richness to the meaning of liberty. Our Founding Fathers didn't agree on lots of things, starting with whether or not they should declare their independence which was argued extensively without any agreement. It wasn't easy for the Founding Fathers to craft a single nation out of competitive colonies that saw themselves as separate countries. Just to participate in a debate about how they should react to a war that had already begun, they had to leave their homes and families, for protracted periods, without compensation or aid of any sort. The nature and function of government was a subject so clearly in its infancy, they lacked any reference for what this new type of government should look like. We honor these men because, whatever their differences, they approached their task as a duty compelled by the injustice they witnessed and so eloquently defined and they conducted their differences with respect.


Showing respect for another person's opinion isn't a function of whether or not you agree. It's a matter of regard for the other personŐs humanity. One of the benefits of living under a democracy is that citizens are granted a level of humanity by their government not allowed under dictatorial political systems. We tend to pound our chests with pride at the rest of the world when talking about our democratic system, but when we withhold respect for another person's humanity, we trash our democracy in the process. John Dewey, a leading 20th-century thinker and educational philosopher said:  "Democracy must be reborn in every generation, and education is its midwife." Dewey urged the teaching of civics to every generation in order to keep democracy alive. Were you taught civics when you were in primary or middle school? Civics is one of a number of things that have been allowed to slide in an era of deregulation that has thrown out the baby with the bath water.


Today, public discourse appears to have entirely lost its civility and, all too often, is used to manufacture ugliness in the cynical pursuit of manipulating the masses into a froth. During their White House tenure, Nancy Reagan repeatedly warned her husband about the danger of unleashing public emotions surrounding social issues. In contrast to the Bushes who followed him, Ronald Reagan seems remarkably restrained even as he scapegoated the poor with continual stories about irresponsible minorities gaming the system for their own self interest. (Of course, we all know white guys on Wall Street would never game the system for their own self interest.)


Bush One showed less restraint. He seized the public's attention with flag burning, a highly emotional issue though one with virtually no practical effect. In my opinion, that makes flag burning a false issue because, unlike real issues such as poverty, global warming and economic instability, no one gets hurt when someone burns a flag. Still, the subject arouses an enormous amount of emotion and Bush could whip audiences into a frenzy using it. He reminded me of a carnival barker whipping cotton candy into an giant sugary treat that dissolves the moment you touch your tongue to it. Using social issues to whip up a crowd is a cheap trick, but rage and indignation can be a good smokescreen for hiding more important concerns one would rather ignore. For example, as the threat of both terrorism and global warming grew, we debated President Clinton's sex life instead. When Clinton tried to warn us about Osama bin Laden, he was accused of using terrorism as a diversion from the media's racier and more profitable headlines until the lines between tabloids and 'legitimate' news, blurred and dissolved.


Remember when the press restrained itself from showing First Lady, Jackie Kennedy smoking a cigarette or First Lady, Pat Nixon having a drink? If you don't remember such niceties, you have no memory of a society with boundaries. Joe Wilson's expression of contempt for a Presidential address, as it took place in the halls of Congress!, is just another step downward into the mud and, unfortunately, it shouldn't surprise us because civil discourse evaporated almost entirely under Bush Two whose reign was launched with a 5 to 4 coup in the nation's highest court.


I don't think the Supreme Court will ever live down Bush v. Gore. It ranks with the worst abuses ever committed by the highest court like Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott. I will never forget the cold stony face of James Baker as he declared unpatriotic any further discourse on this fundamental question of democratic succession. After the coup, everything from health to justice to economics to war became a cut throat, marketing campaign conducted for profit on behalf of the richest among us. Republicans demonstrated an impressive ability to read the identical script as they moved in mindlessly locked step, defiant of consequences, even to the edge of a financial cliff before momentarily recovering their wits, last year, and demanding the government print money and throw it at the problems they'd created.


The McCain/Palin campaign didnŐt bother with boundaries at all. After all, they were defending the "real America", unlike the rest of us who, by implication, live in and defend a fake America. It was only when McCain was confronted with his own Frankenstein Monster in the form of a true believer ready to condemn Obama as a Muslim, that he began to back away from his unseemly tactics though one could also argue his response to the woman was even worse. ŇOh no ma'am, Obama isnŐt a Muslim. HeŐs a good man. He's a Christian.Ó


How much does incivility really matter? I grew up in New York under Republican rule, but it bore no resemblance to the current party. Nelson Rockerfeller was my Governor. Jacob Javits and Ken Keating were my Senators. They were more conservative than my own or my immediate familyŐs instincts, but they were thoroughly reasonable men who allowed for compromise and negotiation. Until 1994 and the ascension of Newt Gingrich who was fond of telling Democrats he didnŐt care whether or not they even voted, an ongoing dialogue between Republicans and Democrats was something I took for granted. Now I wonder if it's even possible anymore which is horrifying. No government lacking a dialogue cutting across ideological differences can adequately serve its people because their needs are secondary to winning the debate by any necessary means. 


In this regard, no excuse to express indignation is too stupid. I don't think I was ever so young that I wouldn't have been embarrassed if my mother kept me home from school to avoid hearing the President give me boiler plate encouragement to eat my vegetables and graduate on time. Is fear of the President really a lesson we want parents teaching their children? I thought Bush Two was pretty scary, but I didn't make a point of teaching that lesson to young people. What is the value of the ferocious and repetitive noise about Obama's profligate spending? It's as if not stimulating the economy with deficit spending were even an option. Do we really need to be reminded of what happened when Herbert Hoover didnŐt do anything? I am starving for real discourse over real issues, but I am sick to death of noise delivered for the sake of being louder than the other guy.


In the fall of 2008, as the US Titanic heaved and swayed, Republicans brought a hysterical demand to the Congress for $700 billion with no oversight. I think the bill ran two pages which must set a record for the skimpiest huge proposal in history. Passage was demanded before the end of the week and, naturally, any additional discourse was condemned as proof of an elected representative's lack of patriotism. (It's always patriotism, isn't it? Do I have to add that it's very offensive to have your patriotism questioned on a regular basis when you're supposed to be living in a democracy??) Anyway, all that happened only a year ago, yet since the election of Barack Obama, Republicans have been miraculously reborn as deficit hawks who screech at any spending that benefits anyone without golden spoons stuffed in their pockets. I suppose from their perspective, there's nothing hypocritical about all this. After all, if the largest banks are doing better, the recession is over. To hell with the rest of us.


As a tactic, rage is getting a lot of use these days with uglier and uglier results which is what stimulated this essay. Uncivil discourse at the highest levels poisons all of us, eventually. Recently, I made a visit to a neighbor I've long respected and loved as a valuable member of the community. HeŐs a retired Marine and Fireman who defended his country with distinction and, after that, thought nothing of risking his own life to save someone trapped in a burning building. He's a kind and generous man who heard about my husbandŐs heart attack on his police band radio, early one January morning, and drove over immediately to plow out our driveway so the ambulance could get in.


In recent years, however, he's gotten all his news from Fox Propaganda. Because he's positive "all of it must be true or they wouldn't be allowed to say it", he's happy to pass on everything he's learned. In this regard, he insists Obama got into office by faking his birth certificate and is hiding his real Muslim identity under a phony veil of Christianity. So completely undeserving of the Presidency is Obama, he's only entitled to our contempt and disgust. In fact, this normally decent man has become so convinced the President is downright dangerous, he even chuckles as he darkly hints that someone's going to shoot him and get rid of him for us. So much for keeping up with the newsÉ


For me, what's even more shocking is what happens when I react with shock at behavior that seems so unlike his nature. He says, he's just a Republican. Really? Is all this ugly invective just partisan politics and, if you think it is, should all of us behave like this? Leaders set standards for behavior. Is incivility, by which I mean the complete absence of civility, a good way to run a society and a standard to set for young people who define our future?


Consider the price we're already paying for removing all controls on lending. The entire cost isn't in yet, but we know we nearly buried ourselves in an avalanche of malfeasance. By lifting all controls on civility, aren't we creating similar chaotic consequences in our social relations? Let's imagine, for a moment, a society in which all of us regularly lie about and bully each other to get what we want, shoot each other in traffic if we're a little irritated, gun down school children as a way to get a point across, carry dangerous weapons to political rallies and display them with arrogant pride, smear each other's character in the most vile fashion without a thought for accuracy or even relevance and so on and so forth.


Am I naive or is there something wrong with this picture?


Anybody see anything patriotic in it?


Co-owner of a media/communications firm; ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of "The Telefax Box", the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, "The Force of Poetry" is available at