Civility and Centrism

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | President Barack Obama, in his address at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting spree, got it just about exactly right when he said, “Let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”

In the days following Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ attempted assassination, many commentators have diligently documented the myriad instances of outrageous language, often filled with violent imagery, used by those on the right in recent years. Conservative Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” is one who will always make the point there are extremists on both the right and the left and mention inflammatory statements aimed at George W. Bush during his presidency.

We should not fall victim, however, to false equivalencies; any fair reading of the past two decades, encompassing the administrations of Obama, Bush II, and Bill Clinton, makes clear that the intemperate vitriol — including crosshairs identifying political enemies, charges that the first lady killed Vince Foster, and guns carried to venues where the president is speaking — has disproportionately come from the right.

Sarah Palin’s video remarks released early the same day Obama spoke have drawn widespread criticism and ridicule. Observers on the left as well as some on the right noted that she tripped badly in coming forward on a day meant to honor the dead and wounded to make her case that she is somehow the victim. Many also voiced anger at what they saw as her inappropriate expropriation of the phrase “blood libel.”

The real takeaway from her video, however, is that she is on the defensive. And that’s a good thing. Palin cannot be blamed for the deaths in Tucson, but her Know Nothing brand of politics is exactly the sort of distraction that keeps this country mired in the same tired rhetorical volleys year in and year out.

Scarborough’s show is the type of venue where pundits positioned slightly to the left of center join those slightly to the right of center to pat themselves on the back for their commitment to centrism. When Harold Ford, startled by the scrutiny he would face from progressives in a run for the US Senate from New York, dropped out, he sought out “Morning Joe” to argue that political correctness — on issues like marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose — has poisoned the well among New York Democrats.

But we draw the wrong lesson if we conclude that embracing civility either means pretending that we, as a nation, have no important differences to resolve or involves disenfranchising communities whose views don’t fall into some imagined political center.

The LGBT community is one of the few groups in America whose lives people feel free to talk about with impunity. Discussions about the responsibility of wealthy people to pay a higher share of taxes always run the risk of being labeled class warfare. It would be considered inappropriate for a panel of white Americans to discuss the implications of out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households in the black community without the participation of African Americans conversant on those issues. Any New Yorker who talks about gun control is quickly told they just don’t get it when it comes to how the average American lives.

But, nobody thinks it’s especially noteworthy when a panel of journalists or pundits that includes no openly gay or lesbian member goes on and on about our right to marry. Only undocumented immigrants are discussed at such remove in our culture. Perhaps the most distressing political development in the Obama years is that some Americans who apparently feel constrained by social mores in openly expressing antipathy toward African Americans have found a new outlet — defining the president, like us, as the Other, with the ludicrous charge he was born outside the US.

Obama, however, faces a different political challenge than the LGBT community. To succeed, he cannot be the arguer-in-chief; as president, he must somehow embody the entire nation’s hopes and aspirations, and therefore must simply steer clear of certain debates.

For better or worse, we are differently situated. Many of our leaders tell us that, like Obama, we need to prove we are just like any other American. But we are kidding ourselves if we think that arguing passionately in defense of our basic rights as citizens is not also a big part of the task ahead.

Civility and comity with our fellow Americans are wonderful aspirations. But we don’t have the luxury of walking away from major fights that our opponents engage every single day. Courage must be our companion.