September 2009

Good afternoon.

To state the obvious, our nation has become uncomfortably polarized. This phenomenon pertains not only to healthcare and Afghanistan, but to many other issues today. This situation is both challenging and confounding all at once. Where did this all come from?

When I was a young boy, primetime television covered interminable debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William Buckley. I would sit on our living room floor and watch mesmerized, in amazement, as these two giant figures debated all manner of things relating to politics, culture and economics. One impression I clearly recall was of their rhetoric, the elegance and use of words to convey thought. The way they would craft sentences together was something to behold. It seemed then more a contest of mind and wit rather than attacks and verbal abuse, which we see too often today. On occasion, they would even concede points to the other... truly unthinkable in our current political climate.

In Stephen Carter’s book, Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, he defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.” He goes on to say that civility is a “signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God.” When we are rude and hateful we diminish others. Isn’t it still possible to challenge another person’s ideas, yet treat them civilly and lovingly? I recall that my tutor at Oxford, Dr. John Walsh, would regularly rip my thesis and writings apart and yet invite me for a lager at the pub to laugh and carry on. ‘Nothing personal’ was his scathing critique. I recall him lamenting that American students at Oxford take criticism of their work as though it were a very personal attack upon them. In the 60’s, scholar Marshall McLuhan coined the term “the medium is the message.”  Today, the message and the messenger are considered inseparable. We attempt to destroy the messenger if we can’t beat the argument. Unfortunately, using negative politics works. There is very little substance in today’s highly charged political campaigns. Yet if I can hang something on my opponent—without regard to whether true or not, I win. How sad.

Several weeks back, we had the “You lie” challenge of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, the US Open outburst of Serena Williams and the MTV Awards craziness where Kanye West interrupted award winner Taylor Swift in the midst of her acceptance speech.  What’s going on? The bar keeps being lowered and lowered and lowered. Aggression seems in vogue. And the excessive and abusive speech in politics particularly, feeds on itself and demands greater and greater put-downs to be noticed.

I blame much of the divisiveness in politics and other things on housing prices. Yes, housing prices. Let me explain:  There was a time when Members of Congress actually lived here in Washington. Members of Congress lived in neighborhoods with their political adversaries next door. They went to Little League games and barbequed together regularly. Yet when it got too expensive, many of the members chose to leave their families back in their congressional districts or states from whence they cometh. This removes and personal association and it becomes much easier to vilify someone since you no longer know her or her personally. And isn’t this reality somewhat true for us all?  Isn’t it easy to hate entire classes of people: Muslims or liberals or conservatives or gays, when you don’t know one such individual personally?

I believe the other contributing factor to this increasingly balkanized world is cable television. Individuals like Sean Hannity and Keith Olberman have become financial enterprises in and of themselves. They command huge fees for speaking engagements, books and television. Ann Coulter could never applaud President Obama for any action and Wolf Blitzer can’t ever sing the praises of George W. Bush. It is simply too costly to their ‘brand’.  The economic rewards for rigidly holding to certain positions are just too compelling.

So where is the hope? After 9/11, I started an organization with Muslim scholar and diplomat, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, called The Buxton Initiative.  The intent is to bring Muslims, Jews and Christians around a table to engage in important civil dialogue concerning issues that truly matter to them in our ever changing world. The bedrock of this effort is civility, but not capitulation. In other words, we truly believe that differences make a difference. It is dishonest to pretend that we all agree, so we still argue our positions and worldviews vociferously, we just avoid doing so in a hateful manner. The result has been pretty amazing. Take a look at the link  Also check out the article that Akbar and I penned several years back at the inception of Buxton.

So my suggestion to you is, let’s celebrate civility and genuine care for others. Let’s not join the legions of polarized parties and groups who vilify those with whom they disagree. Let’s journey together to discover the olden way, the way of civility.




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