Monday, October 12, 2009

The "Civil" Wars

An article written in today's Washington Post posits whether or not the foul-mouthed chorus of immature slights and sharp elbows that characterizes an internet world shows a new degree of rudeness or whether said dialogue merely reflects a new awareness of the democratic insult. To cite a personal example, I myself received an tremendous number of hateful, childish comments when a few seconds of the iReport I posted online to CNN was chosen for broadcast and aired on the network itself. What I had been attempting to convey in my talk were the many complexities of the life of Ted Kennedy, but what I quickly noticed were that most of the personal attacks I received did not even come close to directly addressing what I said. Few were really listening to or even contemplating my words, rather they just wanted to vent and many seemed to believe that my video provided them another opportunity to castigate anyone who could be so inhumane to kill babies by advocating for abortion rights. I think the most bizarre and gratuitous insult I received was the poster who told me to "comb [my] f__king hair".

For all the debate and the analysis, true civility might very well be an ideal rather than a reality. The instant feedback and information deluge of our internet age gives us the realization that human discourse provides us equal, ample evidence of every conceivable shade of good and bad. Nowadays, we often believe we live in the worst of all possible worlds. A pessimistic approach does not provide much in the way of comforting, helpful answers, but neither does the kind of radical optimism rightly savaged by Voltaire in Candide. As the article addresses, looking into the past to find evidence of a time where the trains always ran on time, every imaginable need was cheap and readily available, and people treated each other with courtesy and respect is wistful nostalgia for times that never really were.

Mary Schmich's opinion column entitled "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young" includes this bit of advice.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.

There have been as many pronouncements that society is on the brink of self-destruction as there have been prophetic sureties of the imminent Second Coming of Christ or the End of the World according to calendars of ancient indigenous peoples. The Post story addresses how the conservative pitchfork rabble falsely accused a DC area author and government worker of having some secret connection to the now infamous rap song, recorded in a New Jersey school over the summer by students, the lyrics of which dared to praise the President. The unfortunate subject of this massive knee-jerk, Charisse Carney-Nunes, voices how many of us feel when subjected to another pitched volley of irrationality hurled at us by an army of plate glass window-smashing malcontents.

Carney-Nunes spends a lot of her free time teaching children how to bridge divides, but she has no idea how to build a dialogue with those who attacked her.

"How can I talk to those people?" she said. "These are people who persist in believing that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that he isn't a citizen of this country. You tell me: Where is the beginning of that conversation?"

Contentious times produce contentious disagreements. We still believe, as did those who shaped this nation, in a liberal line of logic that insists, provided enough education, people can become self-aware, rational beings. The flaws in this argument are particularly glaring now, when education alone, or as the Right likes to call it, indoctrination, seems to be insufficient in the face of emotional excess. From a distance, it is interesting to observe the internal conflict within many people now up in arms over something that shows itself whenever passions are overheated. As though at war with both hemispheres of their brain, they bounce back and forth from uncivilized raw emotion to some degree of civilized restraint. That they themselves seem incapable of recognizing this is problem enough.

"Completely false allegations incubate in the fringe and jump within days to the mainstream, distorting any debate or progress we can have as a society," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which released a report last month noting a rise in the "militia movement" over the past year. "What's different is that a great deal of this is real fear and frustration at very real demographic and cultural changes."

I believe that we are on the right side of history and that our cause is just and good. Yet, I resist strongly the temptation to gloat or to condescendingly dismiss those who fear that reform, any reform, means destruction and that change, when enacted, can never be undone. Being snide and condescending only makes matters worse. Every meaningful conservative has one foot in the past and values the sanctity of the status quo. But as we have seen, merely returning to old ways does not provide simple solutions. The past is too messy and composed of too many ironies to be anyone's Golden Age, either for us or for them. We ought to take the lessons of the past as they are, without smoothing away its rough edges or glossing over the bits that don't serve our purpose. The Past, in its pure form, has no bias to Left or Right. It can be frequently be instructive, so long as we know that it calls us out as much as it calls out our opposition.

Returning to the subject of common decency or the lack thereof, driving much of this conservative grassroots backlash is the reality that this nation will soon consist of an ethnic and racial plurality, and many on the Right fear that balancing authority among separate identity groups, each with its own cultural peculiarities and goals, will lead to disunion and strife. Pat Buchanan and others have advanced this argument before and I fully expect to see more instances of it as the Caucasian majority in this country begins to slowly, but surely recede. We portray these people as foolish or intent on selfishly benefiting from a sense of white privilege and entitlement at our own peril. Fighting fire with fire in this instance is the surest way to eventually cause an inferno. Anyone with an itchy trigger finger is merely looking for a reason to pull it. And as for us, any self-contained group does an excellent job of talking to itself, but finding a way to know how to converse with the broader universe is the key challenge. Much of our discourse could be rightly described as choir practice, which is good to some extent, but we would probably be better served by developing ways to speak to the vast majority of Americans who do not embrace the politics of the conservative nutroots.

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