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"a world-concealing layer of diversionary and illogical and internally inconsistent noise"
During the Obama years, academics and media figures suddenly developed a brow-furrowing concern for civility; the National Institute for Civil Discourse was founded at the University of Arizona in 2011, the year after Americans were extremely uncivil about the individual mandate and the rest of the Affordable Care Act. The news was full of headlines about the decline of civil discourse in American politics:
Then, between roughly noon on January 20, 2017, and noon on January 20, 2021, civility stopped being a crisis. It became much less important, for example, to speak respectfully about the presidency and the president, and the problem was temporarily solved. There was no need for a civil discourse institute to analyze the prevailing forms of uncivil popular rhetoric, because reasons.
It’s suddenly important again. The governors of Utah and Colorado — a Republican and a Democrat! — have bravely released a video encouraging people to not openly loathe each other, calling for a rebirth of civility in the nation and at the dinner table:
Note that, in a brilliant piece of mise-en-scène, the two bare round heads are cinematographically matched and symbolically connected through the medium of the bare round dinner rolls. Gregg Toland used similar effects for Orson Welles.
If you can stomach enough warm vanilla pudding to actually watch the thing, you’ll notice something kind of…interesting. The Republican governor says that the challenge of being civil with your own family can be tough when “your MAGA uncle decides to share his thoughts on the latest election conspiracy.” Then he compares that to a moment at which “your woke niece passes along a particularly controversial fact that she read on social media.”
So the commercial that calls on us to respect competing points of view and avoid demeaning, dismissive discussion? It says that people at your family dinner table who speak from a right-oriented set of political starting points share conspiracy theories in discussion, while people at your family dinner table who speak from a left-oriented set of political starting points share potentially controversial facts.
The civility advertisement casually drops a cheap partisan insult. You have to wonder if they noticed, and you have to suspect that they did.
I tried to mention this ad when it first came out, but my eyes glazed over and I woke up on the floor of the living room. If those two men tried to talk to Charlie Sheen about strippers and meth, he’d get bored and nod off. They have a gift, of sorts.
But I was reminded of the thing a few days ago, when fourteen presidential centers jointly released “an urgent call to action for all Americans.” You can read the thing on the website of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, for example, because the gentlemanly LBJ is famous for his commitment to civility and restraint in political discourse (and for his deep commitment to integrity in honoring the democratic choice of the voters). But here’s the full text:
As organizations ideally positioned to lead on this critical matter, the cosigners offer this statement:
The unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, are principles that bind us together as Americans. They have enabled the United States to strive toward a more perfect union, even when we have not always lived up to those ideals.
As a diverse nation of people with different backgrounds and beliefs, democracy holds us together. We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount. At the same time, we live among our fellow citizens, underscoring the importance of compassion, tolerance, pluralism, and respect for others.
We, the undersigned, represent a wide range of views across a breadth of issues. We recognize that these views can exist peaceably side by side when rooted in the principles of democracy. Debate and disagreement are central features in a healthy democracy. Civility and respect in political discourse, whether in an election year or otherwise, are essential.
Americans have a strong interest in supporting democratic movements and respect for human rights around the world because free societies elsewhere contribute to our own security and prosperity here at home. But that interest is undermined when others see our own house in disarray. The world will not wait for us to address our problems, so we must both continue to strive toward a more perfect union and help those abroad looking for U.S. leadership.
Each of us has a role to play and responsibilities to uphold. Our elected officials must lead by example and govern effectively in ways that deliver for the American people. This, in turn, will help to restore trust in public service. The rest of us must engage in civil dialogue; respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.
By signing this statement, we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy undergirding this great nation, protecting our freedom, and respecting our fellow citizens. When united by these convictions, America is stronger as a country and an inspiration for others.
Obama Presidential Center
George W. Bush Presidential Center
George & Barbara Bush Foundation
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute
The Carter Center
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
Richard Nixon Foundation
John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
Truman Library Institute
Hoover Presidential Foundation
The New York Times correctly notes that the statement is “largely anodyne in its prose and is careful not to include specific examples that could seem to refer to a current or a former elected leader,” but then uses the institutional vagueness to insert a meaning: “But some of its wording, and its timing, appear to serve as a subtle rebuke of former President Donald J. Trump, who tried to overturn the last presidential election, continues to deny he lost and is now the Republican front-runner for 2024, even as he faces four criminal indictments.”
There is indeed a civility crisis in American politics, and a factual reality crisis, and a basic sanity crisis. But the refusal to be specific leaves us with a tub of wallpaper paste and a spoon, and you shouldn’t take them up on the offer to dine. The extremely clear consensus among people who regard themselves as the good people, the mainstream people, looks like this:
The presumptive Republican nominee needs to be in prison and off the ballot, and there can’t be any…third party…uh…
We need to save Democracy, with a capital-D, by offering the voters a single-party presidential ballot, while we throw the opposition leader in prison. I’ve discussed this increasingly naked prevailing sentiment in greater detail elsewhere:
A statement warning about threats to Our Democracy™ might have been meaningful if it had clearly warned against excluding major candidates from the ballot on the highly creative application of an 1860s standard without due process, or warned against the increasingly dangerous routineness of political lawfare, or denounced cancel culture and the growing practice of hysterically unpersoning the designated folk devil of the week. But something something Trump something something.
The supposed “civility” crisis is centered on the degradation of information and open discussion, and the people most likely to be coded as uncivil are the people who notice things they aren’t supposed to notice, things in the real world that violate the designated course of the narrative.
See also the great recent discussion with the novelist Water Kirn at Palladium. Highlight:
I’m going to stipulate—no one has to agree with me on this, but I have tried the case and come to this conclusion for myself—that between the deceptiveness, the agenda-driven nature, and the social-media-oriented vapidity of the press, it is no longer a reliable source of information about the world. It’s a very good source of information about itself. If you wish to know who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, who scored points and lost points, it’s a great scorecard. But if you’re looking to find out what’s going on, it’s a terrible one. In fact, it will actually conceal what’s going on in almost every respect. So I’ve given up on it….
This is a world-concealing layer of diversionary and illogical and internally inconsistent noise, under which the world exists somewhere.
People who warn against incivility in our public discourse are warning you against saying out loud that the things you see in the physical world don’t match the story you’re supposed to be consuming and accepting from political media. The message to be civil is a message to be passive, credulous, and manageable.
So be uncivil.
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