DAVID MICHAEL GREEN
Civility in politics is – pardon the anti-pun – all the rage nowadays.
Go figure. I guess assassinating members of the ruling class tends to have that kind of sobering effect.
So everyone’s talking nicey-nice, certain members of Congress will be sitting together during this week’s State of the Union despite their differing party affiliations, and most (but not quite) everybody has avoided calling each other Nazis for a week or two.
That’s cool. You know, I’m all for civility in politics. I’ve been disgusted and sometimes horrified at what has become of our national discourse these last decades. Shit like a multi-draft-deferral war-avoider, for example, running for the US Senate by branding a triple-amputee Vietnam vet as weak on national security, an’ all. Like that kind of incivility.
So yeah, can we and should we disagree more politely in American politics? How does whatshername put it? ‘You betcha.’
What I’m not down for, however, is civility that is actually a mask for capitulation.
Check out this sampling of headlines, from just one page (the front), of one newspaper (the New York Times), on one day (January 22, 2011):
“Obama Names G.E. Chairman To Fiscal Panel: A Pro-Business Signal by the White House”
“Tiny Species at Heat Risk, From Tropics to Peaks”
“Across Country, Lawmakers Push Abortion Curbs”
“In Tucson, Solace From Relatives of Past Killers”
“Olbermann Quits ‘Countdown’”
“CUNY Professor Threatened”
Get the picture, here? If the right is all of a sudden feeling more inclined toward civility in their conduct of American politics, maybe it’s because they’ve won every battle they’ve engaged in these last decades.
And if the “left” continues its pattern of “civility” in their conduct of American politics, maybe it’s because that’s the name they’ve given to what is in fact just capitulation to the right.
Well, strike that. There’s no maybe about it, actually. That’s precisely what’s happened.
And it pains me to see it.
BELOW: Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s Countdown. The scum of America is dancing on his grave.
It pains me to see that you can actually get away with running a political program for decades on end, in a democracy where everyone can vote no less, that is all about transferring the wealth of working people to the rich.
It pains me that the public is so dumb that you can steal their money and their quality of life, for decades on end, and successfully hide what you’re doing behind attacks on gays, or minorities, or immigrants, or tin-pot dictators abroad.
It pains me that (alleged) people ranging from Joe McCarthy to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck to Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh could infect American politics with their endless stream of venom, bringing it to its knees, and the public’s reaction to that is to decide that American politics is too angry and vitriolic in general. As though these folks had their lefty equivalent in – who? – Rachel Maddow? As though the vitriol were coming from both sides of the aisle.
And as though there even are two sides of the aisle, anymore.
In truth, there is. Kinda. Sorta. And peripherally. I do think there is a qualitative difference between Democrats and Republicans on issues of civil rights. And I think it highly unlikely that a Democrat would have plunged the country into the folly of Iraq in 2003. Even though it was America’s most liberal president on domestic politics – Lyndon Johnson – who lied the country into its most debilitating war, I think it’s fair to say that those days are over. Democrats are hardly different from Republicans on, say, ‘defense’ spending or the Palestinian conflict, but I don’t think they’re as overtly war-hungry as the chickenhawks of the GOP, plain and simple.
But the defining issue of our times is not civil rights or a stupid-ass war in Iraq. Rather, it is instead the question of the distribution of wealth in our society. And on these matters, there is almost no difference anymore between the two parties.
Consider the first paragraph of the Times’ “G.E. Chairman” article referenced above. It goes like this: “President Obama, sending another strong signal that he intends to make the White House more business-friendly, named a high-profile corporate executive on Friday as his chief outside economic adviser, continuing his efforts to show more focus on job creation and reclaim the political center.”
I’m sorry. I must need to get my hearing-aid batteries checked. For a minute there it sounded like you said “make the White House more business-friendly”? You mean the White House of Larry Summers, the nice man whose policies in the last Democratic White House brought us a massive global recession? Do you mean the White House that bailed out Wall Street, one hundred cents on the dollar, from their outrageous scams but has left the rest of us hanging, losing our jobs, our houses and our unemployment safety net? Do you mean the White House that drafted a ridiculous health care legislative monstrosity in order to placate insurance companies, forcibly driving 35 million brand-new customers into their arms? That White House? You want to make those guys more business-friendly?
There’s been only one issue that really matters in the thirty years since Ronald Reagan came to Washington, and that is the highly successful effort by the plutocracy to enrich themselves further by destroying the standard of living of the middle, working and poorest classes. All the debates concerning taxes and trade and labor rights and spending and regulation policy have been precisely about this single theme. And all the other debates about gay rights and Iraq and immigration and putting Christ back into Christmas have been peripheral matters to this core initiative, if not intentional distractions.
Astonishingly, this campaign has produced enormous success. And, since policies have consequences, these policies have had the consequence of directing almost every penny of the considerable growth in GDP sustained over the last thirty years into the hands of the rich, while everyone else slips into economic despair, or uses credit cards with usurious interest rates to barely keep their noses above water. I say “astonishingly”, because you’d think that this development was the product of a non-democracy, because in a real democracy people would never stand for it. But in fact, that’s exactly what’s happened, with the compliance of the victims in this crime. We do get to actually vote for the people who make policy in this country, but we don’t in fact choose candidates with our best interests at heart. In the most recent go-round, we picked a group of feral dog Republicans for our Congress even more obscene than the McCain-Boehner variety who impoverished the country only two years earlier.
So, no doubt Republicans are talking about civility in politics today. First, after Tucson their invective is unpopular even with astonishingly dumbed-down American voters. Second, they realize that bullets are now flying towards members of Congress and that they are, um, members of Congress themselves. But most importantly, there’s hardly anything left to loot. As Warren Buffet so eloquently put it, after noting that he pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than does his receptionist, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”.
BELOW RIGHT: Former President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush and Peter Maer. Referring to the tone of national discourse Bush Sr. said, “I don’t like it. The cables (TV) have a lot to do with it.” While he said he does not believe in personal name-calling, he singled out MSNBC personalities Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow calling them “sick puppies.” “The way they treat my son and anyone who’s opposed to their point of view is just horrible,” Bush said.
Yeah, I’m all for civility in politics. But not if it’s a mask for capitulation. And that’s more or less what I see in the American politics of the last generation or so. One “side” is just absolutely crazed-to-the-wall, seemingly unencumbered by any notion of civility, and absolutely destructive of democratic institutions and even government itself, in pursuit of its predatory agenda. Meanwhile, the other “side” pursues the almost identical set of economic politics, only with a nicer face and the endearing big toothy smile of a Barack Obama. But the outcomes are the same.
Those of us distraught at seeing the president punt on first down in his negotiations with the GOP thugs are making the fundamental error of seeing these conversations as actual negotiations. They are such only in the sense that one self-defining tribal faction wants to be the folks who get the perks from actually holding office and doing the bidding of the overclass, rather than allowing the other faction to perform that role. But substantively? Nah. Obama’s not ‘folding’ in ‘negotiations’ because he is not starting out anywhere fundamentally different than his ‘opponents’ in these conversations. They both want the same outcome, give or take a dollar or two here and there. They both have to manage their public images in order to appeal to their respective voting bases, while in reality simultaneously serving the same puppet-masters.
In this context, the current blah-blah over civility is just another side show, just another diversion.
And, in any case, civility is over-rated. While I agree that it is rarely necessary to employ the sort of ugly ad hominem attacks out of which the likes of Limbaugh have spun an entire career and a small fortune, what is truly lacking in our politics in not civility, but in fact passion. And honesty.
If I believed that the right in America had the interests of the world, or even just the American people, truly at heart, it would be one thing. But I don’t at all. I know instead for a fact that their interest is actually in destroying us folks if it is necessary in the process of looting us. Does that deserve the sort faux civility we arguably practice far too much? We weren’t called upon to be nice to the Japanese after they killed about 3000 of us in a surprise attack, were we? Why am I called upon to treat with respect millionaires and billionaires and the politician whores they’ve bought, when their goal is at least as destructive?
Does that seem like a far-fetched claim? “Worse the Pearl Harbor”, you say? To the hand-wringing centrists in this country, still desperately clinging for reasons of their own precarious emotional well-being to the prevailing ‘civility’ narrative, it’s a ridiculous statement.
Fine. I say, tell it to the perhaps one million dead Iraqis. Tell it to a million dead Americans, the victims of gun violence over the last generation’s time. Tell it to the rapidly proliferating number of species across the planet we are speedily eradicating. Tell it to the American children who can’t get health care or a decent education because public money has been redirected to tax cuts for the rich or ‘defense’ boondoggles of every sort. Tell it to the massive chunk of our population – a greater percentage than in any country in the world – behind bars in order to serve a for-profit prison industry. Tell it to the million of unemployed Americans whose jobs have been shipped overseas where labor is cheap and goon squads ‘disincentivize’ organizing into unions. Tell it to African farmers who starve to death because they can’t compete with subsidized American corporate agriculture. For that matter, tell it to the American family farmer. If you can find one.
You know, it’s bad enough being screwed. But it’s far worse to be screwed and to have to pretend it’s just an honest policy difference between well-meaning patriots with two divergent but equally legitimate and public-spirited positions on these issues.
It’s well past time to be blunt about our situation. Indeed, we cannot even hope to ameliorate it if we cannot even begin by labeling it.
The truth is that there are economic predators out there seeking to take what we have so that they can live ever wealthier lives while ours are short, nasty and brutish because of their institutionalized and legalized theft.
Victims of these crimes can choose to treat their assailants with civility if they want.
I’m not interested.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN teaches pol sci at Hofstra. He’s justifiably exercised about the willful (and successful) spread of idiocy in America.