"we can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down"

Although I was in the audience watching Barack Obama's speech yesterday, I was too exhausted last night to write about it.

But maybe that's not fully accurate, now that I've slept and I'm not exhausted, I still don't want to write about it. As I said yesterday, I thought he made some good points about civility. I just wish he had gone further, especially because he is in a position to do so. And if he means what he says about civility, then he should not be ignoring a very serious problem involving incivility. He'd be better off not bringing up the subject.

In his speech, he noted that this country has always been a contentious place:

...I think it's important that we maintain some historic perspective. Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business. It's always been a little less gentile during times of great change. A newspaper of the opposing party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced." (Laughter.) Not subtle. Opponents of Andrew Jackson often referred to his mother as a "common prostitute," which seems a little over the top. (Laughter.) Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson have been accused of promoting socialism, or worse. And we've had arguments between politicians that have been settled with actual duels. There was even a caning once on the floor of the United States Senate -- which I'm happy to say didn't happen while I was there. (Laughter.) It was a few years before. (Laughter.)
No disagreement there. And I also agree with him that the debate over the proper size and role of government has been with this country from the start:
The point is, politics has never been for the thin-skinned or the faint-of-heart, and if you enter the arena, you should expect to get roughed up. Moreover, democracy in a nation of more than 300 million people is inherently difficult. It's always been noisy and messy, contentious, complicated. We've been fighting about the proper size and role of government since the day the Framers gathered in Philadelphia. We've battled over the meaning of individual freedom and equality since the Bill of Rights was drafted. As our economy has shifted emphasis from agriculture to industry, to information, to technology, we have argued and struggled at each and every juncture over the best way to ensure that all of our citizens have a shot at opportunity.

So before we get too depressed about the current state of our politics, let's remember our history. The great debates of the past all stirred great passions. They all made somebody angry, and at least once led to a terrible war. What is amazing is that despite all the conflict, despite all its flaws and its frustrations, our experiment in democracy has worked better than any form of government on Earth. (Applause.)

On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was famously asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got -- a republic or a monarchy?" And Franklin gave an answer that's been quoted for ages: He said, "A republic, if you can keep it." If you can keep it.

Well, for more than 200 years, we have kept it. Through revolution and civil war, our democracy has survived. Through depression and world war, it has prevailed. Through periods of great social and economic unrest, from civil rights to women's rights, it has allowed us slowly, sometimes painfully, to move towards a more perfect union.

Fine words, eloquently and sincerely spoken. I was there, and the man couldn't have sounded more sincere. (But OTOH, maybe I shouldn't call eloquent people eloquent if they are some race other than white, lest I be accused of racism.)

What followed was an explanation of his view of the proper role of government, with which I disagree. But this is a basic philosophical disagreement and readers are well aware of what I think. So I'll spare myself and everyone else another rant.

I want to focus instead on what he said about the importance of being able to have a civil debate:

So, yes, we can and should debate the role of government in our lives. But remember, as you are asked to meet the challenges of our time, remember that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.

Now, the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. (Applause.) These arguments we're having over government and health care and war and taxes -- these are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions, and it's important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.

But we can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like "socialists" and "Soviet-style takeover" and "fascist" and "right-wing nut" -- (laughter) -- that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

Now, we've seen this kind of politics in the past. It's been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation's birth. But it's starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. (Laughter.) The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning -- since, after all, why should we listen to a "fascist," or a "socialist," or a "right-wing nut," or a left-wing nut"? (Laughter.)

It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

While I agree with most of that, there is a notable omission. A very painful one.

It is certainly true that people use phrases like "socialists," "Soviet-style takeover," "fascist," "right-wing nut," and "left-wing nut" to characterize each other, and that name-calling does not assist (as he says) "maintain[ing] a basic level of civility in our public debate." I think it speaks highly of him that he is trying to advance civil dialogue, and I don't doubt that he meant what he said sincerely. But there was a huge omission. A tragically missed opportunity.

Bad as the phrases he listed are, and much as they close the door to the possibility of compromise, undermine democratic deliberation, and prevent learning, none of them come remotely close close to a particularly malignant form of vilification that has now become a cancer in our democracy, and that is the false charge of racism.

Why couldn't he have mentioned that when the opportunity was perfectly presented? There he was, talking to an audience of overwhelmingly young people about to embark on their lives, many of whom voted for him, and most of whom no doubt look up to him. Why couldn't he have suggested that maybe it isn't the greatest idea to routinely level the charge of racism in political debates? Surely he must realize that calling people racists "closes the door to the possibility of compromise" and "undermines democratic deliberation, and "prevents learning" since after all, why should we listen to a racist?

The omission is so glaring that here I am a day later I am still upset about it. What upsets me is that the man gave a really good, inspiring speech, and he just sounded so sincere that...well... "tragic" is the only word that comes to mind.

After all, this was a speech about the need for civility. In such a context, I simply don't know how to explain the president's failure to condemn what I think is the most malignant form of incivility in American political discourse today. And because I do write this blog (in which I have spent seven years trying to be civil, but not always succeeding) I thought I should say something rather than just forget about it and write him off as a cynical hypocrite who condemns only some forms of incivility.

I was also inspired to write this because I liked what the president about listening to opposing views being essential for effective citizenship:

Still, if you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. (Applause.) It is essential for our democracy. (Applause.)
With that in mind, I would suggest that the president might try reading what
James Taranto
said last week about false charges of racism:
They won't give it up. "Are Tea Partiers Racist?" asks a Newsweek.com headline, apparently written under the mistaken impression that this hackneyed charge is still provocative. The subheadline reveals that the story doesn't even speak to whether the tea-party movement is racist but rather makes a more modest claim: "A new study shows that the movement's supporters are more likely to be racially resentful."

Well, what do you expect? If politicians and media personalities want to stir up resentment around the question of race, what better way than by badgering people with false accusations of racism?

I can't think of a better way.

And while I am glad the president said that "we can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down," and "you can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it," in light of his failure to condemn the relentless false charges of racism -- which are making it impossible to "maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate" -- I am stuck having to wonder about something.

Does he truly believe in the lofty goals he espouses?

Or is he just a good speech-maker?

posted by Eric on 05.02.10 at 06:46 PM


An objective appraisal of modern political discourse would reveal that the vast majority of truly uncivil dialogue is originating from the left. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have shown no inhibitions about criticizing their Republican successors, yet neither of the Bushes have done so. Obama's wine about civility reminds of the old lawyer's dictum about "What's mine is mine, what's yours is open for negotiation."

TomA   ·  May 2, 2010 9:51 PM

I'm somewhat alarmed to see you talking about "the lofty goals [Obama] espouses." He does not and never has espoused lofty goals. Instead, he uses lofty-sounding rhetoric to disguise his rather bitterly partisan goals. I can't even stand to hear the sound of the man's voice any more because I know whatever it is he says is some sort of lie designed to get more power for himself and his party.

Kurt   ·  May 3, 2010 12:35 AM

You think its "bad" to use the descriptor "socialist" or "fascist" to describe a politician who implements policies that objectively fall into those categories? Personally, I think its "bad" when such politicians eschew such labels - they know their ideology won't win in a vote, so they feign being something else in their rhetoric.

Mark Lindholm   ·  May 3, 2010 7:57 AM

As with all politicians, it's much more important to watch what Obama actually does rather than what he says. In that regard I agree with Kurt and Mark above.

RickC   ·  May 3, 2010 8:17 AM

Tyranny forfeits civility.

Brett   ·  May 3, 2010 8:30 AM

Tyranny might, but I don't.

Sorry that no one seems to have seen my point.

Eric Scheie   ·  May 3, 2010 11:30 PM

I'm somewhat alarmed to see you talking about "the lofty goals [Obama] espouses."

Here's what I said:


Does he truly believe in the lofty goals he espouses?

Or is he just a good speech-maker?


I'm alarmed that anyone would be alarmed by the posing of a straightforward rhetorical question like that.

Are you looking for heresy from the conservative cause? If so, you're at the right place.

Eric Scheie   ·  May 4, 2010 12:32 AM

I'm hardly looking for heresy. I'm just reacting to what seems to me a given these days after more than 15 months of the Obama administration. To say that Obama espouses lofty goals is, to my mind, to take his words at face value, but I think that his language is a currency which has been shown over and over again to be corrupt and counterfeit. That's why I'd no longer describe him as espousing any goals that were lofty: I take it as a given that if he speaks in terms of ideals that most people would find appealing, he is almost certainly lying. As RickC says: "it's much more important to watch what Obama actually does rather than what he says."

Kurt   ·  May 4, 2010 1:11 PM

To put it another way: perhaps "alarmed" was a poor choice of words, but I was looking to register my surprise that you even felt it was necessary to ask that particular rhetorical question. As someone who has been reading this blog regularly for about five years now, I had come to conclude that you and your fellow bloggers had developed the same almost instinctive distrust of Obama's rhetoric that I have. When he was still a candidate, a rhetorical question like that still seemed warranted, but now that he's had time to reveal himself as nothing more than a cynical, highly-partisan, divisive, manipulative hard leftist, the question that comes to my mind is not whether or not he believes in those "lofty goals" (because clearly he does not), but what he is trying to accomplish by acting like he does again now.

Kurt   ·  May 4, 2010 4:32 PM

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