National Center for Civil Discourse Needs to Include Some Symbols of Incivility


REPUBLICANSTHIRST2.jpgI very much support the creation of institutions and movements that support civil discourse — and applaud the announcement of this new National Center for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona which Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush will co-chair.
The problem though is that it’s important to realize that the crowd they assemble to be stakeholders in these efforts can’t just be the warm and fuzzy, genteel types. The announced board includes Tom Daschle, Madeleine Albright, Jim Kolbe, Greta Van Susteren, Ken Duberstein, Trey Grayson, and Sandra Day O’Connor.
obamaanti-christ-300x290.jpgI like all of these folks and know most of them fairly well — but they are not the cutting edge of political discourse in America — and they are already so civil that having them doesn’t demonstrate a pathway to curbing incivility.
Only Greta brings a little sizzle because of her relationship with Fox, where a lot of the torpedoes of uncivil discourse are launched by Roger Ailes, Bill Sammon, Glen Beck and others as part of the business model of the network.
Others I think who are nationally important and would give this important institution a less stuffy feel that captures the dynamism of contemporary discourse would include Ann Coulter, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Robert Gallucci, Keith Ellison (in ex officio status given that he is serving in Congress now – but a leading Muslim American is important), Rahm Emanuel, Trevor Potter, Wes Boyd or Justin Ruben of MoveOn, David Brock, Fareed Zakaria, Grover Norquist, Arianna Huffington, Joshua Micah Marshall, Katrina vanden Heuvel, George Soros, David Boaz, Sidney Blumenthal, John Podesta, David Fenton, James Glassman, Chuck Hagel, Aaron Schock (another Member of Congress who seems cool with responsible political conflict), and more.
I might even try folks like Liz Cheney and David Addington who has recently become one of the top team at the Heritage Foundation and whose approach to national security infrastructure building is about as antithetical to my views as I can imagine. But if Addington felt strongly that civility in discourse was important, it would help decrease the too high temperatures of political debate.
We don’t need bland, whitebread politics, and America wouldn’t politically work as it is supposed to unless people, interests, media, bloggers, and institutions didn’t pursue their interests vigorously in a competitive framework.
But responsible conflict, responsible debate, responsible discourse need to be a valued, supported part of the political commons — and I think that some of the folks I have mentioned have demonstrated an ability to be both severe and balanced. Yes, even Ann Coulter. I admire her decision to speak to and “embrace” gay Republicans.
She has set an example that even the most strident and pugnacious of us can change and learn something.
So, kudos to Bill Clinton and G.H.W. Bush, as well as other movers behind the scenes in launching this Center — but friendly piece of advice: you need to bring in some of the symbolically less civil or not always civil or downright uncivil as stakeholders in the enterprise to dent public attitudes.
— Steve Clemons


9 comments on “National Center for Civil Discourse Needs to Include Some Symbols of Incivility

  1. Phil Perspective says:

    Here you go:
    Now tell me who has problems with civil discourse. The Indiana GOP is going to try and run Lugar out of town just because he works with Obama on foreign policy issues. Issues that have been Lugar’s thing for ages.


  2. Carroll says:

    ….” to dent public attitudes.”..(Steve)
    Is that the goal of the Center for Civil Discourse— to influence public attitudes–or opinions?
    That if they, the media and DC stars, talk more civilly the public will also calm down?
    I don’t see the benefit for the public.
    Maybe it will help Washington though, they can make up some more polite new speak terms like collateral damage one for innocent dead civilians and so forth.
    Maybe Al Franken will open up a National Center of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them for Honesty in Discourse.


  3. questions says:

    What Dan says, plus…..
    Sadly, though, we have a couple of conditions that make civility unlikely. First, we are appetitive and spirited creatures with a very thin veneer of rationality that is easily overpowered by testosterone, a good parking space, the tears in someone else’s eyes, the sense of righteousness we might carry around, and plain old love of power.
    Second, we compete for attention, and the best way to compete is within a game of escalation dominance. Language gets stale and loses its appeal after a while. Nothing like sexing up some intel to get the reaction you want!
    Third, we so profoundly disagree with one another that we honestly feel justified in being uncivil for the truth.
    It all shows up in Socrates as a willingness to battle proper enemies, but we really have to know who our enemies are. It’s not so easy.
    I get the feeling that money will change hands, some people will get some very nice grants, there will be tony conferences in tony towns, some wine will be served, papers read, hands shaken, blog posts written, and in the end, the gov of Wisconsin will fucking try to bust the public unions so the fucking oligarchs can fuck over the working class….. Oh, fuck.
    See, it doesn’t last long!


  4. Sand says:

    “…The real problem is that serious people are unwilling to say that GW Bush is a war criminal who, according to the standards set at Nuremberg, should be hanged…”
    I agree — it’s like these guys are taking the piss. I bet it’s amusing for them — thinking no one can touch them.


  5. DonS says:

    Since the inception of this Institute likely gained some impetus from the shooting of Rep. Gifford, I can relate it also to the shootings at Virginia Tech several years ago. This is always brought up in discussions of civility and excess , especially by those who see no contradiction between improved civility and enlarging the venues for gun toting enforcers. I was involved in the aftermath of the Virgina Tech shootings, which has really gone on for years. One thing that can be said for a certainty is that there has never been a clamor at the University or in the town for more guns on campus, or even allowing guns on campus. Virtually no one directly or tangentially involved thinks having students or teachers carrying guns would have improved the outcome. Of course, the blowhards in the Assembly have had their say (and even recently thought it important to allow people to exercise their “2nd amendment rights” in bars).
    It is therefore with dismay but not surprise that I note the following exercise in improved civility brought to us by the gentle folks in Texas, where over half of the members of the Texas House have co-sponsored a concealed carry on campus bill.
    It’s not as though I am against a civility Institute — although one wonders whether the universe really needs another Institute of any kind. This sort of conscience-salving approach to the recognition of how divisive we have become as a nation may have its place. But I am more inclined to agree with Steve that the Institute needs some really uncivil people, like Addington and Coulter to be included; but not to ensure buy in, which I doubt will happen, but to highlight the problem.
    Part of me also is not very impressed at Clinton and Bush lending their ‘prestige’ to the venture. Neither of them has been very civil in different but important ways, and to have them as headliners really just puts the imprimatur of conventional wisdom on the whole thing.
    Civility in discourse is one thing. But if it is used to mask the incivility of the plutocratic classes in this nation as they strip the remnants of dignity from the working class and the poor, then it is a bad bargain. With headliners like Clinton and Bush should we expect anything but reinforcement that the people who are being screwed in this country should sit down and shut up. The teabaggers are upset because they sense much is wrong; unfortunately their analysis leads to seriously misguided conclusions which may only exacerbate the worst. Progressives are upset, but increasingly marginalized by the apologist center. The right wingers are upset because they believe their own propaganda. The only folks who appear not upset are the plutocrats; things are pretty much continuing to go their way.
    So by all means, let’s have a certain civility of discourse; but not a civility that prescribes acquiescence to the parameters of the status quo. It is exactly that sort of civility, I’m afraid, that many see as the real goal. There is, or should be, a legitimate rage in the mistreated middle class and underclass of our nation that calls for appropriate action. But the goal of too many who call for civility is to keep those who feel rage dazed and confused, marginalizing that rage. Getting us to admit we all own the problem — incivility — should not be allowed to defuse the underlying legitimacy to the rage. And you don’t get establishment figures to buy into that in a genuine way; their parameters are far too constricted; their vision too theoretical.


  6. MarkL says:

    I’m very strongly opposed to the creation of this center, for several years.
    First, isn’t this about the same as telling a gun-toting, gang running teenager that he needs to say please and thank you?
    Sure, there are some very strong words spoken, but epithets are irrelevant. The real problem is that serious people are unwilling to say that GW Bush is a war criminal who, according to the standards set at Nuremberg, should be hanged.
    Or to say that we don’t have a functioning democracy at all anymore: Bill Clinton is just as corrupt as any Republican. He won’t stand up to the oligarchy—with his wealth, he is part of it now. WJC is as much a part of the problem as the Koch brothers, anymore.
    More honest speech please, and less of this absolutely ridiculous emphasis on tone.


  7. Dan Kervick says:

    One suggestion I would have for these civility-promotion programs is that they emphasize a “civility works” theme. The value of civility does not just reside in its capacity to make everyone feel better. The canons of civilized discussion and debate that have been developed over the centuries – in both the political and academic context – embody a lot of hard-won and accumulated wisdom about the habits of thought and speech that sustain conditions under which truth is most likely to emerge. And good decisions are those informed by the truth. We should aim for a rational and civilized discourse so that so that we can think and act smarter.
    Also, people have to understand that rational discourse is not necessarily pleasant and comfortable. It’s quite the opposite. Emotional diatribes are so popular in our society because people take pleasure in daily fixes of rage and hostility that validate their pre-existing prejudices and don’t challenge them to change their views. Emoting is fun. Rational debate, on the other hand, takes one out of one’s comfort zone of stock responses and emotional fixations. So if people expect a turn to civility to make them feel better, they might be going into it with misleading expectations.
    We should promote the civility ethic in the same way we promote the work ethic: hard work and rational debate are both good for the country and the community, and so people should be made to feel obligated to sustain the traditions and expectations of hard work and civility as a means toward the common good.


  8. WigWag says:

    Ken Duberstein is the very incarnation of the concept of civility. He’s a Rockefeller Republican who served as a Cheif of Staff for the father of modern conservative politics, Ronald Reagan. He owns a lobbying shop and his partner, Mike Berman is a liberal Democrat and an ardent one at that. Duberstein is simultaneously close to Colin Powell (his closest friend) but also Newt Gingrich. Despite his friendship with Newt, Duberstein endorsed Obama for President instead of McCain who he has worked with for years.
    Not only is Duberstein civil; he’s effective-which makes him a rare commodity in Washington, D.C. When Rahm left, Obama should have tapped Duberstein to be his chief of staff.
    Serving on the Board of a National Center on Civil Discourse is fine; but it’s a waste of Duberstein’s talents


  9. Phil Perspective says:

    What is this institute supposed to address? Are Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck going to disappear from the radio/TV? Then what’s the point? We all know that the incivility, and lies, are all coming from one side. Is this new National Center for Civil Discourse being put together with the express written purpose of giving Jon Stewart the warm and fuzzies?


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *