James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Violence

  • H.L. Mencken on 'Civility,' Improbably Enough

    'He carefully guards his amour-propre'

    From a reader in North Carolina:

    >>I'm sorry this is late to the discussion, but it took me a while to run down the quote from H. L. Mencken. I think about it often, but I wanted to get it right, as I think it sums up civility in public or private discourse.He laid down these rules doing a controversy with Upton Sinclair:

    "[W]hen [a person] fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour-propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest -- and perhaps, after all, right."

    These three assumptions about one's opponent, his decency, honesty, and possibility that he's right, seem to me the essence of civil argument. Just as important, I think, is Mencken's reason for civility. It isn't for the other person's sake, or even to ensure a good debate. A person is civil for his or her own good. Descent into incivility is demeaning to the uncivil person, not the opponent. Those who screech in the public forum may win the battle of a day. They may even win all the battles. But in the process, they have irreparably injured themselves.<<

    This is an interesting quote from Mencken, given his known love for florid denunciations. So maybe it's useful as something to bear in mind during extended disagreements/discussions.

    On the "useful to bear in mind" point: obviously people are always going to disagree, occasionally turn into "haters," get angry and unreasonable, and all the rest. That's life, and it's politics. But in the long-term ups and downs in the tone of political discussion, it's handy to have reminders or guidelines of better and worse ways to do things -- and this is one.

    I was on a discussion of related themes this morning, on the Diane Rehm show, with Deborah Tannen of Georgetown, Jill Lepore of Harvard, and former (and I hope future) Rep. Glenn Nye. Online here.

  • 'How to be Civil': The Finale!

    One more trawl of reader ideas about defining and improving public behavior. Let's hope some of these work.

    Previous installments here and here. The question is whether the even-now ever so slightly fading talk about "civil" discourse means anything in practice. Today we have one more set of suggestions from readers. First, from a reader on the stakes in changing the political tone:

    >>The incivility that typifies political and public life pushes people like me away from engaging in the public discourse and away from public service.  In the private sector people are mostly polite because it's good for business and crucial to getting things done.  The harshness that we find in the public political discourse is the result of self-selection: only the nasty and the really thick-skinned opt to engage in political life.  I and many others are turned off by the nastiness and choose to disengage from the public discourse.  I confess that I have abandoned the future of my country to the nastiest people around, both Democrats and Republicans.  Let them play in the mud, I'm not interested.<<

    'Wrong, but not bad':

    >> How about this one: Talk of your opponent as someone with different views, beliefs or opinions that you think are wrong, but not as a bad person.

    That to me has been the most damaging thing in our politics in the last 30 years; people cannot simply disagree with their opponent. They have to somehow paint the other person as being a bad person as well. This eventually leads to the kind of crackpot rhetoric we see from Beck and Limbaugh and Palin; that Democrats are not just wrong on something, but are actually conniving to do evil and nefarious things because they are, at base level, bad people. This kind of demonization is in the long run much more dangerous than the simple use of bombastic rhetoric because it can somehow justify, in the unstable mind, the impulse to use violence. After all, if one is targeting an actual "enemy of the state" (and trust me, many people really do believe that Obama is willfully and intentionally trying to destroy America), that makes one not a deranged loon, but a hero.<<

    Enough with Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, et al:

    >>I have one to offer: Eschew hystical historical hyperbole. In other words, avoid equating your opponents and/or their programs to historical figure, acts, movements, or periods that are widely understood to be examples of evil unless you could make the case for the analogy with a straight face to a credentialed academic historian knowledgeable about the time period.

    The more heinous the object of comparison, the more cautious you should be in invoking it. Words to use with extreme care, if at all, include:Socialist, Communist, Marxist, Leninist, Hitler, Stalin, Goebbels, SS, Cossacks, Holocaust, Pogrom, apartheid, blood libel, Crusade, cruxifiction, slavery, lynching, etc. Throwing these terms around casually is not only inflammatory, it's insulting both to your contemporary opponents and to the victims of the actual historical atrocities. Use historical comparisons only when they actually illuminate the discussion of contemporary issues. (Acceptable: Discussing the ways in which gay marriage bans are and are not like anti-miscegenation laws. Unacceptable: Calling NPR executive Nazis.)

    As a first step to demonstrating your understanding of and commitment to this principle, promise here and now to stop using the words "Fascist" and "Communist" interchangeably, and to stop using them to refer to ANY contemporary mainstream American politician.<<

    Don't assume anyone is anti-American:

    >>I think your one piece of guidance [from a reader] may actually do the trick:

    "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart."

    It reminds me of a Sunday School lesson with my kids. Jesus is asked which is the most important commandment: He answers: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

    It seems that your rule would prevent Rush Limbaugh from saying:

    "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president."


    Sarah Palin from saying Obama "pals around with terrorists" or that Obama is "hell bent on weakening America."

    Almost everything I can think of would be covered by your simple guidance: never imply that your opponents are traitors, advocate overthrowing the U.S., wants to harm U.S. citizens, is un-American, needs to be stopped by any means necessary, deserves the death penalty for their policy positions or isn't a "real American."<<

    No more harping on the 'real America':

    >>Civility in political dialogue, of course.

    My pessimistic take:

    For the deceitful, civility has no meaning.

    My optimistic take:

    All citizens are Americans. Anything that characterizes another American as not "on the team" is off limits.

    So, to talk about "real America" or "taking back America" or treating one of your ostensible American teammates as a "target" is off limits. On the ground that it is absolute, unadulterated bullshit that no respectable teammate would ever do. This is actually a pretty easy measuring stick to apply. Wanting Obama (team captain) to fail? Not only unacceptable, we're beating the snot out of this guy in the shower...<<

    On the other hand:

    >>I like the idea of more civility in public life. I am pro-civility. But when your reader suggests that we "never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart," s/he crosses that line that separates reasonable norms of expression from attempts to rule certain forms of political expression out of bounds.

    Does everyone in politics, in fact, have "the best interests of Americans at heart"? It would be surprising if they did. American politicians are not, in general, less selfish, greedy, or corrupt than people in any other field or any other country. And if someone in public office is behaving in a selfish, greedy, or corrupt way, it doesn't help to pretend that he or she is merely a well-intentioned-but-misguided patriot.

    Norms against invocations of violence are highly desirable. Norms against vigorous and sometimes personally insulting political argument have no place in a democracy.<<

    The role of simple manners:

    >>Civility-How about we simply go back to manners. Remember manners? Emily Post? Handshakes, where people look each other in the eye, hats off in buildings boys etc. Let's easy up on the profanity.

    Boycott bombastic, self-serving media outlets, and take the time to call, email, text companies who advertise with those outlets, and or boycott those companies. My wise and sage 94 year old father would say, "hit them in their wallets".

    We seem confounded about children bullying. Really? There is huge segment of adults that do that all day and into the night on TV, radio, on internet forums.... How about parents? What are our children over-hearing us say to one another? If the kids are hearing what that guy was spouting, it's a wonder there isn't even more hatred abounding. They bully cause the significant adults in their lives bully.

    We are all responsible for what is happening. Until we all stop waiting for someone else to fix it, and get involved, it will not stop and we will only have ourselves to blame.<<

    Journalists need to do more:

    >>I haven't heard much introspection from reporters, journalists or talking heads on whether they should more consistently call people out (in real time) when they try to push an untruth or false equivalency. Those who don't see their job in purely cynical terms have the opportunity to set the groundrules, call foul when appropriate, and ultimately reduce the megaphone they give those who repeatedly cross the lines.<<

    A few rules:

    >> 1) No side has a monopoly on the truth.

    2) Beware tribalism in politics. (Orwell might've referred to this as one of the smelly orthodoxies...?) Step outside of the (D) and (R) boxes. Think of the sharp, decent people one has met who vote differently than one does; think about the level of scorn one is truly willing to heap on them.

    3) the Golden Rule works, as does the Hippocratic Oath.

    4) Perceive, deeply, the dark side of a system that, arguably above all else, prizes victory in political competition. Perceive the effects of money on politics and of power on human decisions.

    5) Find a hobby other than politics. I have fallen into this trap as well, partly because it is such an interesting subject and full of personalities and events that interest me, and it does have some impact on our daily lives (though that varies from group to group).

    In the end, we are contemplating how we as a society will allocate material goods and services, and to whom we will grant the administrative authority to effect such allocation. That's it. If one's ears turn red on a subject like this, one has to step back and ask: seriously? seriously?? Even as a fed myself, I say, there is more to life. <<

    Another checklist:

    >>Here's my take on guidelines for civil discourse:

    Discuss only the topic, not the person making the argument.
    Check your facts -- and recheck them. If you're unsure, don't use it (or acknowledge your ignorance).
    Avoid hyperbole, unless obviously humorous.
    Avoid violent metaphors and similes.
    Never advocate violent action as a solution unless discussing an actual conflict or a declared enemy, but even then, be cautious.
    Focus on reason, not emotion.
    Acknowledge counterarguments, and respond with respect. (Insults can, and should, be ignored).
    Try to persuade those who disagree with you, and don't incite those who do.
    When a statement angers or annoys you, be aware of your emotions and exercise self-control in your response.

    I'm sure there are more, but these would be a pretty good start, I think.<<

    The Golden Rule applies:

    >>Applying the Golden Rule(s) to politics is easier than in most circumstances (imo):

    (1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you...

    (2) Do not do unto others that which you would not wish done unto you...

    (3) If (1) AND (2) do not not seem applicable, you're either facing an implacable foe...

    ... unless, of course, the unilateral lack of civility by one party can justify the assertive reaction of another.

    Isn't "mutual respect" an adequate definition? ... and then again, it takes two to tango (whether in step or not).

    I had different image in mind: Civility is a two way street... but what happens when one side or the other treats it as a single-lane by ignoring the rules of the road... or when there is no agreement on which side of the road one drives on! Life as a game of chicken - or as a Mexican standoff - if awfully wasteful and destructive even if one of the sides recognizes and acknowledges the futility of it all.

    It's not a game at all, in fact ... or at least not a very fun one.<<

    The power of shame:

    >>As with all values, an adult should know what is civil and not civil, by one's own standards, when one experiences it in one's own and others' behavior. Having this sense is as important as having "civility" defined. The same concept applies to "shame." Chinese say: To possess a sense of shame is akin to having courage.<<

    Fair and balanced:

    >>1. Serious news outlets should call out, as a regular feature, those whose stock in trade is to focus vile hatred on a specific politician day in and day out. Example: Andrew Sullivan's unhinged obsession with Sarah Palin.
    2. News outlets as well as their pundits should be called on to apologize when they publish baseless partisan non-sense and fail to retract it when shown wrong. Example: James Fallows claims that Fox News had some ulterior motive in uniquely identifying a dead former government official as a former government official, when NPR was identifying him in identical fashion as FOX.
    3. Include the following disclosure on the appropriate pundits when they pontificate about political violent imagery: Note- this author finds it perfectly reasonable that an admitted and unrepentant political terrorist holds a tenured position with a state and federally supported university where he instructs students. His/her claims to be shocked by violent political rhetoric should be considered in that light.___
    My personal algorithm usually involves imagining explaining what I've done to either my mother, or my daughters, or both. This covers most instances of doubt.<<

    No more 'ism's and 'ist's:

    >>Only half serious but I am convinced that this suggestion would work wonders to improve the quality of civic discourse.

    Invoke a ban for one year on the use in public discourse on any word that ends with "ism" or "ist"

    ( I would include in this ban a special case for the words "conservatives" "liberals" "democrats" and "republicans" All are in the plural purposely. Referring to a political group has the same effect of generalizing charges and allowing the accuser to avoid accountability for his/her speech).

    What I've found following discussion strings is that the exchanges stick to the point on average through 2 or 3 posts before one of the posters uses as word that ends in "ism" or "ist" or one of the four words mentioned above . From that point the dialogue spins out to become a volley of a accusations, personal attacks and general ill will that usually ends 4 or 5 posts later when one or both have exhausted their standard-issue ammunition. There is always a note from one or both acknowledging that the other is sadly beyond redemption. And, then it ends, neither the wiser for having even bothered to engage the other.

    In light of recent events, it might also have an effect on dampening the urge to violence. It is a lot harder to well up the anger to kill a person than it is to shoot an "ist."<<

    And no more 'other' too:

    >>My simple rule:

    Do not dehumanize political/philosophical opponents as evil or "the other" or "not one of us" or out to destroy our nation, or family and our way of life unless you have a damn solid, provable reason for doing so.

    How does one compromise, coexist or even communicate with "evil"?<<


    >>Civility means balancing the right to express yourself with others' rights to express themselves. No more holding of ideological prisoners, but acknowledging the humanity of those who disagree with you.<<


    >>Any language that attempts to delegitimize the other side should be taboo. I don't mean just the birther narrative; I mean language that characterizes the other side or government employees as enemies of the country or of the Constitution. Last week, Darrell Issa said, "The enemy is the bureaucracy." Who do you think the bureaucracy is? It's people like those Census workers CNN commentator Erik Erikson said he would shoo off his property with "his wife's shotgun" & Rep. Michele Bachmann said she would refuse to answer.

    Erikson's reaction to the census, a Constitutional requirement, brings to mind my next taboo. Erikson said of the census, "The servants are becoming the masters. We are working for the government. We are becoming enslaved by the government."

    So ditto for language that suggests the "government" or the other side is going to "take away your freedoms." ... Other euphamisms for acts of violence are just as bad. Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment remedies" comes to mind; she is providing a "Constitutional" rationale for violent acts against the government.<<

    You have to criticize your own:

    >> Mr. Fallows, can you see why publishing two letters that mention Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as the examples of who needs to improve civility, and never mentioning Keith Olbermann or Sarah Bernhard or Alan Grayson or Paul Kanjorski -might lead someone conservative to doubt your sincerity? [The letters I put up here are representative of what came in, just for the record.]

    From a different angle: Who do you think is more likely to listen to you, liberals or conservatives? Why don't you focus on liberal pundits and politicians? There you can maybe make a real difference, without the possibility of them feeling that you're just trying to weaken them politically. Let me see a real movement among liberals, saying (a) speak civilly about conservatives [include your list of suggestions.] (b) We're not kidding. If you won't, I don't want you in my party.

    You have to mean it.

    I personally would like a lot more civility in political discourse.<<


    >>To have a more "civil" discourse we would need to come to some kind of broad based agreement on what "civility" means, who we want it from and how to enforce it. The best model for this I can think of is FactCheck.org on the factual accuracy of political players. The problem with their model is that it has, as far as I can tell, done nothing to actually change how truthful political discourse is. They do good work, but their theory of change is weak. If we wanted a CivilityCheck.org to do better it would need buy-in from all or almost all of the players and some form of censure that would actually get political figures to apologize or change their rhetoric.

    Now, that would be a nice thing to have in an ideal, perfectly civil world. But I doubt such a thing could ever happen. I agree with the responses that focus on our side. We may never get everyone in the world to agree to the Code of Civility, but what if 5-10 liberal commentators started taking on incivility within our side? Unlike abstract debates on how to make politics as a whole a civil place I think there is a real chance that could have a measurable impact on the content of left-leaning media, and thus left-leaning readers. It isn't going to make everyone become civil, but it might do something.<<


    >>Your correspondents on civility (and perhaps you, yourself) assume a level of reasonableness in public discourse that does not actually always exist. When, for instance, Dennis Kucinich inveighs against mind-control rays from outer space, the only reasonable response is, "You're an idiot." Or when Charlie Rangel doesn't pay his taxes, what can one say but, "You're a crook"? Ditto William Jefferson and his freezer cash. And when Clinton is shown to have had some kind of relations with Monica Lewinsky, how can one not say, "You're a cad and a bounder"? One more: former Representive Paul Kanjorski's explicit call to assassinate the now-current governor of Florida:"That Scott down there that's running for governor of Florida. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him." (See The Scranton Times-Tribune.)

    I know all my examples are from the Left; consider it a corrective. Your readers will enthusiastically supply dexterous examples. However, I'm willing to bet a doughnut that they will not be able to find a Sarah Palin quote explicitly advocating the murder (as opposed to the 'targeting') of a Democratic politician.

    Of course, most politicians are not so far removed from either reality or normal standards of adult behavior. Still, any standard of civility that prevents one from calling a spade a spade is likely to be either ignored or used by ne'er-do-wells to mask their misdoings.<<

    We are soft:

    >>As a nation, we seem intellectually soft, vulnerable to the manipulative rhetoric of those who seek to influence our actions or beliefs to the benefit of their ideology, or their political ambition. This softness may be the result of the current economic state plunging us into survival mode. Perhaps it follows from the deep national disinvestment in education and its main consequence, the failure to prepare us for critical thinking.

    Whatever the reason(s), we have become easy prey for the barrage of lies that permeate public discouse. The most grievious example I can think of is the idea of "government death squads" as we were asked to consider the issue of national health care. We need to remember that, for whatever reasons, many of our fellow citizens fail to read the fine print, relying, instead, on the voices from the radio, the television, the rally, the newspaper, to arrive at a conclusion. The people who belong with those voices should hold themselves responsible for the veracity of their words or we, as a nation, should find a way to make them do so.<<

    It's not about being 'nice':

    >>I don't think 'civility' in politics means 'being nice' or not saying things you wouldn't say in front of your 10 year old. The America political culture has devolved into a permissive, 'anything goes' free-for-all. It's a political problem that won't stop unless voters hold their elected officials accountable for misrepresentations, out of context denunciations, character assassination and general shallowness. That won't happen without a a leader who contrasts sharply with mendacity and shallowness. It won't happen with the news reporters and analysts covering politics with the play-by-play breathlessness of sportscasters, as they have the last few days regarding charge and counter-charge about political discourse. Obama, as President, is the only one with enough credibility on this issue and moral authority - i.e., relatively unblemished from saying stupid things - to step to the plate.<<

    Or about being 'polite':

    >>The idea that we need to define civility is just a red herring in my view. It will obviously vary between people. I don't include "polite" as a requirement for being civil but I'm sure others do.

    What I expect are boundaries and when they get crossed, as I'm sure they will be from time to time, those people are called out for doing it. Today, it is the constant drumbeat, primarily from the far right who try to delegitimize their opponents, make wildly exaggerate claims, and use frequent allusions to the use of force that induce people to be fearful for their way of life and even their lives. While I'm sure I could find an example of this behavior on the left, it is principally coming from the far right and is endorsed, if only tacitly, by many on the right. In the sixties, talk of violence came principally from the left even though a few examples could be found on the right. Often this discussion tries to make most of us out to be morons. That we can't tell the difference in behavior or that we don't know that those responsible understand what they're doing and the potential ramifications.

    I want to make sure that one of the victims in the Tucson shooting doesn't get forgotten. It happened once before when I saw the photo of the dying infant being carried by the firefighter out of the ruble of the Oklahoma City bombing incident. That photo turned what, for me, was at first just a remote horrible tragedy into a very visceral "punch in the gut" type reaction. Young children in the second floor daycare center, became incidental victims of Timothy McVeigh deranged anger at the federal government. As my son was five years old at the time and I worked for local government, my reaction was this could have been him.

    Although my son is now in his twenties, I feel the grief and anger Christina Taylor Green's parents must be feeling right now...

    Adopting new rules aren't the solution and gun control isn't of primary concern. It's not letting the proponents of fear and retribution to get away with it in the public discourse. The media has to hold their feet to the fire when unacceptable and unfounded claims, innuendos, and instigations are made either on the right or the left. Justifications of equivalency are just not valid and should never be accepted.

    This has got to stop.<<

    It's about guns:

    >>... We don't need to harp on civility in political discourse, it's part of politics, but when the discourse turns to discussions of how the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to attack elected representatives and other officials of our government, then that should be condemned. I'm not saying that eliminationist rhetoric should be illegal but those who spout it should be condemned and held accountable for incitement to violence.

    Let's focus on the eliminationist rhetoric, identify it in the public records, describe it carefully to understand where it is coming from, name its sources and influences, and then condemn them.<<

    Being against ideas, not people:

    >>Andrew Sullivan offered this suggestion last night that seems a pretty good minimalist starting point:
    One simple norm is not making a violent threat in words or images that singles out any individual human being. Wage war against abstractions, not people. Is that so outrageous a suggestion?

    I think you are too optimistic to claim that a norm against weapons and implied violence is a 'gimme' - I'd love to see it, but you'd run smack into right-wing gun rights with it, and it wouldn't get any further, I'm afraid. The pragmatic element that Andrew's suggestion gets at is that we use violence as a metaphor all the time in our discourse [sports, politics, business] - trying to discourage it at the abstract level is probably one step too far to hope for, and gets mighty close to the efforts decrying violent lyrics in songs and other entertainment. There's a big distinction, I know, between norms and laws - but I think I am with many folks who don't have a problem with the wielding of violence in art because I believe I value the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical.. Even though I'd be willing to sacrifice the loss of civility on the altar of a pretty wide tolerance of violent expression, I still hope some minimalist lines can be drawn that discourage personalized attacks with violent imagery.<<

    Just tone it down:

    >>I followed the link from your reader to the P.M. Forni book on Choosing Civility and read in the Amazon excerpt this gem:

    "Courtesy, politeness, manners, and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness. Civility is a form of goodness; it is gracious goodness. But it is not just an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals; it also entails an active interest in the well-being of our communities and even a concern for the health of the planet on which we live."

    It seems like a major obstacle to achieving this "gracious goodness" in relating to each other is an urgent rhetoric that asserts a "the time for politeness is over" narrative. People who eschew civility are making an argument that the issues are so important, and the stakes so high, that we cannot afford to be civil.

    This reminds me of something Jonathan Chait said last year in discussing The Downside of Anger: "Alarmism is difficult to argue against, because it places you in the position of minimizing the evil of evil things when you're really arguing against probabilities."

    If people are in a constant state of alarm, they are strongly disinclined to be civil, because they believe that an intolerable outcome is imminent. The remedy for such a mass state of alarm seems complex. At minimum, it probably takes the but we might start by lowering the volume on the voices of the loudest "alarm-ers".

    But, if we're looking for aphorisms, one of my civility rules would be something like: "Superlative statements about what is at stake in an argument should usually be avoided." Or: "practice self-restraint with exaggerations that only serve to create fear in your audience."

    It's hard to think of something in this vein that doesn't violate the normal, essential mode of political discourse itself, but, like other candidates you've posted, I'd like something that gets at a general trend towards de-escalation of rhetoric and that practices restraining our attempts to induce fear, panic, and alarm in our audience.<<

    'Good faith':

    >>Very quickly on the civility question:

    To me, this is all about good faith. The overarching narrative of the last two years is Obama acting in good faith toward Republicans, who act in bad faith in return because it benefits them. The quintessential example of this is health care, where people who once supported the mandate (put aside whether or ot it's a good idea) no call it a mortal threat to the Republic. That's bad faith. I think civility is actually the wrong way to respond to bad faith -- or at least bad faith should be pointed out fiercely.

    On the flipside, we should respond to any sliver of good faith from an ideological opponent with good faith. I think one hopeful example (and I hope I'm not getting suckered) comes from Boehner refusing to appoint that blowhard King to the immigration committee. That's hopeful, and those of us who don't like what Boehner stands for should still recognize and try to find gestures of our own without surrenderng our principles.

    Everything starts with good faith. All this talk of coming together, etc., assumes the people want to do that and will act in good faith to accomplish it. And I have just ask: name a single major "conservative" political figure -- elected or media -- right now that you would associate with good faith. For me, Robert Gates is about it, and he works for Obama. Maybe there are others. And no, I don't count David Brooks. Let him write a column as tough on Limbaugh as a Kos diarist, and I maybe I'll reconsider.

    Obama, Hillary, Stewart and Colbert are a pretty good foursome to start with on the non-conservative side.<<

    Hawaiian ideas:

    >>I also recently attended mediation training, used in courts here in Hawaii, a model for other places in the nation. Complex and intense process, but a few ground rules and principles stand out that may apply:

    • No interruptions when another person is speaking
    • No sniping or destructive comments
    • Good faith commitment to the process (whatever it may be); listen and understand the other's perspective

    Civility begins at home (this is me here).

    What is going on in society --the amped up decibels in every level of discourse--is notable and troubling. Is reality TV responsible?...

    Being the ED of a nonprofit, I am lately a big proponent of civility in the workplace--just trying to get everyone to crank things down a notch. It takes a lot of discipline, effort, and mindfulness. <<

    Actually, you can say people don't have America's best interests at heart:

    >>Something that I attempt to both practice and teach is the idea that criticizing a person's ideas is acceptable, but criticizing the person themselves is not. In my mind (and I realize that others may disagree), "Sarah Palin said something idiotic today" is a very different statement from "Sarah Palin is an idiot".

    This bifurcation between what someone said and who they are is useful for a couple of reasons. 1: I think people are less likely to be seriously offended by the first, and so the vitriol level is less likely to be ratcheted up, and 2: It avoids the problem of making debate milquetoast and vapid. If I want to say that someone has said something that is
    mindblowingly wrong, I still get to. I just don't get to draw any conclusions about them qua person.

    Additionally, I'd like to point out what I see as a fairly major problem with one of the original suggestions. You quote a reader as saying " Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." However, one of the primary thrusts of contemporary critical theory is the idea that for many people class identity trumps national identity, and that therefore, almost by definition, even if people
    appeal directly to "the best interests of all Americans" they frequently mean "the best interests of my class". There are other schools of thought that examine the primacy of (eg) gender and race over nation. Your reader appears to want to put those discussions off limits.

    One simple example of this is the recent debate over the extension of the Bush tax cuts. It's hard to have a serious discussion of the question "Why do people support the extension of the cuts for the top .25 percent?" if the answer "Because they put the interests of that group over the interests of all Americans" isn't even allowed to be a part of the discussion. (It may not be the right answer, but surely it's an answer that needs to be a part of the discussion.)<<

    At this point all I can say is: thanks, and that will be all on the theme for now. Extra thanks to the Atlantic's Rebecca Greenfield for formatting these notes for the site.

    More »

  • Is There Anything to Do About 'Civility'?

    Is there a way to calm the national mood? Readers have a lot of ideas.

    This post is plenty long, and even so it covers only a fraction of the responses that have come it. The original question was, does increased "civility" mean anything in practice? Any handy rules of thumb, akin to Michael Pollan's rules about food? First suggestions previously here. A reader writes in to begin another installment:

    >>I would start with the observation that civility works. Violence never persuades; at best, it gets the other person's attention long enough to have an actual conversation. Failing that, a violent act might effectively stop a single act of serious harm, such as invading Poland or shooting up a schoolyard. But the actual persuasion, the actual conversion, can only come about through dialog, civility, and mutuality.

    I can think of three rules of civility I try to live by:

    1) I work hard to never engage in threats or other forms of violence. If I even find these attractive, I ask myself why, and deal with the basis for my anger. I find that when I understand the source of my anger, one of two things happens: either I discover a real contradiction in my thinking or my way of life and decide that I need to make a change, or else I discover something truly wrong about the policy or point of view that I disagree with, and by taking the time to understand my anger, I can make a truly compelling case.

    2) I avoid rhetoric or thinking that has as its end the elimination of a political viewpoint. Even in the case of viewpoints considered truly evil by general consensus, I try to focus on enshrining a good value rather than eliminating an evil one.

    3) I avoid any desire to humiliate political opponents. I try not to paint them or think of them as personally evil, avoid fantasies in which they have to eat their words. I try not to speak or to think of them as personally evil or defective. I remember that shame, in politics, does not serve any useful purpose.<<

    From a European now working in the US software industry:

    >>How about banning the use of the "strawman" fallacy (i.e. attacking someone for a position they don't really hold)? That should take care of about 90% of all inflammatory rhetoric.....

    Moving from the Netherlands to the US about a decade ago, the unchecked use of strawman-based rhetoric struck me as the biggest difference in the nature of the public debate. Unfortunately, things are changing for the worst back in the Netherlands, with right-wing politician Geert Wilders stealing plays from the US political play-book to significant effect. One example: the term "liberal elite" is recently getting a lot of air time and is used as a way of blanketing opponents and ascribing them all kinds of supposedly nefarious attributes and ideas<<

    Another reader:

    >>As bad as specifically violent rhetoric is the invocation of 'tyranny', 'treason' and the like, which I think are used (perhaps not fully intentionally) because they de-legitimate the political opposition and justify extreme measures in response. In fact, I am coming to see even 'tea party' as suspect in this way, since it suggests violent opposition to an illegitimate authority.<<

    A reader in California:

    >>Defining 'civility' is a perfectly worth goal but somehow the whole conversation has turned to the political rhetoric rather than the obvious observation that our country is awash in guns, our political system awash in corporate and NRA money. What was the discussion after the attempted assassination on President Reagan in comparison? As I emailed a friend yesterday, perhaps our moment of silence should be a contemplation of the meaning of the words "well-regulated".<<


    >>1. The words "traitor," "treason" and variations thereof are reserved for people actually charged with treason.

    2. All references to tyranny should be limited to foreign governments. Concerns about the scope of government in the United States should instead be couched in the language of individual and states' rights and freedoms instead of in the language of encroachment by a hostile power.

    3. At no time can we separate the "real" Americans from the fake ones, even if we disagree about values.

    4. If the statement is calculated to shut down debate or devolves into name-calling ("You lie!), it is not helpful.

    5. Attributing an opponent's positions to personal deficiencies or ulterior motives (e.g. calling them stupid, drug-addled, insecure, or racist/sexist) is not constructive.

    6. Respond to your opponents as if you believe them to be reasonable, intelligent, mature adults--even if you don't actually think so.

    7. Anything meant to bait your opponents or purposefully piss them off is not helpful. You should either be trying to convince the other side, or rallying your own, but never saying something just to provoke reaction.

    8. If you make the claim that someone is being dishonest, you need to immediately follow that claim with evidence.

    9. Replace all further political discourse with the Socratic method. (My personal favorite)<<

    A reader in Virginia:

    >>One possible civil-civic-discourse rule: Forbid anonymity in newspaper and magazine online forums.

    The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot provides a nice example of a newspaper trying to respond to calls for that rule: http://hamptonroads.com/verify. I love it that they explicitly invoke long-established journalistic standards against pernicious anonymity.)<<

    A reader in (I think) Pennsylvania:

    >>How about no more name-calling? And by that I mean stuff like "Caribou Barbie," "Slick Willie" and "Plastic Pelosi." Show public servants the respect they deserve by using their given names. I'd love to see both media commentators and my friends (on both sides) honor this one.<<

    Another, from points unknown:

    >>A self-selected group of scholars (professors in communications, logic, etc.) and retired politicians from both parties appoint themselves as a standing committee for civility.

    Any statement by a politician that a majority of the committee concludes is a violation of civilized standards of discourse is called out by the committee, which issues a short summary of its reasoning.

    The offending politician is directed to share a meal at a public restaurant with the target of his/her attack. If the offending rhetoric was not directed at an individual, the committee selects a suitable stand-in for the meal.

    The offending politician picks up the tab.<<


    >>I'll add three guidelines.

    - Words are tools. Like all tools, you should know how they work before you use them. If you aren't sure what a particular word (such as treason, murder, fascism, Nazi, or socialism) means, do not use it. Dictionaries are easy to come by. If a particular word has more than one meaning, be sure everyone knows which meaning you are using.

    - Accusing someone of a crime is a serious matter. If you are going to call someone a war criminal or a traitor, you should be prepared to offer hard evidence that the person has in fact violated the laws of war (citing specific law or treaty), or has waged war against his or her country.

    - Remember that it is possible for you to be wrong, and that the purpose of debate is to instruct, not to defeat. If you're proved wrong on something, accept it graciously; thanks to your opponent, you've learned something new. On the other side, if you prove your opponent wrong, it is much more likely that they'll accept it graciously (rather than put their fingers in their ears and sing "La, la, la, not listening") if you are polite and respectful. If they do not accept it graciously and accept the new information, you have failed your purpose even if you "won" the argument.<<

    On dealing with "your own" side:

    >>One of the things about political discourse that I find most frustrating is the intellectually lazy notion that Side A will get Side B to change its evil ways by pointing out Side B's many evils. I can't think of an example in which that tactic has worked, from a political perspective. It reminds me of the sage advise I was given regarding marriage: if you and your spouse have an argument and you are only 2% in the wrong and the spouse is responsible for 98%, your job is to apologize/fix/take responsibility for your 2%. That's all! No finger pointing, even if it's true. Just man up and deal with your 2%. If you do, you find that your spouse is much more likely to do the same with his/her 98%.

    All across the blogosphere and media I've read a general defense of "yes, our side may have used vitriol before but their side is worse." To which I say, deal with your 2%. While the Right, in my opinion, has the corner on the vitriol market at this point in time, and Mr. Loughner may indeed have consciously or subconsciously heard and acted directly due to words of Limbaugh/Beck/Palin & Co., no Republican will stop doing these things because the Huffington Post, Krugman or Rich tell them to. On the other hand, I wonder how they would respond if every Democrat politician took responsibility for his/her questionable words/ads/speeches without any finger-pointing. Wouldn't it be amazing to hear President Obama include in the State of the Union address an acknowledgement of his "they bring knives/we bring guns" quote, apologize for it and pledge to do everything in his power to let that be the last vitriolic comment that comes from his mouth? I'm sure there would be some politicians who would remain unmoved, but I can't imagine all Republicans refusing to jump on that bandwagon as soon as possible.<<

    One more on the worth of the whole venture:

    >>I think the effort to bring 'civility' into public discourse is both doomed and ahistorical. Political rhetoric was much rougher in the 19th century, after all, and a greater proportion of the population was armed, yet political assassination was a remarkable rarity.

    Note, too, that the rhetoric surrounding sporting events (and sometimes the events themselves -- football, boxing) is quite violent: "Kill 'em", "Kill the ump!" &c. Yet umpires and players are not often murdered in this country -- or not on the field, anyway. Of course, the sport the rest of the world calls 'football' is quite different in this respect: how many other sports spark wars?

    Most of us are perfectly capable of understanding that when Clinton, Begala, and Carville create a "war room" they're not actually plotting to kill Republicans. Ditto Palin's 'targeting' -- which is, after all, a very common metaphorical usage throughout American society (as is "blow x away"). To censor speech based on the evidence-free speculation that some words might just possibly nudge some lunatic to violence is irresponsible.

    That having been said, I would like to see political debates which do not begin and end with the Left asserting that the Right is evil and the Right asserting that the Left is stupid. But see, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity": and Lord knows we have plenty of stupid politicians -- and a long tradition of pointing that out.

    On yet another hand, sometimes ad-hominem arguments are not out of place: Obama's tobacco and fast-food habits do rather conflict with his wife's enthusiastic hectoring of everyone else to eat more healthily.<<

    'Love it or leave it!':

    >>Thank you for organizing an effort to establish reasonable guidelines for civil discourse, something this society desperately needs. I would immediately flag the distinction between the legal and moral realms: there's good reason for offensive imagery and language to have broad legal protection, but public shaming is a valuable and entirely appropriate tool for the kind of hate speech practiced by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc.

    It's rather bitterly ironic that the Vietnam-era slogan "America: Love It Or Leave It" can now be held over Republicans and the right. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.<<

    Bring back the 'fairness doctrine':

    >>Well, how about reinstituting the law that all media outlets must present both sides of every issue.<<

    Resentment comes from one side:

    >>I don't have a unified theory of civility in public life. However, I thought I would point out one reason denunciations of violent political rhetoric in the wake of the Tucson murders inspire so many expressions of resentment.

    It is a fact of modern political life that the preponderance of resentful, hostile political language comes from the right. The last twenty years, and particularly the last three or four, have been years of disruptive and threatening change for a very large part of the American population. These are people who were raised to believe they had a right to a materially abundant, stable life -- job, home, family -- and now live at a time when all of that is in doubt. Naturally they are resentful; naturally they find it easier to assign blame to other people than to look within themselves (or to just accept the new reality forced upon them).

    These are the people who form political talk radio's primary audience. They've made hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity rich. Toning down the rhetoric that has made them is not something the talk radio people have an obvious incentive to do -- they have done very well by speaking to the resentment and hostility of an audience now possessed of a highly developed sense of victimhood. Calls for civility are now running directly into that sense of victimhood: an immovable object, opposed by an all too resistible force.

    I doubt anyone's political speech played a role in the Tucson murders (the easy access of a mental defective to a semi-automatic weapon is another story). Political speech dominated by appeals to resentment and victimhood, though, are unworthy of the country regardless. The challenge of men and women in public life is to speak to the anxiety of many millions of Americans without seeking to appease it -- a difficult task, and one they will need to undertake without expecting much help from electronic media.<<

    'So easy to be wrong':

    >>If I were to suggest a civil mantra, perhaps something to state as a point of practice before responding to others, it might be this: "You may be right, but it is so easy to be wrong." Another more inviting way could be to ask, "Can we help each other to understand this?" I want to emphasize "this," "this idea," "this question," "our topic," as ways to remind each other that we need to speak about ideas, not fears and not insubstantial second-hand opinions. Therefore we need to do this in libraries, where our information is collected and where professional librarians can help us to find it.

    Cultural institutions are democratic instruments. When we have such conversations in libraries and museums, I like to suggest that Thomas Jefferson is in the room. Right now I am unsure of the fate of this book, but it is an effort to remind ourselves that the erosion of open conversation is the loss of something distinctly American, something still within our capacities. One theme of the book is "becoming something together."<<

    Again, what matters is criticizing our own side:

    >>Thanks for collecting these rules of civility but may I suggest a slightly different angle. I think the way towards improvement is to change the way we police the rules rather than the rules themselves.

    Namely we should spend way more time criticising the civility of those we agree with politically. This is partly because it is way easier for our own biases to confuse us when we disagree with someone than when we agree with them (though bias has an impact there too). But in general if you think a political opponent is acting incivil but no one on their side agrees, odds are you are the one that's confused.

    But more importantly civility complaints are far harder to dismiss when it comes from a political ally.

    So may I suggest a rule that a blogger must make 5 civility complaints against people they otherwise agree with for every 1 they make against someone they disagree with (in which case Yglesias and Malkin have a lot of work a head of them). If you want to complain you have to earn it by policing your own side.<<

    I think that will do for now. More ahead; thanks to all.

    More »

  • Suggestions on 'Civility'

    Is there a way to set rules for more "civil" conduct?

    I asked last night for suggestions on what, exactly, it would mean to have a more "civil" tone of political discourse. We all have heard that we're supposed to nicer to one another. But how would we know we were doing so? The reader who originally asked the question suggested, "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." My nominee was, stop using imagery of violent death -- nooses, targets, and so on.

    More from the inbox. To start:

    >>I'd suggest that one shouldn't say something in a manner that one wouldn't also use at the dinner table with one's ten-year old kid. I'm not talking opinion here, just tone and verbiage. We should probably all assume that those we're speaking to won't have the sensitivity to understand when we're exaggerating and dramatizing our views. Do you for a minute think that Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck would speak the way they do when they're having dinner with their impressionable kids (or grand-children)? Not a chance. The reality is that there are enough stupid, adult humans who don't have the intellectual or social IQ of a ten-year old; inspire them with a bunch of incendiary rhetoric and don't be surprised when bad shit happens.<<

    From a reader in North Carolina:

    >>What I would like to see is a code of conduct, to which elected office holders, candidates for office, and maybe even media pundits, could swear to uphold. We cannot make it legally mandatory, or remove people from their positions if they refuse to do so or if they violate the provisions of the code. However, it should be a matter of public record whether or not someone is or is not committed to abide by the code's provisions. We can rely on public opinion to eventually deal with those who refuse to commit to the code. As for violations of the code, there could be some sort of voluntary hearing or arbitration mechanism, and anyone who swears to uphold the code also agrees to submit any accusations of their transgressions to such a board. The board's findings would be made public, again subjecting the transgressors to the force of public opinion.

    What should be in such a code? Speaking the truth, or at least not saying something they know to be untrue, would be a good start. Full disclosure of personal financial interests and sources of funds should be there as well. As you have implied, any ad hominem attacks should be strictly off limits, along with any incitement to hatred or violence or other harmful acts. There should be a basic commitment to the proposition that reasonable people can disagree, and express their disagreements reasonably.

    This is part of it, but there is another big part that would be necessary as well: the citizenry. We would also need some mechanism where ordinary citizens could endorse such a code, commit to follow it themselves, and commit to not reward those in high places or with aspirations for such who violate its provisions. If there were tens of millions of Americans who were on record as endorsing such a code of conduct, and expecting it of their leaders, I am pretty confident that we really would see a big change.<<

    A practical step:

    >>Tucson's station might begin by changing their call letters from KG-U-N to something less provocative. It's a simple suggestion. I think it falls in the common sense category,<<

    From a local government official in Maryland:

    >>Let's not over-think this. If we're looking for specific "rules" governing civility, we can consult the manual. I'm not convinced, however, that rules would serve any purpose other than another starting point for arguments. Your reader's hope that objective standards would help us "call out" those who violate the rules seems to me an ineffective way to actually make people play nice. Civility isn't competition, but I fear that's where a rule-heavy system would take us.

    I live in a community that has embraced for several years a "Choose Civility" campaign. We all have magnets on our cars showing how civil we are. We also like to complain about other drivers who cut us off or are otherwise uncivil. After all, hypocrisy is a fun, if easy, target.

    But civility isn't about judging others. It's about judging ourselves. And we don't need rules to judge our actions, especially not those actions that are at their core about being nice and respectful. We only need a little empathy, a little self-awareness and the ability to honestly ask ourselves how we would feel if our own words or actions were turned against us. Nearly every society and religion has some variation on this idea (The Golden Rule, Ethic or Reciprocity, etc.), even the Baltimore Ravens, who provide this gentle reminder about conduct to their fans at every home game: "Don't be a jerk!"

    That doesn't seem too hard.<<

    And, from a reader in Tucson:

    >>1) Speak and act privately and publicly as if the person you respect most is secretly observing (and judging) you.

    2) Treat others as you would want them to treat you..... [In a followup note this reader said:]

    I hate to say this, but there is an existential inevitability of violence here, of various kinds to be sure. I'm from the Detroit of the 1960s/70s and the same was true there, although for some different reasons. A common thread seems to be too many guns distributed over too few brain cells, plus a simmering inchoate anger at circumstances. Vague, I know, but it's in the air at times, and it's certainly not a white-collar approach to problem-solving. <<

    Many more on hand, but that is enough for now. Actually, here's one more in this first haul, on the related topic of reining one's own temper. From a psychiatrist in New York:

    >>Many years ago, I had a friend who collected all chipped china or glassware she could find. when she was furiously angry with her husband, and that is not an infrequent occurrence, she would take one of the chipped plates and glasses and go into the bathroom and throw it into the bathtub.

    I think one of the things that might increase civility in discourse and behavior, is of course gun control laws. Throwing chipped plates into the bathtub never hurt anyone.<<

    More ahead; thanks for these.

  • What We Take for Granted

    America is going to be a gun culture. Is there a better way to live with that reality?

    [See Update below] A friend in Texas writes:

    >>This was the back page of the sports section in the Dallas paper last Thursday. It really struck me (having lost [a family member] to a 9mm) that these particular handguns, like too many other guns for sale, have absolutely no even arguably legitimate purpose in the hands of ordinary citizens, as distinct from soldiers and law enforcement officers. (They might be useful to members of a well-ordered militia, but presumably the gun advocates who've written and read that term out of the Second Amendment would not invoke it to defend the sale of these guns.) It seems extraordinary for them to be offered for sale as if they were electric drills, in newspaper ads suggesting gift certificates and credit cards.<<

    Thumbnail image for GunShow.JPG

    Anyone who has been around American politics recognizes that as a practical reality America is always going to have a gun culture. People write from Europe, Japan, Australia, China, and elsewhere lamenting and wondering how this can be; we could debate the reasons forever, but it is.

    Yet much as we recognize degrees of difference in the violence of language and imagery -- within an overall commitment to the untrammeled right of free speech -- in theory we could recognize degrees of risk and collateral damage, within an overall recognition that many Americans will want to be armed. As the reader suggests, you can respect the ordinary citizen's right to be armed in self-defense -- while questioning average-citizen easy access to extended-clip or automatic or semi-automatic *weapons, like the one with which a single attacker in Tucson could shoot 20 people within a few seconds. [*Update: I should have left semi-automatic off the list; extended clips are the sensible next object of concern.]

    The NRA naturally couches the argument in all-or-nothing terms: a restriction on any weapon is a threat to the right to be armed at all. They have been strong enough to extend that unreasonable absolutism to most politicians as well. (Ie, unless a politician is willing to accept the all-fronts open-ended career-long hostility of the NRA, it's not worth the politician's while to suggest common-sense restrictions on gun-sales laws, ammunition supplies, types of weapons that are available, etc.) The absolutist outlook is almost always a problem for a democracy. Here is illustration number 523.  
  • A Very Good Question: What Does 'Civility' Mean? Exactly?

    A specific question to make the discussion more productive.

    A reader writes with this "let's get specific" question:

    >>Seeing media and op-ed reactions to the Tucson shootings, I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of coverage seems to be along lines that do not seem particularly constructive.

    It has quickly become a question of whether political discourse has become too inflamed, and whether this over-the-top rhetoric is in part responsible for the violence we've just seen. Most fair-thinking and reasonable people seem to agree that we should restore a larger sense of civility to our political speech, but what I have yet to see from anyone is a constructive attempt to define what the proper guidelines of political speech really are.

    Everyone seems to say, "we need to be more civil!" without actually putting forward positive advice on what constitutes responsible vs. irresponsible speech. I may be a pessimist, but this Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" approach to irresponsible political speech seems like a pretty ineffective way to fix the problem, because without any rules of thumb to go by, any attempt to condemn a politician's irresponsible speech is just doomed to be deflected as partisan politics.

    I would love to see a list of common sense rules (similar to Michael Pollan's food rules) that serve as good reminders of civil discourse. What would you like to see on such a list? My first one, for example: "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." If we had a set of guidelines that both sides could appeal to, it would be a heck of a lot easier to call out the people that aren't acting well.<<

    This is a worthy challenge. An easy starting example would be: no advertising imagery suggesting lethal violence or the threat of same. Nooses, guillotines, ammo, guns. But those are gimmes. I am sure readers have more creative and useful examples. If you send them in, I'll compile and share them. These could be useful as tests against which to measure upcoming ads, talk-show soliloquys,  etc.  (Below, fax sent to former Rep. Bart Stupak, because of his vote for "Obamacare"; image from TPM.)


  • Data Point: Sources of Violent Political Rhetoric in Recent Years

    What do people mean when they talk about "extreme" political rhetoric? They mean the items on this list.

    The Committee Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has prepared a compendium of sources of "violent" or "insurrectionist" political rhetoric in the past two and a half years. It is here. Let's stipulate that there could have been a tilt, conscious or unconscious, in selection of items for the list. Still, it is stunning in its totality. It is also hard to imagine coming up with a comparable list from "the other side."

    One item (and photo) from a list that is many screenfuls long:

    WILLIAM KOSTRIC.jpg>>August 11, 2009--William Kostric is filmed openly carrying a handgun outside of President Obama's health care reform town hall meeting in New Hampshire. Kostric holds a sign that reads, "IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!" a reference to the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."<<

    Please review this as a basic background document on considering the possibility that a tone of extremist rhetoric could be related to outbursts of political violence -- or, more constructively, whether one response to this tragedy should be deliberate cooling down of political talk.

  • A 'No Regrets' Response to the Tucson Shootings

    Is there anything to be learned from a massacre?

    From a friend who has worked in and around politics for decades:

    >>It's true, of course, that the causal link, if any, between the heat of political rhetoric and violence against public officials is impossible to know with certainty.  You and the Tea Partiers are correct to point that out. 

    But isn't a "no regrets" approach warranted nonetheless?  If the heat of political rhetoric can be toned down, it is at least possible that some violence may be averted.  (Intuition and history both suggest that incitement can play a role in provoking violence by individuals against other individuals; early 1930s Germany provides an obvious example, even though there, too, the actual perpetrators of violence may in some sense have been "deranged" or sociopaths to begin with.) 

    Here in the U.S., even if no violence is averted - something we probably can't know in any event - the cooling down of political rhetoric, a little more respect and civility in public discourse, may have independent value and is not something we are likely as a nation to regret.  I think that's a stronger argument to make to today's hotheads of rhetoric than the argument that their heated rhetoric has or necessarily will "cause" violence - a proposition they will naturally (and within a few days or weeks, vociferously) resist.<<

    After the jump, a complementary response about civil discourse. Before that, I will note that several historians of late 19th century America have written in to quibble with my assertion that the assassinations of James Garfield and William McKinley were not directly connected to the "main" political issues of the day. For instance, from one professor:

    >>Charles Guiteau [the killer of Garfield] was a paranoid schizophrenic, inflamed by the background political noise of the period, which was the hyper-patriotism of the Stalwart protectionist wing of the GOP. Though often called a "deranged office seeker," Guiteau was motivated less by the desire for a consulship than by his conviction that Garfield (a member of the party's "Half-Breed" reform wing) had betrayed the nation by appointing a free trader to the NY Customhouse. His publically stated goal was to replace the president with Chester Arthur, an arch-Stalwart....
    If early reports about the guy who shot Giffords are correct, he was very similar to Guiteau: a mentally ill person, with fervent but relatively recent political convictions, whose consumption of overheated rhetoric led him to a violent act.<< 

    FYI. Another reaction after the jump.

    On "graduate level citizenship," a reader writes:

    >>This atrocity has crystallized something for me that I've been trying to articulate over that last several years:  when did it become acceptable to say the inflammatory and thugish things that Rush, O'Reilly, a host of Fox commenters, and so many politicians ("lock and load!") have been saying?  Not that long ago a societal sense of propriety seemed to keep these kinds of comments out of the mainstream.  Perhaps it's the lost lock that the big three networks had on TV news; perhaps it's the internet; perhaps it's a backlash from the feminism of the 80's and 90's, where anything can now be said, no matter the consequences;  free speech = appropriate speech. But whatever it is, it's destroying a structural fabric that's important to this country.

    America is graduate level citizenship. It requires an advanced level of attention and maturity.  We are committed to share this country with people of opposite persuasions and to resolve our differences through political struggle and not violence, all the while accepting, respecting, and even honoring our foes as Americans.  Our foes keep us honest; our foes move us down the road toward wisdom.  America is, by definition, imperfect, because it is the never ending quest for the "more perfect union"; a union of foes.

    Individual Americans are, more than we like to admit, followers and lemmings. Our leaders shape the public's response:  The public response to Pearl Harbor was shaped by FDR's "day that will live in infamy." By going to China Nixon showed us how to open to a demon enemy.  And, God help us, GW Bush shaped our disastrous response to 9/11.    

    For this reason, our leaders must be role models.  We need them to show us how to respond, how to attain a higher level of debate and citizenship. It's important that our leaders not leave semen stains on dresses of women who are not their wives, know how to spell potato, and, for Chrissake, know how to say nuclear.  It's important for our leaders to show us how to engage in respectful debate, to speak with integrity, and to win, or to lose, with grace and dignity.  In this, our leaders are failing us, Barack Obama, I believe, being the notable exception.

    I sincerely hope that Ms. Giffords's assassination attempt will result in a serious re-thinking of the quality of the debate in this country.  We have been losing something precious, and it's time for the adults to stand up and to send the children to their rooms.<<

    More »


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