In the debate about civility, about how to make strong and lively points without demonization, a phrase from Orwell seems useful to me. It comes toward the end of his passionate engagement with Dickens' work, and various attempts to coopt it by others:
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it.
It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
What worries me about the otherwise laudatory goal of greater civility after Tucson is that we do not lose either anger or the ability to channel that anger generously for the sake of the greater good.
A blogger will feel anger from time to time - and should express it. To feel no anger at a war built on false pretenses that led to hundreds of thousands murdered, and now the cleansing of all Christians from Iraq, is not civil. It is blind. To feel no anger at a president of the United States bragging that he authorized torture is not civility but denial. To neutrally witness a powerful sector of the economy ransack the rest of us through professional negligence and then resist minor reforms to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again is not civility; it is civic negligence. To watch both parties, but especially the GOP, destroy this country's fiscal standing with unsustainable tax cuts and unfunded new entitlements and two off-budget wars, and then treat them seriously as they decry Obama's debt is not civility; it's amnesia in the face of breath-taking cynicism.
The difficult task is summoning the right amount of anger with the right amount of generosity of spirit. By generosity, I don't mean losing sleep over whether BP's Tony Hayward had his yachting days cut short by an oil rig explosion.
I mean keeping our anger at failures and misdemeanors in public life constantly in terms of finding ways to make things better for all of us, including the objects of our criticism.
So I would feel terribly uncivil if I hadn't, after furious exposure of torture, written something appealing directly to George W. Bush to make things better (no such luck); or if, after lacerating the GOP for fiscal recklessness, had not endorsed Bowles-Simpson or a similar effort at serious reform; or if, after watching Israel slowly slide into a pariah state, I did not speak up about the closing window for a two-state solution and the inexcusable reluctance of the pro-Israel lobby to challenge the Netanyahu government in any serious way. And when there are individuals in politics you have learned to distrust or oppose, it is always helpful from time to time to add a genuine compliment, not for the sake of it, or for credentializing, but because there are very few people who have no redeeming features and noting them is only fair.
How about my long treatment of Sarah Palin? Here, there is no conceivable way in which, in my judgment, her presence on the national stage can improve our discourse, help solve our problems or improve public life. But that does not forbid one from noting the great example she has shown in rearing a child with Down Syndrome, whatever his provenance, or noting her effectiveness as a demagogue, or from admiring her father's genuineness or her skill in exploiting new media. I've consistently tried to do this without undercutting my still-raw amazement that an advanced democratic society could even contemplate putting such an unstable and irresponsible person in a position of any real power.
Generous anger: a classically Orwellian term. Because it is a new phrase, a fresh idea, and yet instantly understandable. And necessary.
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