Civil And Honest

A reader writes:

Please note the two little words "and honest" in this quote from Obama's address last night in Tuscon:

“Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”

Those two words hold a world of meaning. Civility - the form of our discourse - is one thing. Honesty - the content - is another. As Robert Wright pointed out in the NYTimes yesterday, the lack of honesty in our discourse may be a greater provocation to potential violence than lack of civility:

"[T]he emphasis the left is placing on violent rhetoric and imagery is probably misplaced ... Palin’s much-discussed cross-hairs map probably isn’t as dangerous as her claim that “socialists” are trying to create “death panels.” If you convince enough people that an enemy of the American way is setting up a system that could kill them, the violent hatred will take care of itself." 

But in his quote, Obama has raised the stakes even higher: the unintended consequence of dishonesty in our public discourse - death panels, socialist conspiracies, faux deficit reform, climate change denial - is not merely the threat of fringe violence, however horrific, but the failure of our nation to face up to the many challenges history has now placed before it. Obama is calling for more than civil discourse, he's calling for honest discourse - and for immensely higher stakes.

The deliberate cultivation of social paranoia, of untruth, robs us of the ability to face reality: to speak realistically, to think realistically, to act realistically. It's only excuse is immediate, selfish and often cynical advantage. Its costs are incalculable.

Untruth is the sign of intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The only solution to that sickness is, simply, honesty. The truth will out, eventually. But given the nature of the challenges facing us - economic, military, technological, social, environmental - it might be good if that eventuality came sooner than later: The price of indulging untruth, of indulging cynicism, paranoia and ignorance, is national failure. We are already on that road.

Only a return to realism, to honesty and civility, offers us any hope.