Civility: The gossamer threads that bind society

Good manners represents an important element of keeping a fragile society intact. With the latest political battles, our web is not strong.

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WASHINGTON, March 13, 2016 –  This is a presidential campaign unlike any we have seen in modern times. In Chicago, radical protesters from, #BlackLivesMatter and like-minded groups disrupted a Donald Trump rally, forcing Trump to cancel.

This was the “heckler’s veto” writ large; a real threat to free speech.

On the other side, Trump seems to welcome violence at his rallies. He talks about wanting to “punch” protesters “in the face” or “knock the crap out” of people protesting against  him. He has promised to pay the legal fees of any of his followers who assault such protesters.

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At one rally in North Carolina, a young black protester being escorted from an event was punched in the face by a Trump supporter who, after being arrested, bragged about “knocking the hell out of that big mouth…The next time we see him we might have to kill him.”

At a rally in Virginia, an Arab-American reporter covering the event was derided as a terrorist, and a Breitbart reporter was allegedly manhandled by Trump’s campaign manager.

Beyond this, we have the stereotyping of groups of people, whether Muslims, Mexicans, women or disabled people, something Trump prefers to a serious discussion of the problems facing the country. He has said, for example, that Muslims “hate” America and should not be permitted into the country. Writing off one of the world’s major religions, whose members we need to help in the fight against ISIS, because of the actions of a tiny minority, violates all of our values of religious freedom.

Perhaps Trump should  consider the words of an earlier leader of the Republican Party, of which he now proclaims himself to be a member. In June 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the inauguration of a mosque in Washington, D.C. He declared: “And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have your own church and worship according to your conscience.”

American society is made up of men and women of every race, religion and ethnic group. The idea of American nationality is unique, not being based upon common ancestry but on a common willingness to live in a free, open,  and tolerant society and fulfill its commitments. Herman Melville said that, “If you shed one drop of American blood, you shed the blood of the whole world.”

But such a society is fragile. It can be torn apart by ill will, bigotry and the kind of “identity politics” fostered on the left. And it can be torn apart by the narrowness, divisiveness and nativism of some on the right.

Anyone who considers himself a conservative should have as a primary goal conserving the American political tradition of free speech, freedom of religion, constitutional government, and the very fabric of society itself.

A campaign such as we are now witnessesing is a potential threat to all of these things.

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Good manners represents an important element of keeping a fragile society intact. The perceptive Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith notes that, “Manners…were intended to avoid friction between people and they did this by regulating the contours of an encounter. If each party knew what the other should do, then conflict would be unlikely.

And this worked at every level, from the most minor transaction between two people to dealings between nations. International law, after all, was simply a matter of manners writ large.”

In Smith’s view, “Good manners depended on paying moral attention to others, it required one to treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings, and their needs.

Some people, the selfish, had no inclination to do this, and it always showed. They were impatient with those whom they thought did not count: the old, the inarticulate, the disadvantaged. the person with good manners, however, would always listen to such people and treat them with respect.

How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affectation, an irrelevance which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the message of transmitting the message of moral consideration.

In this way, an entire generation had lost a vital piece of the moral jigsaw, and now we saw the results:  a society in which nobody would help, nobody would feel for others; a society in which aggressive language and insensitivity were the norm.”

The Republican Party, at the present time, is in danger of abandoning the hopeful, forward-looking outlook of Ronald Reagan. Peter Wehner,  a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who has served in the last three Republican administrations, argues that.

“If Trump wins the nomination, he will go some distance toward undoing the influence of Reagan on the modern Republican Party—on policies like trade and immigration, in its commitment to limited government and cultural renewal, and in its concern for justice. Just as significant would be the dramatic change in tone, countenance and ethos. We are in the process of seeing the grace and joie de vivre of Reagan replaced by the crass and cruel insults, the obsessive Twitter attacks and the vindictiveness of Trump. The party of Lincoln and Reagan would be led by a man who embraces, at least in part, the ethics of Nietzsche.”

Thoughtful analysts throughout history have always pointed out that societies must carefully guard against internal decay and a disintegration of the values which brought them into existence and sustained them. In “Memories and Studies,” written in 1911, William James points out that,

“The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blessed above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness, by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smithing corruption swiftly, by good temper between parties, by the people knowing true men when they see them and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans and empty quacks.”

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Civility is a sign of a society’s strength. What we are witnessing today, is a sign of weakness and decay.  The enemies of free, open and civil speech can be found on both the right and the left. Such political extremes have far more in common than they understand. Americans should take a careful look in the mirror. We must decide which path to take for a positive and hopeful future.

No issue before us, the pros and cons of trade agreements, the question of immigration, health care, or national security, cannot be discussed and debated with civility and mutual respect. There are many legitimate arguments on all sides of these and other issues. In a functioning democracy, citizens consider the arguments and come to a conclusion.

It does not involve the spectacle we have seen in recent days. For the sake of a promising future for our children and grandchildren we must come to understand that civility keeps us strong and prevents a fragile society from shattering.


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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.