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Saturday, August 13, 2005

E.J. Dionne Calls for Civility Compact

E.J. Dionne, one of the most influential liberals in the media, pointedly calls the NARAL attack ad trash about SOCTUS nominee John Roberts what it is. Then he calls for a Civility Compact. (here) Dionne concludes by asking, "Any takers?"

I hope.

I tried to do a version of this Civility Compact a few weeks ago with the issue of partisan rhetoric about various players being "out of the mainstream." I suggested a civil discussion in which readers would try to come up with some specifics for appropriately using the term. My motive-- to get past ends justify the means, winning at all costs politics. I hoped for us to try again at civility, reasonableness, goodwill.

Just becauses there are pols, media players and bloggers left and right who use demonizing rhetoric and engage in power politics doesn't mean the rest of us should speak and act like they do. Deceit, lies, manipulation, ad hominem attacks-- I suggest these are beyond the pale and that men and women of goodwill and reason should forsake these means. I don't think this is a stance that only Christians should have but I cannot think of a good reason for a Christian to engage in nor tolerate deceit, lies, manipulation and ad hominem attacks.

As a Christian who is "conservative" on many issues and moderate to liberal on others, I regularly point out failings by those on the Right who conduct themselves in an indecorous way. Just because a conservative pol or commentator is my ally is no reason to give him or her a pass when s/he transgresses a principle I hold.

I remain baffled by the failure of Christians on the Left who only call fouls on the Right, and rarely (some of them, never) call fouls on the Left. Why not be loyal to principle over loyal to political allies? Why not be just as willing to criticize intemperate speech by those on your side as those on the other? If you invoke principle but are not consistent in applying it to both sides, there is no reason to regard your words with any value. Your invocation of principle is validated by your willingness to apply the same principle when it hurts you, those you love and your cause. Otherwise you're just using rhetoric about principle as a mask to cover Nietzschean will to power speech/action in the political arena. In my book, that is contemptible.

Sadly, my attempt at a civil discussion about the use of "out of the mainstream" language, designed to elevate our discourse, met with this opening comment from Expat Teacher. "It ain't about objective results or quantifiable outcomes, it is about politics. Ultimately, politics is about winning."

That is precisely the mindset I am saying we should shun. If we believe, as Expat states, that "politics is about winning," then I do not discern any limits on rhetoric or behavior. If speech or action helps an individual, party or movement win, given Expat's statement, then that's what politics is about.

We should pursue our ideals and contend vigorously for them, but if we don't win the votes from the American people or the votes in Congress or have a President in the White House to make the decision we want, we accept it. We go all out within the boundaries of goodwill, reason and fairness, and we condemn rhetoric and actions that go beyond those boundaries. If we go all out within the boundaries and our proposal or candidate loses, so be it. It's not a matter of loyalty to Left or Right, it is about being loyal to principles.

Politics is about pursuing one's ideals within limits. If you can win within limits, great. If you can only win by engaging in deceit, manipulation, lies, ad hominen attacks, etc., you should willingly lose rather than resort to or tolerate such means.

Again, I hope E.J. Dionne's proposal elicits commitment from Senators, the White House, and media of all sorts. I hope more and more Americans engaged in politics will reach for higher ideals than Expat's statement, "politics is about winning." One can hope.

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