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Civility at any cost

The high price of being nice


Tsk, tsk, tsk.

You know the type. With election season in full swing, they're out in force right now.

They claim that above all else, we should all strive to get along. Give them a pen or microphone and they'll adopt a tone of superiority and drone on about the supposed lack of civility in our political debate. They'll bemoan the deterioration and the polarization of the American political culture. Why can't we just debate the issues in a milquetoast manner? Why do we have to be so impolite to each other? Why can't we all just compromise a little and reach a consensus? Why does this country have to be so divided?

Watch out for these people. They're dangerous. Having observed them in operation for over a decade at the local level, I can assure you that virtually without exception, they all have one thing in common.

They're all committed partisans whose real goal is to silence those who disagree with them. If you wait long enough, you'll later catch them either in full attack mode, denigrating those who disagree with them, or getting fired up by or promoting a message that does these things.

The Founding Fathers didn't sign the Constitution in the hopes of guaranteeing good government and civil debate that doesn't offend. Their genius was that they so clearly understood the nature of those among them who sought power and would always seek political power. The Founding Fathers' goal was merely to build a system that could contain the ruthlessly power hungry, one that would prevent them for raising armies and slaughtering their political enemies and the best and brightest of each generation along with them. If such a system could be created, the common man would no longer be forced into their entanglements and could go about his business earning a living and prospering.

Those who signed our Constitution never strove to attain civility in debate or honest government because they knew these things were impossible. Instead, they sought to contain government itself. Our politics is what took the place of war, and it is still war, just without the bloodshed. And it should be. Too much is at stake.

Who would you rather have run the campaign of someone who will advocate for the principles you hold dear? A scoundrel who gets the job done in an ethically questionable and barely legal way or someone willing to roll over and let the other guy win if it means pushing the envelope? We all know the answer. When people whine about division in this country, what I hear is a plea to people to abandon their principles on the altar of consensus.

The real message is that there are no principles left that are worth fighting for at the cost of making someone uncomfortable.

I've yet to hear one of these people make a half-way compelling argument that sharp political division and acrimonious debate is bad for this country, much less for the school board. Aside from a few bruised egos, there's no long-term damage.

Compromise for the sake of civility, on the other hand, is much riskier. Had we compromised at all costs to avoid acrimony, we'd still be British subjects. How about the suffragettes? Black activists at the lunch counters? Should they have had polite debate with peaceful resolution in which both got most but not all of what they wanted?

Those were cases when we had to fight for what is clearly right, the civility buffs would say. But while that may be obvious now, it was anything but at the time.

Despite their claims to the contrary, people love political acrimony. That's why nothing is more effective than going negative in a tight campaign. It's more attention grabbing, so people tune in, which is the goal. It crystallizes the issues while giving us a good picture of the character of the politician launching the attack. And if people didn't respond to it, politicians wouldn't do it.

An old newsman I know complains frequently that he misses the way it was 30 years ago, when there wasn't the discord there is today. Dan Rather regularly says the same thing. But what they mean is that they miss a time when they and the politicians were the only voices, when aside from the occasional letter to the editor, the average person was shut out of the debate. Now, thanks to technology, he or she can start a blog and pick apart The New York Times staff's reporting or drive the political agenda. That, and the proliferation of cable television channels, has led to the loudest, healthiest and most thorough culture of political debate America has ever had.

And that's a blessing, not a curse, to the cause of freedom.

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