Outright Barbarism vs. The Civil Society

Sara Robinson

I live in a nice place.

I mean that literally. It took some getting used to. After 20 years in Silicon Valley, where people put a premium on being direct and to the point, have no time to waste on small talk or personal sharing, and will call a stupid idea stupid to your face, moving to Canada required a whole lot of gearing back on that brusque American aggressive-in-your-face thing. The humbling fact was: We had to learn to mind our manners.

Much of the adjustment work that first year involved re-learning the art of Being Nice. We had to get used to meetings that started with 10 or 15 minutes of personal chit-chat. We had to train ourselves to stop interrupting people, and to be more careful to say “please” and “thank you.” We had to discover (sometimes, the hard way) that losing your temper with Canadians means that you will invariably lose the conflict. The more terse and irritated you get, the more determinedly calm and polite Canadians become, until you’re standing there looking like a raving idiot and they’re still firmly in control (though they’re very sorry you’re having such a bad day).

We also learned the unofficial Canadian motto, which is “I’m sorry.” Canadians will say “I’m sorry” even if you were the one who bumped into them. (Americans, on the other hand, won’t say it at all: apologizing is admitting fault, which is an invitation to lawsuits.) We used to respond to this by pleading with them out of our own misguided sense of Niceness: “No. Please. Don’t be sorry. It was MY fault.” But after a while, we gave up, went with the flow, and started apologizing for everything, too. It was really…well, nice, once we got used to it.

The whole world makes fun of Canadians’ resolute civility — but once I’d read a little Canadian history, I realized that this Being Nice thing isn’t just a cute cultural quirk. In fact, up here, it’s is a deadly serious matter of national survival. Canada’s 13 provinces and territories are, effectively, three separate nations—each with its own culture, language, religion, and history. On top of that, the country is the world’s largest importer of new immigrants, a large fraction of whom are from cultures very different from Canada’s aboriginal and European bedrock. The federal constitution that binds all this together is very weak (it’s not unlike the U.S.’s original Articles of Confederation), and the overwhelming bulk of government power is still tightly concentrated in the hands of the provincial premiers (that’s Canadian for “state governors”). Secession is eminently possible, as the Quebecois so often like to remind us.

In the face of all that, there’s the constant possibility—which does not exist in the U.S.—that one cranky politician having one bad day could stand up and say one idiot thing that would cause one faction or another to decamp en masse, thus precipitating the instant demise of Canada-as-we-know-it. The threat is real. It could happen. And the only thing that keeps it from happening is that resolute collective determination to stay calm, keep the peace, and Be Nice.

Civility is, in a very real sense, the glue that holds this big, diverse nation together. Name-calling, othering, and losing one’s temper is, quite simply, un-Canadian and unpatriotic. Failure to be civil in public is the fastest way (perhaps the only way) to get Canadians genuinely peeved at you. In the land where “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is supplanted by “peace, order, and good government” as the organizing values, there is simply no excuse at all for that kind of behavior, ever.

Our essential reliance on civil discourse—and the big trouble that awaits us when we try to function without it—is the same idea that Jeffrey Feldman explores, far more pointedly, in his new book, Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy. Feldman, whose indispensable Frameshop blog has done a lot of the heavy lifting in deconstructing the way the American right uses and abuses language, briskly and thoughtfully deconstructs seven specific ways 30 years of us-versus-them rhetoric has polarized the country, forced us into unnecessary conflicts against each other and everyone else, and virtually destroyed our ability to govern ourselves.

Dave Neiwert, who coined the term “eliminationist rhetoric” to describe the language Americans have so often used to justify violence against each other, has carefully outlined the process by which ugly talk can easily devolve into horrific action. Call it holocaust, lynching, or apartheid — whatever the atrocity, it always begins with language that privileges us, dehumanizes them, and somehow justifies their removal from our midst. Feldman’s book breaks out another side to this conversation, by showing that the right wing has scored some very specific and tangible (and otherwise politically untenable) benefits by the simple act of grinding our discourse down the point where it’s now mostly conduced in the coarsest of us-versus-them terms.

For each of the seven topics Feldman calls out, there’s one conservative spokesperson who’s led the rhetorical race to the bottom — and one specific long-term conservative political agenda item that got served as a result. In his first example, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre sells a “vision of the world where violent assaults on individuals are inevitable, all laws and institutions are powerless to stop them, and the only guarantee for survival is for citizens to be prepared to fire a gun at the oncoming danger.” Feldman argues that America can only adopt this worldview at the cost of its own democratic ideals, by fostering a “command-obedience” relationship between the governors and the governed—one that places the use of force outside the rule of law and beyond the control of the people’s government. In the presence of arms, people are silenced, and the creative give-and-take required for good problem-solving suffers. Those who hold the guns prevail. This way, he warns, lies tyranny.

Then there’s Pat Buchanan, leading the charge against immigration, which he insists is a calculated, well-planned “Reconquista” which has enlisted millions of triumphant Mexicans to invade America and exact their terrible revenge for the defeat of Santa Anna 160 years ago. Our only defense against the barbarian horde is to kill or be killed. Feldman notes that this kind of overheated eliminationist framing has been a boon to corporate conservatives, because it’s made it impossible to have a nuanced (or even coherent) conversation that acknowledges NAFTA’s grotesque destruction of the economy and the environment on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

“Immigration has become a political issue because of trade, not because of race or ‘civilization,'” notes Feldman. “At its most primary, political level, America’s immigration problem is a product of what David Sirota has aptly named the ‘hostile takeover’ of key economic policies in our government by vast corporations in control of unimaginable wealth.”

But as long as we’re talking about anchor babies and bilingual culture, we won’t be talking about that. And that’s just fine with those who are making a killing of their own on the status quo.

Ann Coulter’s success is largely built on her ability to take any issue and instantly use it to justify violence against the right wing’s favorite targets. Feldman traces the way this dubious gift has defined the trajectory of her career, culminating in her insistence that liberals need to be eliminated because they’re traitors who are ready to hand the country over to al-Qaida. That’s always the bottom line with Ann—and that quickness to write off anyone capable of a creative or nuanced thought creates a climate that stifles our ability to solve problems together, which is the essence of democratic government. It also effectively discourages people from participating in politics at all, lest they become targets of people who’ve learned their moves from Ann. “Coulter’s rhetoric,” writes Feldman, “poisons the soil in which civic identity takes root.”

Feldman goes on to unmask Bill O’Reilly’s bluster as a smokescreen that makes it impossible to talk seriously about national security and the things that really threaten us; John Gibson’s “War on Christmas” as an assault on our ability to teach diversity in schools; and James Dobson’s weird ideas about child discipline and family authority as a noxious cognitive pattern that influences the way we approach larger issues of community, authoritarianism, citizen discipline, and even foreign policy (inasmuch as some policymakers tend to view smaller countries exercising their sovereignty as wayward children in need of correction).

In the final chapters, his dissection of Dinesh D’Souza’s rhetoric ties it all up with a bow. According to Feldman, every issue D’Souza touches down to the inevitable conclusion that liberals are to blame—a broad and breathtaking act of scapegoating that makes it impossible for us to get a collective handle on the true chain of responsibility that resulted in everything from 9/11 to the disastrous war that followed.

Taken as a whole, Feldman argues persuasively that the right wing’s use of violent language and imagery over the past 30 years has gravely, deeply—perhaps even mortally—wounded the American body politic. As social theorists from John Dewey to Miss Manners have pointed out—and as my Canadian neighbors seem to understand as the central fact of their civic existence—civility is the necessary ingredient that allows democracies to function. Without it, there is no common good, no mutual respect, no reason to have faith in our ability to govern together wisely and well. When these basic agreements fail, so does our ability to self-govern. Reading this book from my peaceable perch on a mountainside in western Canada, the destruction of America’s civic order, as Feldman describes it, looks utter and complete.

Somehow, we need to find our way back to each other. And, as simple as it sounds, it may start with a determined resolution that we are going to be civil to each other. Always. Even to your obnoxious Dittohead neighbor. Even to your annoying fundamentalist sister-in-law. Even to that jerk with the faded W’04 bumper sticker who stole your parking space. Even to the whinging concern troll in the comments thread. Catharsis feels like a birthright in our I-want-it-now society; but it’s a luxury that progressives can no longer afford. Every time we give into it, the culture splits a little wider, and our odds of ever healing again it grow a bit more remote. It’s time for progressives to step up and show the rest of the country how grownups behave. We’ve got an example to set, and a hundred million people to educate.

It’s a lot to ask of “please” and “thank you.” But the stakes are too high to ignore.

If we want democracy, we need to be able to see our fellow citizens as human beings, possessed of their own inherent worth and dignity.

If we want justice, we need to grant them the same rights and respect we feel entitled to—even when they’re strenuously disagreeing with us, or when their interests and ours line up on opposite poles.

If we want security, we must first learn to be safe with each other, and trust ourselves as guardians of our collective well-being.

If we want to rebuild the country, we need to remember that we are all heirs to the same vast trust of social, political, and physical capital built up by previous generations; that our livelihood and liberties depend entirely on how well we can manage to sustain that common legacy; and that we share a duty to ensure our children’s future by passing all of that on to them, not only intact but richer yet.

The only disagreements we should have are over the best means to achieve all this. The goals themselves should be beyond question. Feldman gives us a useful primer on how the right wing has carefully and deliberately separated us from both our founding goals and the means to achieve them. It’s up to us to put put it all back together, and that starts with Being Nice.

A final note. The idea that Being Nice is a sign of weakness is, as noted above, inherent in the conservative narrative Feldman describes. Anger merchants like Coulter and O’Reilly have sold an entire generation of Americans on the idea that the mere desire to gather facts, contemplate them calmly, and discuss them rationally with people who might have other points of view makes one a traitor to the nation—weak, ineffectual, and dangerously liberal.

The horrifying result of this is a political climate in which many Americans believe that those who can throw the biggest tantrum deserve to get their way. (Which is not democracy, or anything like it. It’s rule by bullies.) If you want to know why American politics sounds like a sandbox fight in the kindergarten playground, there’s one good answer. Look at it this way, and it becomes clear that the Obama/Hillary partisan pissing matches of the past many weeks are, once again, playing right into conservative hands. Never mind the fact that when those two fight, McCain wins. Look beyond that to the more distressing fact, which is that too many Democrats have finally become every bit as ugly as the GOP has always been. They’ve gotten to us. We’ve finally become what we most despise.

For the record: Being Nice, done well, has a ferocious strength all its own, as anyone who’s watched a CBC news interviewer or dealt with a Canadian school headmaster can tell you. Over the past four years, I’ve seen fastidious politeness and heartbreaking compassion used in the hands of master practitioners, and marveled at the power of sheer civility to defeat hotheads, deflect crazy ideas, and send shit-stirrers right out the door. It’s a skill we need to relearn, and soon. Fortunately, we have 32 million neighbors and authors like Jeffrey Feldman to show us the way.

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