Proof That We Haven’t Lost All Our Civility

I often point to 19th Century writing and speaking as proof that we are living through a low point in American politics, rhetorically. It’s true that ever since the rise of television our public discussions have grown shorter, shallower, and coarser.

But while the 19th Century may have been a high point for rhetorical beauty, our own age might outrank it for civility, as recent book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, points out. Shootings, beatings, duels, and fist fights on the floor of Congress or near it were not isolated occurrences in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Members of polite society even thrilled to observe violence on the floor of the house and senate from the observation galleries, the same way they sometimes took a blanket and a picnic basket to observe the battles of the Civil War.

While we endure the threat of daily violence in most of our public spaces, we can at least be grateful that it hasn’t yet spread to spaces where our laws are debated.

The View from the Front Seat, Vegas Edition

Cab drivers talk to me. I’ve had one tell me he was the last direct descendent of the tribal chieftains of Haiti. I’ve had another tell me about his family’s struggles during Jim Crow. Another once told me point blank with no context that I had “the face of a writer — so people must tell you their stories a lot, right?” I could only nod and wait for the story to follow.

Last week, the man who drove me from the Las Vegas airport to my hotel on the strip told me he was a second-generation native, his father having moved west to help build the Hoover Dam. So we got to talking about generational differences and he brought up sports and civility. Sports, he said, was something he could no longer enjoy because it was all about “taking the knee” and race politics. Obama, he said, had divided the country and didn’t I agree?

In my skinny jeans with my skinny tie, having already mentioned I was from New York City, I’m not sure why he made the assumption that I would agree Obama had divided black from white. Perhaps it was my white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Perhaps it was because Obama’s guilt is as obvious a fact in his universe as Trump’s guilt is in mine.

Perhaps the racial division had been there before, I suggested, and the same forces that have made us coarser or more candid in the last two years have also led us to talk about race more openly. Surely Trump had divided the country as much as his predecessor?

As we slowed in the approach to my hotel, he looked me in the eye via the rear view mirror and asked me honestly, “But can’t you feel it? The lack of civility? The way everything just feels different?” I told him that, yes, it seemed like we’ve forgotten how to disagree with civility and, more than that, even how to talk to each other. Then I checked into the hotel for my work conference and he went back to his work. But I’d have preferred to buy the guy a beer and keep talking.

Not to get all Tom Friedman about it, but I’ve since felt that I actually gained some insight into the state of the nation from that particular cab driver conversation, a deeper insight from the opinion pieces I spend so much time reading, written from either the right or the left.

To many white guys outside big cities, it probably feels like black and white are at more at odds now. Where once things were calm (easy to mistake as peaceful from a place of privilege) now they are stirred up. And the major difference between today and the events of Ferguson is the black guy who was in the The White House for eight years.

To me, the current tumult is the cost of taking more steps toward justice. To him, the same thing seems like a wanton step back from civil society, from a better America where his kids could expect a better measure of peace than they can now. It’s a scary place to be either way.