An Excess of Civility

Georgia Governor Zell Miller, most famous for his angry defence of George Bush at the 2004 Republican convention, has released a new book, entitled A Deficit of Decency. Miller rails against secularism, the decline of Christian values, and writes of the need to return to the ethics of previous generations. Of course Miller is not the first to lament North America’s perceived breakdown of civil society. William Bennett, Robert Bork and many others have written about this topic, targeting a variety of factors as potential sources for our “moral collapse”. Sunday Preachers routinely make this issue of civility the stuff of their messages, as do television’s familiar talking heads from the right.

Words such as morality, civility, decency and courtesy are tossed around, while polling indicates that we are a ruder bunch than we were a decade ago. On the surface it appears to be true, that is if we are simply referring to jockeying for position at a drive-thru or an ATM line up, or complaining about the vehicle ahead that refuses to let us merge into the left lane. But is this our definition of decency and morality? I would argue that there is an “excess of civility” today in North America.

Feb 15, 2003 may be remembered as one of the greatest single days in the history of public protest, as millions gathered across the globe to demonstrate their opposition to the Invasion of Iraq. Reflecting on this peaceful day, Arundhati Roy made an observation that non-violent resistance is becoming symbolic and that governments have simply learned to wait it out. “Unless civil disobedience becomes real, not symbolic, there is very little hope for change” and very little chance to do damage to empire. (Roy, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, 2004)

Symbolic resistance. It is no wonder that governments, anti-democratic organizations and corporations feel they can simply let the movement run its course. Sure, there may be a brief period of unfriendly press (this itself symbolic) in the event of a U.S. raid or an Israeli shelling that missed their targets. Unfortunately mainstream corporate media’s rapid-fire succession of mind-numbing news stories does not allow for context or contemplation of serious concerns over time, particularly when we’re hit with items such as:

-Michael Jackson: guilty or just bizarre?
-American Idol infidelity
-Manitoba’s sasquatch sighting
-Steroid use in baseball
-Canada’s lockout of hockey players
-The new book release by Paris Hilton’s dog
-and the latest Star Wars movie

It’s simply too much to deal with. It’s amazing we can keep track of it all!

-Why is it unheard of for someone to call a politician or corporate CEO a liar? Why do we instead hear terms such as “they are not telling the whole story”,  “he needs to come clean” or “he is misrepresenting the facts”?

-Why do massive demonstrations (Feb 15, 2003 for example) seem to end with people walking away, planning the next event, and feeling re-energized?

-Why are we not flooded with images in our mainstream media of Iraqi and Afghani children killed by coalition troops, or for that matter dead or injured U.S. soldiers?

-Why have so many been turned off by the confrontational work of the rather dishevelled-looking Michael Moore? Has he not been seen lately making his rounds on late night television clean-shaven in a suit and tie?

-Why does an increasing cynicism of the U.S. intervention in Iraq not translate into wholesale changes in staff or policy?

I think that the answer -at least in part- lies in the shallow North American notion of decency, morality and civility. We have, in some ways, gone from being citizens to consumers, and lost a meaningful connection to deeper issues, particularly those that don’t appear to impact us directly.

In many jurisdictions of North America, some ominous trends -and in many cases accompanying legislation- are taking root:
-the creation of  “no-go” zones at peaceful demonstrations
-new legislation to stop panhandling on street-corners
-by-laws to crack down on homeless and squeegee kids
-the Patriot Act and other “anti-terror” legislation
-severe cuts to income assistance and services for families and children
-xenophobia at Canadian, Mexican and U.S. borders

Is this civility? In this harsh new world we are putting politeness and decorum above substance. Our attention is focused on how the homeless person smells, as opposed to looking at the issue of affordable housing. Sure, we can send books and care packages to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, but we cannot call the Bush administration a pack of liars for manufacturing their case for the invasion. For days last month, the image of a U.S. soldier holding a blood-soaked Iraqi child made the media circuit, but no such image of an Iraqi parent with their blood-soaked child is appropriate material. It is clear that we can tolerate a bland John Kerry or a challenged George Bush, but not an emotional Howard Dean.

A recent example is Scottish Minister of Parliament George Galloway. His pointed remarks regarding the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the U.S. Senate sub-committee  provided for a powerful story, but this was turned into a moment as the media focus quickly turned to his marriage and his opponents, rather than spotlighting his carefully-chosen words to Republican Senator Norm Coleman.  Galloway appears here to have over-stepped the bounds of civility.

Another ongoing illustration of this phenomenon is found in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Clearly Arafat did not meet the West’s criteria for civility, (everything from his personal appearance to his defiant rhetoric) although he gave us some hints of civility in his later years. Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, has displayed his share of civility, both in his dress and in his concessions to U.S. and Israeli demands. Somehow the rotund -but well dressed- Ariel Sharon passes the civility test, despite his personal record of war crimes as well as the ongoing, acceptable human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.

A powerful historical case that demonstrates the acceptable bounds of civility comes from El Salvador, where two very different Catholic leaders made their mark. The current Archbishop, Monsenor Saenz Lacalle, was a military Vicar during the country’s brutal US-backed civil war. He was accused of blessing military helicopters before they left for their bombing raids that often targeted civilians and of remaining silent in the face of massacres. The Monsenor survived the civil war and went on to be appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador. Saenz Lacalle is more recently known for his absence at the Mass commemorating the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero 25 years earlier. The uncivilized Romero raised his voice, named names and spoke prophetically to governments, the military and the country’s elite for their roles in the slaughter of Salvadorans. He refused to participate in government functions, he asked President Carter to stop sending aid, and he walked through garbage dumps, fields and slums with the Salvadoran poor. For this he was assassinated. Ironically, this may cost the revered Archbishop his Canonization, as the Vatican claims that his martyrdom was a political one, not for reasons of faith. 

North America has shifted so far to the right on the political spectrum, while our notions of what is civil and what is extreme have moved right along with it. This change has caused many of us to back away from provocative tactics and principled stances that might disrupt traffic flow. Progressive groups are left struggling for ways to reach the North American multitudes without overly offending sensibilities, feeling that the average citizen is looking for any reason to tune out. This is not about tossing a brick through a Starbucks window, nor is it about “re-branding” ourselves to make social movements more palatable. This is about slicing through  expectations from our shifting society and hungry news channels and acknowledging the difficulty in making activism and resistance more than symbolic.

I read last week in the local newspaper that graffiti in Vancouver is down by 75%.     Is this good news?

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