One good way to relieve the electorate of the burdensome task of speaking out on a challenging and complex issue is to distract it with a softball issue on which all agree. Civility is the latest such diversionary gambit. Why can't we behave? That is the question more urgent, it seems, than global warming, poverty, unemployment, the fiscal cliff, the income gap, abortion rights, gay marriage, and that original question about whether to be (or not) combined.
Call me uncivil -- you wouldn't be the first -- but I've just about had my fill of civility. Instead of arguing over the nuances of bank re-regulation and the effects of phosphate runoff on the Gulf of Mexico, our media are devoting masses of time to how we comport ourselves should such an issue (heaven forbid) arise in polite company.
So it was with the debates. Suddenly style is more important than substance. I get that Nixon lost the 1960 election because of the way he looked on TV, but to say that a candidate "wins" a debate because of such things (or because of a personality quirk or a sluggish delivery or being too aggressive or not aggressive enough) invites a dumbing-down of the whole process, turning politics into entertainment. Add to that pundits blabbing on in their self-aggrandizing, inside-the-beltway way and -- well, for a second there I thought I'd tuned in to "Monday Night Football."
I have nothing against good manners, but I can't help thinking how much better the debate experience would be if that air time were used to enlighten the ignorant about all those other issues, the ones that are polarizing the nation precisely because of the paucity of factual reporting and our media's habit of allowing lies and distortions to go unquestioned because it's better to offer a "balanced" version of the truth than to lose the advertising support of the Exxon Mobil Corp.
When Congress balked at resolving the slavery issue in 1820, Thomas Jefferson presciently characterized its attempt to confine the odious practice to certain states (the Missouri Compromise) as "a reprieve only, not a final sentence," adding that "a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper."
Our country is facing challenges that are not only just as polarizing as slavery but just as critical to our future "moral and political" course. I blame civility in part -- our president's and also ours -- for allowing the conservative right to claim the moral high ground even as they write off the average working American as a lowlife tax-dodging deadbeat. It's no longer enough to demonize "the other" -- gays, Hispanics, Muslims, felons, atheists, and the like. These days anyone who isn't running a hedge fund is shirking, malingering, or on the dole.
There is no middle ground in today's America. That's the gist of my complaint. Just as slavery was either wrong or right, so it is with climate change. We liberals think it's wrong to allow polar bears to die so that humans can drive SUVs. Wrong to encourage children to be born into a world that can't sustain them. Wrong to deprive good, decent and loving people of the right to raise families.
I think passionate debate that's on point and fact-based is better than war. Maybe the slavery issue had to be settled that way, but I can't give up on the idea that once the public finds out the truth about climate and about Romney's 2011 taxes and about a lot of other things the right lies about with impunity, our moral and political course might get back on track.
In her new book "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else," Canadian-born journalist Christya Freeland writes that the most frightening thing about her subjects isn't that they live in a bubble but that they deeply believe in their own beneficence. It seems the further their riches remove them from the realities of the average person, the more deluded they become.
Our civility enables this. We let the plutocrats cow us with their private jets and bottomless bank accounts. We yield to their power. We get what we deserve.
Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer. She blogs about gardening, politics and life at bonnieblodgett.com.