Commentary Magazine


A Model of Civil Discourse

John is quite right in his post on the unacceptable musings of David Goldman — and his caution that, “The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits.”

President Obama is, many of us believe, doing significant damage to America. At the same time, and thankfully, there is an extraordinary (peaceful) civic uprising against his agenda. There will be, I think, a fearsome price for Democrats to pay in November for what they are doing to this country. But there is still such a thing as a democratic etiquette, and we need to abide by it.

Apropos all this, in response to a piece I wrote on civility and public discourse last week, I received a note from a very intelligent friend scolding me, saying,

American democracy is not a library, and we don’t need shushing. The left will pull it’s Reichstag Fire maneuvers soon enough, and when they do, I worry that they will hold up columns and admonitions from you … and others as “witnesses” of our putative, foreordained in the narrative, and inexpungible, guilt.

This note was an indication to me that in American politics today, things are hot and getting hotter.

What I have in mind is not shushing people in a library; it is, rather, recognizing certain ground rules of democratic discourse. If you violate them, regardless of what your political philosophy is, you do damage to your country — and to your cause.

Of the young Abraham Lincoln, one friend said, “When thoroughly roused and provoked he was capable of terrible passion and invective.” But by the late 1830s, according to the Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan, “he had learned to make his satiric barbs less aggressive, to soften them into deflation rather than destruction, emphasizing ideas and persuasion rather than invective.” Lincoln, in the end, helped bind up the wounds of the nation, which was far more divided than it is today, with words that are nearly as familiar as any in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

That’s not a bad model for those of us in this age, or any age, to follow.