Commentary Magazine


Topic: civility

Mozilla and the Prophet Isaiah

By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

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By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

The successful effort to force Eich out, then, is a significant cultural moment. It revealed an illiberalism and a level of intolerance within some quarters on the left that is chilling but not wholly surprising. And if this current of thought is not checked and challenged, it will create ruptures and divisions that will hurt everyone, those who favor gay rights no less than those who oppose it.

Let me speak from a perspective within my own faith community. Based on conversations and having written and taught classes on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, my sense is that many evangelical Christians are working through how to approach the issues of their faith and the gay rights movement with a good deal of care and integrity. They are attempting to be faithful to Scripture in a way that is characterized by grace rather than stridency. Even as they continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they are asking whether their own attitudes have been distorted by their own cultural and political assumptions and that the focus on homosexuality is, as I’ve put it elsewhere, wildly disproportionate to what one finds in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Particularly among younger evangelicals, there’s a palpable discomfort with the approach taken by prominent figures over the last few decades – people like (but not exclusive to) Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. They are not the spokesmen they want to represent them or their faith. In terms of public policy, there’s discussion about shifting focus from opposing gay marriage to protecting religious liberties.  

I’ve had discussions with faithful Christians whom I deeply admire who wonder whether their approach needs to be refined – not completely jettisoned but refined — in light of a fuller and deeper understanding of the Christian faith. A thoughtful friend of mine, a pastor, wrote to me last week, asking, “How do you live in a broken world? How do you adapt in a way that maintains faith in God’s character, in ethical standards, and yet maintains an attitude of grace and mercy in a world in which there is a lot more gray than we’d like to admit? you are certainly correct when you suggest that in focusing on this issue [homosexuality], we ignore matters (like greed; like caring for the poor, etc.) that appear to be much more important to Jesus.  And these we blithely sweep under the rug because they are too uncomfortable, and we’ve learned to live with compromises and filter them out.”

The response of those who don’t share this view is that they’re standing for truth in an increasingly depraved time. The danger comes from those who are diluting Scripture to accommodate the world. And gray is just another word for capitulation. This isn’t an easy thing to sort through, then, as anyone who has honestly faced these issues can tell you.

What’s not reasonable or realistic to assume is that millions and millions of Christians will simply toss aside what they view as the clear teachings of the Bible because those who have contempt for their views and faith tell them to do so. And what won’t work is for the gay rights movement to try to intimidate into silence those with whom they disagree. To break their will. And to force religious organizations – including parachurch institutions and eventually churches – to embrace views they believe are at odds with the teachings in Scripture. A faith whose central symbol is the cross is not going to collapse or surrender in the face of pressure by progressives and secularists. (Historically the church has often thrived under persecution.)

This all could get pretty nasty pretty quickly, and intensifying the culture wars isn’t in anyone’s interest. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. There ought to be rules of etiquette, even (and perhaps especially) in public and political discourse. Asking for civility is quite different from insisting on agreement, and absence of agreement is a case for further (and better) debate, not putting an end to it.

When the dust finally settles, we still have to live together and occupy the same nation, the same airwaves, the same soccer fields and schools and workspaces. Surely treating others with a certain degree of dignity and respect shouldn’t be too much to ask of those who oppose gay marriage and those who support it. 

“Come now and let us reason together,” the prophet Isaiah said. That counsel beats a lot of alternatives, including targeting and destroying those who don’t conform to the beliefs of our new cultural commissars.  

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The Age of Invective

Even for our time, the invective is remarkable.

In the current debate about the continuing resolution and the government shutdown, and because of their determination to begin to unwind the highly unpopular Affordable Care Act, Republicans are being referred to as jihadists, arsonists, anarchists, terrorists, extortionists, racists, gun-to-the-head hostage takers, grave threats to American democracy, the heirs of Joe McCarthy, and the architects of “insidious and anti-constitutional acts of racist vandalism.”

There are several points to be made about this, the most obvious of which is that these charges are being leveled by President Obama and the aides and allies of Mr. Obama–a man, it’s worth recalling, who promised he would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” 

Yet things are worse now than before; and they are worse in large measure because of Mr. Obama himself.

Now, even if you believe what the GOP is doing is unwise–even if you believe the Affordable Care Act is one of the great achievements in American history–the characterization of Republicans by the left is not just unfair but slanderous. One can actually believe the Affordable Care Act is harmful and should be undone without being “people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” in the words of White House aide Dan Pfeiffer. But the kind of sulfuric rhetoric that’s being commonly used these days is also, on a deep level, damaging to our country.

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Even for our time, the invective is remarkable.

In the current debate about the continuing resolution and the government shutdown, and because of their determination to begin to unwind the highly unpopular Affordable Care Act, Republicans are being referred to as jihadists, arsonists, anarchists, terrorists, extortionists, racists, gun-to-the-head hostage takers, grave threats to American democracy, the heirs of Joe McCarthy, and the architects of “insidious and anti-constitutional acts of racist vandalism.”

There are several points to be made about this, the most obvious of which is that these charges are being leveled by President Obama and the aides and allies of Mr. Obama–a man, it’s worth recalling, who promised he would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” 

Yet things are worse now than before; and they are worse in large measure because of Mr. Obama himself.

Now, even if you believe what the GOP is doing is unwise–even if you believe the Affordable Care Act is one of the great achievements in American history–the characterization of Republicans by the left is not just unfair but slanderous. One can actually believe the Affordable Care Act is harmful and should be undone without being “people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” in the words of White House aide Dan Pfeiffer. But the kind of sulfuric rhetoric that’s being commonly used these days is also, on a deep level, damaging to our country.

The reason is that there are such things as civic bonds, and they are quite important. In his book Our Sacred Honor, William Bennett reminds us that the word “civility” comes from the Latin root civitas, meaning city–and civis, meaning citizen. “Civility, then,” Bennett writes, “is behavior worthy of citizens living in a city or in common with others.” It uplifts our common life. And how we treat one another goes some distance toward determining the degree to which we achieve “domestic tranquility.”

It would be silly to pretend that political passions don’t create divisions. (We know that political differences almost destroyed the wonderful friendship that existed between Jefferson and Adams. They eventually reconciled, thanks to the intervention of their mutual friend Benjamin Rush.) Nor do I believe politics should be stripped of intense debates or criticisms of others. Quite the opposite, in fact. Standing against policies one believes to be wrong and even unjust can be commendable.

My point is that I’ve found myself in the middle of plenty of disagreements over the years – and the temptation to pivot from sharp substantive disagreements to denigrating and demonizing those with whom we disagree is ever-present. I’m certain there are lines of propriety I’ve crossed. But in our calmer and wiser moments we all understand that those are precisely the temptations we need to try to resist, even if imperfectly; and that even our political opponents are deserving of being treated with a certain dignity.

Our greatest president understood this perhaps better than anyone. Upon taking office during the most polarized period in our history, Abraham Lincoln closed his first inaugural address by reminding us that we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies, he said. And then he added this: 

Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The divisions in America today are undeniably deep–and sometimes it seems as if those on the left and the right are operating in different worlds, based on a different set of values. Neither side can understand why the other doesn’t see things as they do. (I say that not as a detached observer floating comfortably above the fray but as a conservative who is involved in the daily back-and-forth of politics and whose worldview is very different than that of modern-day progressives.)

Yet we are nowhere near the place we were in 1860. And now, like then, the bonds of affection that unite Americans need to be attended to. We’re all worse off if they fray. Nor do we need to portray those with whom we disagree as moral monsters. That might be worth recalling at a time in which the political rhetoric has spun ludicrously out of control.

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Obama’s Latest Political Slander

During his press conference earlier today, we witnessed President Obama’s persistent habit of engaging in a form of political libel. When the president was asked about a possible government shutdown, Mr. Obama said this:

But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.

This is a particularly foolish slander by a president whose policies are leading to worse, not better, health care for seniors; whose profligate fiscal policies will eventually lead to deep and painful cuts in our entitlement programs; and whose presidency has coincided with a record 46 million Americans living in poverty.

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During his press conference earlier today, we witnessed President Obama’s persistent habit of engaging in a form of political libel. When the president was asked about a possible government shutdown, Mr. Obama said this:

But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.

This is a particularly foolish slander by a president whose policies are leading to worse, not better, health care for seniors; whose profligate fiscal policies will eventually lead to deep and painful cuts in our entitlement programs; and whose presidency has coincided with a record 46 million Americans living in poverty.

During the Obama years, in fact, the ranks of America’s poor have climbed to levels unseen in nearly half a century. In addition, Obama was opposed to the 1996 welfare reform bill, which was arguably the single best policy reform to help poor Americans, and his administration has taken steps to weaken welfare work requirements. Yet the president feels like he’s in a position to lecture Republicans about caring for the most vulnerable members of the human community.

And leave it to Mr. Obama to level the charge that Republicans want poor children to go hungry in the very press conference in which he complains about “how much energy has been devoted in some of the media … to demonize me.” This is a variation of what psychiatrists refer to as projection.

But there’s more to it than simply that. This is a president who, when he’s not sermonizing on the importance of civility in public discourse, is accusing Republicans of being social Darwinists and members of the “flat earth society,” of putting their party ahead of their country, and of wanting dirty air and dirty water. He says Republicans want autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.” He accuses his opponents of not simply being wrong but of being his “enemies.” 

During the 2012 election, Obama’s vice president said Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains’ while Obama’s top aides and allies implied Governor Romney was a felon and flat-out stated that he was responsible for the cancer-death of a steelworker’s wife. For Obama, it’s not enough for the differences in politics to be based on an genuine difference in philosophy. He is always working to portray his opponents as caricatures, as cartoon-figures who don’t want to feed the poor or fund medical research. One might be excused for thinking that the president has a suspicion of honest debate and prefers demonization instead.

It appears as if Mr. Obama is determined to build on his already substantial body of work when it comes to intellectual dishonesty and moral self-righteousness. The president, already the most polarizing in modern history, thrives on creating an acrimonious political culture and exacerbating divisions in American society. He’s the perfect president to star in America’s current political circus. 

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Brown-Warren “Civility” and the Law of Unintended Consequences

In February, Lindsay Mark Lewis, a former Democratic National Committee finance director, wrote a heavy-hearted piece for the New York Times. Lewis wrote that he has always supported campaign finance reform, but something funny had recently happened. The Law of Unintended Consequences, that bane of liberal social engineers and red tape wielding bureaucrats, had hit Lewis–and hard. One of the effects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation was that it didn’t take money out of politics after all; it merely redirected money to less accountable groups like 527s and super PACs. Wrote a defeated Lewis:

Nevertheless, I’ve decided that the best way forward may be to go in the opposite direction: repeal what’s left of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as McCain-Feingold, which severely limits the amount of money the parties can collect for their candidates.

Well what do you know–the cure was worse than the disease. So much worse, in fact, that the country’s biggest boosters of that cure were turning against it, ruing the day they went after the First Amendment with malice aforethought. Something similar, but slightly less ironic, is now taking place in Massachusetts between Senator Scott Brown and his liberal challenger, Elizabeth Warren. To great fanfare—OK, modest fanfare—Brown and Warren signed a pledge that would effectively ban third-party groups from the race. When Brown announced the deal to Fox News in January, the station’s website reported it this way:

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In February, Lindsay Mark Lewis, a former Democratic National Committee finance director, wrote a heavy-hearted piece for the New York Times. Lewis wrote that he has always supported campaign finance reform, but something funny had recently happened. The Law of Unintended Consequences, that bane of liberal social engineers and red tape wielding bureaucrats, had hit Lewis–and hard. One of the effects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation was that it didn’t take money out of politics after all; it merely redirected money to less accountable groups like 527s and super PACs. Wrote a defeated Lewis:

Nevertheless, I’ve decided that the best way forward may be to go in the opposite direction: repeal what’s left of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as McCain-Feingold, which severely limits the amount of money the parties can collect for their candidates.

Well what do you know–the cure was worse than the disease. So much worse, in fact, that the country’s biggest boosters of that cure were turning against it, ruing the day they went after the First Amendment with malice aforethought. Something similar, but slightly less ironic, is now taking place in Massachusetts between Senator Scott Brown and his liberal challenger, Elizabeth Warren. To great fanfare—OK, modest fanfare—Brown and Warren signed a pledge that would effectively ban third-party groups from the race. When Brown announced the deal to Fox News in January, the station’s website reported it this way:

The Senate race in Massachusetts is going for the civility vote as Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren have agreed — under threat of financial penalty to themselves — to ban third party ads from their race.

Ah, civility at last. There was just simply no way this could end up having the opposite effect, right? Yet today, Rosie Gray reports from Lowell, Massachusetts:

The poison that runs through this state’s Senate race seemed to spill over into the traffic Tuesday night: Everyone was paralyzed, furious, and headed to the same place, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s Tsongas Center.

Everyone sounds really angry and on-edge. What happened? Gray explains:

The Massachusetts Senate Campaign, between a moderate Republican and a liberal hero, began with a pledge that was meant to keep things clean. The campaigns promised not to let outside groups run radio and television advertisements on their behalves. That agreement appears to have accomplished roughly the opposite of its goal: Now, instead of letting outsiders do the dirty work for them, Warren and Brown have had to do it themselves. And a race that was always going to be tough has reached an unusual depth of personal nastiness[.]

So it didn’t take the negativity out of the election, it simply caused the candidates to stoop to the levels of incivility previously only occupied by third parties—“an unusual depth of personal nastiness,” in Gray’s telling. As Gray describes it, the fact that the candidates themselves are behaving this way has set the tone for everyone involved, so even the debate audience seemed on the edge of a brawl.

Of course, they didn’t mean for this to happen. They just signed legally binding agreements to curtail free political speech, and somehow it didn’t work out. They had good intentions—and paved the road to Lowell with them.

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Obama Campaign Stunt “Breaks Precedent”

The Wall Street Journal has a long story today examining the extent of President Obama’s failure with regard to his stated goal of reducing the partisan rancor in Washington. The Journal notes that while Obama promised to “heal the divides,” and other vapid covers for the president’s own extreme partisanship, he has only built a more divided political atmosphere:

Almost four years later, few think those rifts have been healed. One of the central tenets of the 2008 Obama campaign was a promise to usher in an almost post-partisan era in Washington, but by most measures the capital’s divisive tone has grown worse. The rancor has bled into the campaign, which has been marked by unusually negative rhetoric from both sides.

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The Wall Street Journal has a long story today examining the extent of President Obama’s failure with regard to his stated goal of reducing the partisan rancor in Washington. The Journal notes that while Obama promised to “heal the divides,” and other vapid covers for the president’s own extreme partisanship, he has only built a more divided political atmosphere:

Almost four years later, few think those rifts have been healed. One of the central tenets of the 2008 Obama campaign was a promise to usher in an almost post-partisan era in Washington, but by most measures the capital’s divisive tone has grown worse. The rancor has bled into the campaign, which has been marked by unusually negative rhetoric from both sides.

The Journal is quick to dispel the notion that the GOP has been more united in opposition to the Democrats than the president’s party has been against the Republicans: “Last year, House Republicans voted with their leadership 91% of the time on average, tying a record for party-line voting, while Senate Democrats set a record with 92% party unity, according to data compiled by Congressional Quarterly.”

The article offers many reasons for the increased polarization, relying heavily on criticism from the president’s allies and fellow Democrats that paint Obama as dismissive of building relationships with his opposition, preferring to ignore or freeze out those who disagree with him on Capitol Hill, unlike his Democratic and Republican predecessors who were able to pursue their agenda while reaching across the isle and show a willingness to engage with the other side.

But the president’s contribution to the increased polarization seems to be more than just his personal coldness toward those with different ideas. As a piece in the Hill today makes clear, Obama has found ways to escalate the petty verbal skirmishing he claimed to detest:

Bucking protocol, President Obama and the Democrats are planning a full-scale assault on Republicans next week during their convention.

Presidential candidates have traditionally kept a low profile during their opponent’s nominating celebration, but Democrats are throwing those rules out the window in an attempt to spoil Mitt Romney’s coronation as the GOP nominee.

President Obama, Vice President Biden and leading congressional Democrats have all scheduled high-profile events next week to counter-program the Republican gathering in Tampa….

“Traditionally, there was a kind of courtesy extended to the party having the convention — the [other] party would basically stay out of the public eye,” said Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University.

In fairness to Obama, he did promise to change business as usual in Washington, and erasing any semblance of inter-party graciousness certainly qualifies. Now, I don’t think the parties necessarily have to hold their fire just because campaigns have done so in the past. It’s just worth pointing out that Obama isn’t the victim of a status quo—he has made a choice and is pursuing it.

Of course, anyone who is familiar with coverage of the president knows what’s coming next: the explanation for why it can’t possibly be Obama’s fault:

Political historians say the high stakes of this year’s elections — combined with the rise of today’s 24/7 media culture — has forced leaders on both sides of the aisle to get more aggressive.

It’s really a shame that the president was “forced” into breaking precedent and running a nastier campaign than he promised. And of course there’s the unavoidable “both sides” bit even though the article’s point is that the president is doing something no one else has done. I suppose this is what the president was talking about when he complained about “false balance” in the press.

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