Sunday, August 23, 2009

Civility Strikes Back!

“This President has, I think, exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don’t know what it is [...] I’m not saying he doesn’t like white people, I’m saying he has a problem. He has a…This guy is, I believe, a racist."~ Fox television host, Glenn Beck

Sometimes things happen in the world of American politics that give me hope. In response to the irresponsible, and incendiary comments above, spoken on the air by Glenn Beck during a segment of the FOX & FRIENDS news program, advertisers are pulling commercials and the millions they represent from Beck's show. Some of the companies pulling the ads carry a lot of clout in American business: Wal-Mart, Geico, Proctor & Gamble, and Radio Shack are just a few of more than 20 such businesses, and the list continues to grow. is spearheading the effort to put these and other businesses on notice for providing financial backing for the purveyors of corrosive and inflammatory language. The results have been surprising to say the least in a time when the public has become inured to hyperbolic commentaries which have slowly become the norm in our discourse. I am proud to say that I am a signatory to the petitions that has forwarded to the business community. And the effort has paid off in another way, Beck has been asked by News Corp, the Rupert Murdoch owned company that runs FOX, to "take a week off." Like I said, sometimes there is cause for hope.

While this story may represent a refreshing example that civility is not yet dead in our public discourse, it would be premature to think that on its own it can bring us out of the dark place at which we've arrived. It has taken us a decade or more to get here, and it will take a lot of hard and sustained work to get back to civility and mutual respect. The way ahead won't really become clear to us if we fail to understand the steps that have brought us to this sorry pass.

Those wanting to retrace the steps that have placed our public conversation in peril will be doing themselves a favor if they read "The Eliminationists," by David Neiwert. The book's subtitle indicates that it is both a cautionary tale, and a rallying cry for restoring the respect and decency that has gone missing from our political discourse: "How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right." In the reading, it proves to be an accurate, chilling rendering of recent developments in culture and politics that have led inexorably to the situation we find ourselves in, one in which hate speech no longer exists on the fringes of public life, but has taken up residence comfortably in the mainstream.

Neiwert provides a quietly irrefutable gathering of evidence drawn from news reports, scholarly works, and interviews which make the case that extremist language has for years been drawn from the darkest, hate-filled corners of society, repackaged for mass consumption, and released into the mainstream. The effects can hardly be denied. Frankly, the fallout resulting from Beck's stupid irresponsibility has been stunning not because it was well deserved, but because it happened at all. That is how desensitized we have become to rhetoric and demagoguery that in times past would have been worthy of the strongest condemnation.

Neiwert's book is important in that it identifies a poisonous element in our public discourse that has not only been allowed to flourish by all of us, but has actually been encouraged by some really bad actors in the fields of media (Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Coulter), culture (Robertson, Falwell, Dobson), and from those in positions of political leadership (Lott, Tancredo, Palin). Once the source has been identified, it becomes the duty of every citizen, be they Republican or Democrat, to stamp out this infection wherever it rears its head in public life. Our very ability to preserve democracy depends on good citizens standing up for civility. That is precisely what has done.

It needs to be the beginning, not the end of the fight to restore the public square that hatemongers have stolen from us.

Update: Since this post was first published, the number of businesses that have pulled their ads down from Beck's show has grown to at least 50.

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