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Talk About Civility

November 10th · No Comments · Barack Obama, Florida Weekly, Muslim

My latest in Florida Weekly’s Palm Beach Gardens edition:

A lot of folks are talking about civility these days. But is anyone doing anything about it?

Well, yeah — er, I mean, yes. Yet it seems the busier folks in this arena are those promoting even more incivility in our national public discourse.

The poster child for the problem may still be Joe Wilson, a lightweight (See how easy incivility is?) GOP congressman from South Carolina, whose claim to fame is to have heckled President Obama during a joint session of Congress last year with: “You lie!”

I don’t think it uncivil to note that all our presidents likely have lied. That seems a requirement to win and to do the job. But now we have a backbencher shouting such claims for fun and political profit, with all the decorum of a kid in a sandbox.

Soon after that episode came the Anti-Defamation League’s report, “Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies.”

Examining “the groups and individuals” behind the alarming decline in our public discourse,” the ADL cited “the ‘birthers’ who claim the president is not an actual citizen of the U.S., to militia groups fearful that the government plans to forcibly disarm American citizens, to those who suggest that the health-care reform movement is akin (to) Nazi policies.

“There is a toxic atmosphere of rage in America being witnessed at many levels, and it raises fundamental questions for our society,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. “While not all of American has bought into these conspiracies, they seem to be seeping more and more into the mainstream.”

We seem to have slipped further since, toward a nation that is losing all sense of civility — and, in the words of McDonald’s masterful ad campaign, lovin’ it.

Increasingly we give the most outrageous media and political demagogues the biggest ratings. Intuitively we know they’ll poison our national discourse, wreck the country, whatever it takes to advance themselves, which ultimately is what they’re all about. Yet we keep tuning in, voting them in, seeking to be “informed,” and comforted. Which underscores that ultimately, we are responsible for this situation.

And these days, of course we can’t overlook what is being called Islamophobia. It seems Muslims have become the new — er, for the sake of civility, let’s just say, “N word,” with anyone who resembles “immigrant” a close second. Shrill voices keep demanding that Muslims be lumped in one bag. Yet as one of them I can attest that rather than being monolithic, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are as diverse as human beings get.

The point seemed to have been lost on veteran news commentator Juan Williams, who, trying to placate Fox News extremist Bill O’Reilly, and have National Public Radio too, provided NPR execs an opportunity to do what they long have wanted: dump him.

NPR’s excuse was Mr. Williams’ statement that when he sees folks on airplanes wearing traditional (or, in his thinking, stereotypical) Muslim garb, “and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims,” he becomes fearful. So Fox just hired at $2 million this news analyst, who not only thinks terrorists would disguise themselves as … Muslims, but also thinks folks’ myriad cultural clothing identifies them as terrorists.

With the operative words, “and I think,” Mr. Williams at least acknowledged that the problem was in his head, and reminded us that blacks can be bigots too. Best line I saw on it all? Juan Cole, University of Michigan professor: “Next Williams will be announcing that he sympathizes with the white police officers who get nervous when they see people dressed like African-Americans traveling in automobiles.”

The situation has reached the point that friends increasingly say they are tuning out TV, talk radio and other mass media news in favor of more thoughtful information sources such as — OK, I’ll say it — this one.

“We have given up in my house,” is a typical comment. “Just too much mass hypnosis all day long by the warped media.”

Yet with so many choices, grabbing people’s attention costs more than money, “It costs interesting,” says blogger Seth Godin. “Thus, as media moves from TV-driven to attention-driven, we’re going to see more outliers, more renegades and more angry people driving agendas and getting elected.”

But is civility dead? Hardly. A friend just told me she will be participating next month in a Consultation on Civility, part of a major project the Jewish Council for Public Affairs is mounting “to help restore civility in our nation.” As part of its Bridging Cultures initiative, the National Endowment for the Humanities recently accepted proposals for “Civility and Democracy” grants.

Another friend said she’ll be heading next month to a weekend gathering of sisters of her Catholic congregation whose anti-racism team “meets twice a year to consider how to keep this reality and need for transformation in front of the whole congregation’s consciousness and actions.”

“We are greatly in need of turning down the rhetoric of both religious and political dialogue,” said Mitch Carnell of South Carolina, author of Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, in his April article at, Breaking Point? Working to Restore Civility. “It starts with each one of us taking responsibility for our own actions.”

Like you, I’m sure, I’m not always as patient, or as civil, as I want to be. But civility dead?

Nah, we’re just witnessing the latest last gasp of the recalcitrance in our human spirit. Our progress through the course of history, and even in my brief lifetime, renders me hopefully optimistic (which some friends translate as: optimistic fool).

Thus this ode to you who are trying to do the civil thing. You know who you are. With more of us than ever, of so many different stripes, learning from, sharing with and better appreciating each other, we still might lose, humanity.

But ultimately, the professional haters for fun and profit can’t win. 

— My gratitude for all the kindness from those of you who were readers of more than two decades of my editorials and columns for The Palm Beach Post. I’m still rooting for my friends there. But for those who have wanted more of my offerings, welcome. I’m going to love sharing on the issues and goings-on in our community, if not our galaxy. Thanks for joining me on this latest journey.

— C.B. Hanif

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