Another Buckley has passed, and with him, graciousness and civility

When great ones pass, may they pass the torch.

I have seen a number of very moving and inspiring testimonials lately to great people who have recently passed from this world, written by those who knew and learned from them and knew how to write well of those lasting impressions. We can learn from those, and what we learn is of great and lasting value, especially the more their witness to charity and dignity is lacking in this cultural climate.

Michael Cook wrote this about Brian Harradine.

Brian began as a union organiser and Labor Party stalwart in Tasmania and rose to national prominence by dint of hard work and his steely intellect. But in 1975 he was expelled from the Party for denouncing Communist infiltration. It was a bitter blow, but he immediately stood for the Senate as an Independent and was elected easily.

Look at his witness and adherence to principles, and tenacity in not only defending but advancing them.

He spent the next 30 years in the Federal Parliament, where he fought tirelessly for his constituents and for causes that he believed in passionately – workers’ rights, Aboriginal rights, the rights of the family, and the rights of the unborn. I don’t think that there has ever been an Australian politician who fought harder and longer for the pro-life cause than Brian Harradine.

He also knew what families are all about. In 1980 his wife died, leaving him with six children. A couple of years later he married Marian, a widow with seven. The family of 15 lived in a modest house in a modest suburb.

Being an independent in Canberra was a lonely job. But all the parties respected his conviction and toughness. They had to. From 1996 to 1999 he and another independent held the balance of power and the government ate humble pie to secure his vote. He was unpretentious but he knew how to leverage his position and he drove a hard bargain…

He was also a man with a deep Catholic faith which kept him smiling through hard times at home, disappointments in politics and his years of illness. I shall miss him.

And so will the world, those who knew him and those who never did, because now they will not. Except through those who carry on the virtues and character he embodied.

Kathleen Parker wrote this about Reid Buckley.

He was, as I wrote in a long-ago Town and Country profile of him, a force of nature — driven by an insatiable curiosity, a joy of learning, and apparently a need to salvage what he could of Western intellectual tradition by infecting others with his passion. The Buckley School of Public Speaking has been a tiny incubator where minds were nourished during a brief respite from the mundane and then released back into the world with the sublime command to go forth and multiply.

Reid was nourished in turn by the transformation of students who under his tutelage morphed from timid mumblers into Shakespearean actors. Reid taught confident articulation by applying the debate skills he mastered first at Yale, where he was president of the debate club, and later as an itinerant debater opposite his liberal counterpart, Max Lerner. The two performed formal debates on college campuses during the 1960s, disagreeing civilly on the issues of the day.

The transformation wasn’t only practical but also spiritual. There was something magical and transcendent about entering Reid’s world. He immanentized the eschaton even though, theologically and politically, he opposed such utopian fantasies. Perhaps it was the intoxication of jasmine growing along the school’s antebellum porch. Or maybe it was the smell of hundreds of books, a fair portion of which were written by various Buckleys. Mostly, I think, it was exposure to knowledge, truth, and beauty, and delight in feeling a part of something truly special. He raised your game and made you want to be a better human being.

Of how many people can that be said today, with such reverent and eloquent tones?

Reid might not have known who Oprah was, but he could quote Thomas Merton or Socrates or Yeats with the ease of mortals ordering dressing on the side. A devout Catholic, he was serious about his faith but counted atheists among his friends. Ultra-conservative, he claimed most of his friends were liberals because they were more fun. Ultimately, he was a sensualist in love with beauty in all its forms.

This all seems like a bygone era, right? It shouldn’t and needn’t be, especially because the intellectual progeny who spent time in that world are still in this one, disagreeable and uncivil as it is.

To the 5,000-plus students who passed through his school, he was the lamplighter who waved the burning torch and showed the way out of the subterranean tunnels of rigid thinking. If, alas, I am a tad verbose in my praise, please pardon the indulgence. My cup runneth over.

However, it continues to spill forth…

There’s so much more to say. He was a novelist, essayist, and raconteur, a friend to movie stars, bullfighters, and everyday folks. If he had a snobbish bone, he kept it well hidden. His charm lay partly in his eager willingness to accept all men and women as his equals, intellectual and otherwise. He was the happiest of warriors, madly (madly!) in love with his Spanish wife, Tasa, to whom he professed his love nearly every time they spoke. (He did this in Spanish, but I listen in Spanish.)

A devoted father to their ten children, he called family meetings when any child had a problem to solve. He cherished weekends riding a tractor on his farm, inviting friends to stash and drink wine at his country cellar, and summers writing in his beloved Spain. More than anything, he loved his family, his God, and, by no means least, his dogs — all of them regulars at the school.

This is the fullness of a life well lived, and I was riveted by the account of it, inspired by the sheer nobility of such a witness to discipline, study, hard work, teaching, mentoring, conversing, debating, socializing and sharing, treating everyone with equal dignity and humanity. In other words, a gifted intellect who realized his gifts, a believer who lived his beliefs in every fiber of his living and being, and therefore witnessing faith, hope and charity. To the end, when it was clear it was the end.

When another staff member, Caroline Avinger, visited, Reid urged her not to be sad. “We’re believers, dearest,” he said. “We know how the story ends.”

We are all inconsolably sad, anyway. With Reid Buckley’s earthly departure, Western civilization has lost one of its fiercest gladiators and God has gained the delightful company of one of his most joyful servants. Reid’s parting words at the end of each seminar seem a fitting close to these recollections and a testament to an examined life well lived:

Through your efforts you have advanced in a mighty and terrible power, the art of persuasion. It can be used equally to advance good or evil. May you exercise this power always in the love of truth, decency, and the defense of the poor and weak.

Do you own to a god, may He be your witness and your judge should you betray this trust; if you do not own to a god, may your conscience be your scourge and also your salvation. And so help you, may the lucidity of your reason be guided by the purity of your heart.

Amen.

Yes. Indeed.

Evil will not have the last word

But in what passes as public discourse, it will keep trying.

So my last post below wondered aloud whether we’re still able to disagree with civil discourse, or not. It was kind of a rhetorical exercise, because the reality has been obvious for a while now, rendering the term ‘civil discourse’ almost quaint.

Since then, we went through what Christians have traditionally known and observed as Holy Week, and Jews the Passover. A time of spiritual reflection and prayer, of sacrifice and service, of shared humanity and salvation history.

But some believers and non-believers alike have either kept one foot in both that realm and the rough cut real world, or kept wholly and entirely flailing in the cultural abyss that gets no one anywhere but falling downward. Time and again, political power brokers have derided the lack of civil discourse and called for it as a new campaign, just after another tragic crime of some sort. And less than a week later it’s back to politically partisan sniping with media as complicit messenger.

On the news consumer level, people go at the messenger and each other in comments sections, or com-boxes, as if words have no meaning or whatever meaning suddenly assigned them for pragmatic purposes, as if there are no consequences for actions which include the act of character assassination or at least denigration. Pope Benedict often warned that modern man lives as if God does not exist, a re-statement of different Psalms decrying people acting ‘as if there is no God’.

Who will stop this?

Pope Francis is among the latest to try. Here are a few of his messages from the holiest days of the liturgical year.

Good Friday:

“In the Cross we see the monstrosity of man, when we allow ourselves to be guided by evil; but we also see the immensity of God’s mercy who does not treat us according to our sins, but according to His mercy”. This was the message at the heart of Pope Francis’ brief unscripted address Friday evening as he presided at the traditional “Via Crucis”, or Way of the Cross, service at Rome’s ancient Colosseum.

His scripted messages are already like little darts, targeted at our follies of idolatry (including making our own ideas into false idols, our opinions into little gods, until we’re so turned in on ourselves and ‘self-referential’ we lose side of ‘the other’ and feed into ‘the globalization of indifference’). His unscripted ones seem like deep sighs or sudden impulses that cry out to our shared humanity – shared, he’s quick to claim, by him – to stop and look and see, to listen and hear, to drop what we’re doing and be still, and then maybe notice that the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he urges us to go, to show the face of love to others, might be right in front of us.

However…and this is important to get…the ‘culture of encounter’ he keeps calling us to create, does not mean jumping into the culture of confrontation.

Easter Vigil:

Returning to Galilee, he noted, “means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey.”

“From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters,” the Pope said, highlighting how “that flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.”

That’s a good place to pause and take a good look at how we’re doing with that, Christian and anyone of goodwill. Are we bringing more heat than light? Do the flames we light ignite joy? Or do they singe and burn, causing distress?

Pope Francis then explained that there is “a more existential ‘Galilee’” in the life of every Christian after baptism, which is “the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission.”

Christians should pay attention. Non-Christians can benefit from a good existential message about recalling the first time they experienced the transcendent, a higher power they knew was not them and beyond them. For all, it’s the first encounter with the power of love and redemption.

Addressing those in attendance, the Roman Pontiff encouraged each to ask themselves: “What is my Galilee? Where is my Galilee? Did it go away or I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it?”…

“This is not to go back in time; it is not a kind of nostalgia,” the pontiff clarified, but rather “it is returning to our first love, in order to receive the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world and to bring that fire to all people, to the very ends of the earth.”

Again, encounter the fire and consider what we’re doing with it.

Easter Sunday:

“The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death,” he preached on April 20.

The Holy Father emphasized the power of God’s “unconditional and faithful love” for every human situation, praying for the many areas of the world suffering from violence or conflicts, and urging Christians to seek paths of peace and reconciliation…

“In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.”

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, and the Passover comes to completion, and those who don’t observe but have watched and felt something, whether longing or fulfillment, hope in the face of despair, seeing so many of the world’s believers recall the depths of human trials give them over to the heights of divine triumph and celebrate the mystery and gift of it all…here’s a question.

Have we been changed? Do we want to be? For believers, the Resurrection is the ultimate ‘re-set’. Love finds a way.

Have we lost our ability to disagree?

We have devolved.

That’s not news, except to those people who haven’t been paying attention. How long ago did we actually exercise our right to disagree with facility and reason, in this representative republic, this exercise in democracy? And especially, with dignity?

Voltaire allegedly said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though he did not, his biographer did. But it’s a noble sentiment.

So about the concept and reality of dignity, let’s look at what’s happened lately in the cultural meltdown over social moral issues, or anything that even refers to the word ‘moral.’ Fires ignite. Flamethrowers start lighting their torches. That’s bad enough. But one of the disturbing things among many, is that we’ve lost the meaning of words in the first place, so what’s moral isn’t sometimes what’s legal, and vice versa. Which leads inevitably to the throwdown challenge, who decides.

As if there’s no reference point. As if it’s a matter of consensus maybe? Because that’s what drives our culture.

Just as the Little Sisters of the Poor lawsuit put the spotlight on government encroachment on religious liberty, the meltdown that put white hot light on the decline of our civilization is the whole Brendan Eich/Mozilla affair over the issue of gay marriage. This need not have happened this way.

So, what happened?

A rundown:

First Things ran this, under ‘Anonymous’, such is the atmosphere of fear of retribution these days.

Silicon Valley is in an uproar. Angry blog posts have been written, resignations tendered, and boycotts organized, with no sign that the furor is likely to abate. Seeing such ruckus, a casual observer might assume that some fallout had finally resulted from the shocking revelation that several of the largest names in the technology industry—including Google, Apple, Intel, and others—have secretly colluded to drive down wages among software engineers and executives for the better part of the past decade. In fact it concerns nothing of the sort, but rather the appointment of a man named Brendan Eich to the role of CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, makers of the popular Firefox web browser.

The one thing all sides can agree on is that Eich, on paper, is very well suited to the job. His most notable technical achievement is the invention of the Javascript programming language, and while some of us might sniff at the poor design decisions which made that language notoriously unpleasant to work with, it is incontestable that it forms the underpinnings of much of the modern web. Indeed, a great deal of the complexity in a modern web browser is devoted to interpreting JavaScript as quickly and correctly as possible, and a staggering amount of work has gone into finding ever more baroque methods of optimizing its execution. Eich himself is quite familiar with all of this labor, having served in senior technical roles at Mozilla since he co-founded it. In fact, he has worked there almost continuously for the past sixteen years—an aeon in Silicon Valley—and is widely-known and liked within the company, the non-profit foundation that controls it, and the broader community of programmers around it.

Why, then, the ruckus? Amazingly enough, it is entirely due to the fact that Eich made a $1,000 donation to the campaign urging a ‘yes’ vote on California’s Proposition 8. When this fact first came to light, Eich, who was then CTO of Mozilla, published a post on his personal blog stating that his donation was not motivated by any sort of animosity towards gays or lesbians, and challenging those who did not believe this to cite any “incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.”

That is honesty. He’s saying, basically, ‘everyone has an opinion, a belief, and this is mine. By holding this belief I have in no way dishonored any person, or treated them disrespectfully.’

Then he reached out further.

Upon being named CEO last Wednesday, Eich immediately put up another post which among other things pledged in direct terms first that he would ensure Mozilla continued offering health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees; second that he would allocate additional resources to a project that aims to bring more LGBTQ individuals into the technology world and Mozilla in particular; and third that he would maintain and strengthen Mozilla’s policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s worth emphasizing that Eich made this statement prior to the storm of outrage which has since erupted, and that with these policies and others Mozilla easily ranks among the most gay-friendly work environments in the United States.

Emphasis added there, because that’s a remarkable effort to show goodwill. It wasn’t made in response to outrage, but in advance of it. How many work environments have that policy in the US? Or anywhere?

None of this, however, would do him any good. Since then, the Internet has exploded with statements expressing horror, sadness, and anger at Eich’s appointment. Two board members of the Mozilla foundation have resigned, ostensibly because they felt the search committee was unduly weighted with insiders, and dozens of more junior employees and volunteers have left as well. Several major corporations have released official statements encouraging Eich’s resignation, though it is difficult to tell whether they are motivated by genuine moral outrage or by the potential for cheap publicity. Of course the tech media, preternaturally hungry for pageclicks, cannot get enough of the story.

One of the most widely-shared and lauded of the countless statements issued in response to the appointment was written by Owen Thomas, managing editor of Valleywag, a self-described “tech gossip rag.” This is such a remarkable document that I can’t help quoting from it extensively:

Go there and read it if you will. This post is long enough already.

Andrew Sullivan responded to the torching of Brendan Eich with his own horror.

The guy who had the gall to express his First Amendment rights and favor Prop 8 in California by donating $1,000 has just been scalped by some gay activists. After an OKCupid decision to boycott Mozilla, the recently appointed Brendan Eich just resigned under pressure:

‘In a post at Mozilla’s official blog, executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker confirmed the news with an unequivocal apology on the company’s behalf. “Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it,” Baker wrote. “We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.”

‘The action comes days after dating site OKCupid became the most vocal opponent of Eich’s hiring. Mozilla offered repeated statements about LGBT inclusivity within the company over the past two weeks, but those never came with a specific response from Eich about his thousands of dollars of donations in support of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that sought to ban gay marriage in the state.’

End of statement. To which Sullivan responds:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

Thank you, Andrew Sullivan. That is intellectual honesty. You made my point. Those who rightly expressed outrage at being bullied are now bullying others. Simply because they can. Which makes them just like their former opponents, certainly no better.

Joel Kotkin says it’s The spread of ‘debate is over’ syndrome.

In many cases, I might agree with some leftist views, say, on gay marriage or the critical nature of income inequality, but liberals should find these intolerant tendencies terrifying and dangerous in a democracy dependent on the free interchange of ideas.

There’s the key to understanding or at least beginning to see what’s going on here. There is no free interchange of ideas. Some ideas are not only vilified, but crushed to the point where those who hold them must be professionally ruined or destroyed.

This shift has been building for decades and follows the increasingly uniform capture of key institutions – universities, the mass media and the bureaucracy – by people holding a set of “acceptable” viewpoints. Ironically, the shift toward a uniform worldview started in the 1960s, in part as a reaction to the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the oppressive conformity of the 1950s.

But what started as liberation and openness has now engendered an ever-more powerful clerisy – an educated class – that seeks to impose particular viewpoints while marginalizing and, in the most-extreme cases, criminalizing, divergent views.

Harsh words maybe, but well stated certainly.

Mollie Hemingway wrote this exceptional, challenging commentary and analysis.

Libertarian Nick Gillespie said he was “ambivalent” about Eich’s removal but that Eich’s resignation simply “shows how businesses respond to market signals.” And even conservatives weren’t rallying behind Eich on the grounds that marriage is an institution designed around sexual complementarity so much as by saying that even if he’s wrong, conscience should be protected.

At the end of the day, they’re all wrong. Or at least not even close to understanding the problem with Eich’s firing. Political differences with CEOs, even deep political differences, are something adults handle all the time. Most of us know that what happened held much more significance than anodyne market forces having their way. And Eich shouldn’t be protected on the grounds that one has the right to be wrong. See, Eich wasn’t hounded out of corporate life because he was wrong. He was hounded out of corporate life because he was right. His message strikes at the root of a popular but deeply flawed ideology that can not tolerate dissent.

And what we have in Eich is the powerful story of a dissident — one that forces those of us who are still capable of it to pause and think deeply on changing marriage laws and a free society.

Now Mollie gets into territory that rivets my attention, the work and writings of Vaclav Havel…

…the Czech playwright, poet, dissident and eventual president. Havel, who died in 2011, was a great man of freedom, if somewhat idiosyncratic in his political views. He was a fierce anti-communist who was also wary of consumerism, a long-time supporter of the Green Party who favored state action against global warming, and a skeptic of ideology who supported civil unions for same-sex couples.

“The Power of the Powerless,” written under a communist regime in 1978, is his landmark essay about dissent. It’s a wonderful read, no matter your political persuasion. It asks everyone to look at how they contribute to totalitarian systems, with no exceptions. It specifically says its message is “a kind of warning to the West,” revealing our own latent tendencies to set aside our moral integrity. Reading it again after the Eich dismissal, I couldn’t help but think of how it applies to our current situation in the States.

“The post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline,” Havel wrote, using the term he preferred over “dictatorship” for the complex system of social control experienced in Czechoslovakia. We also have a system that is demanding conformity, uniformity and discipline — it’s not just about marriage law, to be honest. It’s really about something much bigger — crushing the belief that the sexes are distinct in deep and meaningful ways that contribute to human flourishing. Obviously marriage law plays a role here — recent court rulings have asserted that the sexes are interchangeable when it comes to marriage. That’s only possible if they’re not distinct in deep and meaningful ways. But the push to change marriage laws is just one part of a larger project to change our understanding of sexual distinctions.

This commentary is just about the best analysis of the critical issues at hand out there right now. It should be engaged. The cultural battles have devolved into incoherence.

OK, let’s step back. What does any of this have to do with views on marriage? Well, I know that we’ve had years of criminally one-sided media coverage, cowardly political leaders and elite cultural views that have conveyed to you that the only reason anyone might think sexual complementarity is key to marriage is bigotry. You may have even internalized this message. You may need to hold on to this belief for reasons of tribalism or pride. But in the spirit of Jon Stewart’s poster shown up at the top, which reads, “I may disagree with you but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler,” let’s go on an open-minded journey where we seek to understand the views of others without characterizing them as Hitler-like. It’s difficult in these times, but we can do it.

She leads the reader through this dialectic journey.

So what is the difference between marriage and other relationships? There’s no question marriage has been treated dramatically differently than other relationships by governments and society. Why? Is it that it features a more vibrant or emotional connection? Or is there some feature that is a difference in kind – that marks it out as something that ought to be socially structured? We usually don’t want government in our other relationships, right? So why is marriage singled out throughout all time and human history as a different type of recognized relationship?

Well, read her article for the whole critical thinking exercise.

This is what marriage law was about. Not two friends building a house together. Or two people doing other sexual activities together. It was about the sexual union of men and women and a refusal to lie about what that union and that union alone produces: the propagation of humanity. This is the only way to make sense of marriage laws throughout all time and human history. Believing in this truth is not something that is wrong, and should be a firing offense. It’s not something that’s wrong, but should be protected speech. It’s actually something that’s right. It’s right regardless of how many people say otherwise. If you doubt the truth of this reality, consider your own existence, which we know is due to one man and one woman getting together. Consider the significance of what this means for all of humanity, that we all share this.

Now if one wants to change marriage laws to reflect something else, that’s obviously something that one can aim to do. We’ve seen the rapid, frequently unthinking embrace of that change in recent years, described one year ago in the humanist and libertarian magazine Spiked as “a case study in conformism” that should terrify “anyone who values diversity of thought and tolerance of dissent.”

Hang in there, even if you’re emotionally charged at this point. Because this appeals to reason and not emotion.

What is marriage? That’s a good question to answer, particularly if you want to radically alter the one limiting factor that is present throughout all history. Once we get an answer for what this new marriage definition is, perhaps our media and other elites could spend some time thinking about the consequences of that change. Does it in any way affect the right of children to be raised by their own mother and father? Have we forgotten why that’s an important norm? Either way, does it change the likelihood that children will be raised by their own mother and father? Does it by definition make that an impossibility for whatever children are raised by same-sex couples? Do we no longer believe that children should be raised by their own mother and father? Did we forget to think about children in this debate, pretending that it’s only about adults? In any case, is this something that doesn’t matter if males and females are interchangeable? Is it really true that there are no significant differences between mothers and fathers? Really? Are we sure we need to accept that lie? Are we sure we want to?

We are, she posits, slipping under ‘mob rule.’ But still at a warning point.

There’s much to be thankful for in aftermath of the madness of the Eich termination. For one thing, many people have rightly figured out that what happened there is terrifying. It’s not just natural marriage advocates but even some of same-sex marriage supporters most vocal advocates.

Such as the aforementioned and quoted Andrew Sullivan.

Far more than the political folks on either side, though, is the importance of what happened to the apolitical. In one sense, the most frightening aspect of the Eich termination was the message it sent to people throughout the country: Shut up or you will lose your livelihood. But in another sense, this dissident moment may spark something previously thought impossible.

Havel says that party politics and the law are the weakest grounds on which to fight against group think. Instead, he says that the real place for dissidents to fight for freedom is in the space where the complex demands of the system affect the ability to live life in a bearable way — to not be fired for one’s views, for instance. “People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being,” Havel said.

Exactly. Authentically.

It’s in this sense that Eich’s most important political work was not making a paltry $1,000 donation in defense of natural marriage laws. It was in refusing to recant.

Consider first the response of one of the activist’s calling for Eich’s head. After he resigned, activist Michael Catlin wrote that he never thought his campaign against Eich would go “this far” and that he wanted “him to just apologize.” So he was “sad” that Eich didn’t say the magic words that would have allowed him to keep his job. Yeah, he really said that.

And then think about how horrified people were that Eich lost his job for his views that men and women are different in important ways. Regardless of our previous views on marriage, we saw in Eich a dissident who forced us to think about totalitarianism and our role in making society unfree. Did we mindlessly put up red equal signs when we hadn’t even thought about what marriage is? Did we rush to fit in by telling others we supported same-sex marriage? Did we even go so far as to characterize as “bigots” or as “Hitlers” those who held views about the importance of natural marriage?

We must be able to engage these ideas, consider these questions, debate them and disagree, to hold onto and preserve our dignity and civilized society.

Whether Eich and other dissidents will crack our thick, hardened crust remains to be seen. Perhaps there will need to be dozens, hundreds, thousands more dissidents losing their livelihoods, facing court cases, and dealing with social media rage mobs. But all of a sudden, the crust doesn’t seem nearly as impenetrable as it did last week.

Obama defends government

Yep, that’s the headline in this New York Times article on the president’s commencement address at the University of Michigan. What’s the news value of that?

In my estimation, it’s partly that the earlier edition of this same online story carried a header saying Obama urged graduates to “Be Civil”. Now that’s interesting.

President Obama on Saturday directly confronted the sharpening political rancor in Washington, on the airwaves and on the Internet, telling the graduating class at the University of Michigan that the country needs a “basic level of civility in our public discourse.”

Yes, and it starts at home. The White House chief of staff amuses members of the press with his reputation for profanities. Just this week high-ranking Democrats in Congress have grilled financial market executives by repeating a string of bleeped out adjectives that led the press to call them “potty-mouthed congressional interrogators.”

But Obama delivers an address saying that everyone needs to “find ways to listen to one another.”  Indeed.

“Throwing around phrases like ‘socialist’ and ‘Soviet-style takeover,’ ‘fascist’ and ‘right-wing nut’ may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian and even murderous regimes,” Mr. Obama said. Such rhetoric, he said, closes the door to political compromise.

Where was the “listening to one another” and “political compromise” during the health care reform debate?

The Times re-did this story to add some of Obama’s stand up routine at the White House correspondents dinner. But it was largely not funny and sometimes startlingly so (in a joke about vice-president Joe Biden, Obama repeated an expletive under his breath that was picked up on his mic). The shot at Sarah Palin and the joke about death panels in the health care legislation were considerably unpresidential and distinctly tasteless.

So the  Times piece winds up back at his commencement speech and a reference to letters from kindergarten students and it ends on a question:

“The student asked, ‘Are people being nice?’ ”

Unlike the highest members of government, this inquiring child wasn’t being rhetorical.

Restore civility

Please.

I intended to post this Thomas Reeve’s commentary on the culture wars since it was first out, but in the meantime, it has practically gone viral and set a new record for views on Mercatornet. Now that tells us a lot, and hopefully, all good. That people are connecting so readily with the message of civility (and our name-calling culture) and passing it on to others may just be a sign that we’re trying to turn things around.

Examples of uncivilized blather abound. For example, if one has serious objections to the public display and approval of sodomy, one is called a “homophobe.” Opponents of racial preferences are branded “racists.” (Blacks who find special favors demeaning and patronizing are called a variety of vile names.) To believe that a pregnant mother bears a person rather than a thing is to be labeled a “religious extremist.” The same label is applied to people who believe that organized religion should participate in the public square.

If you object to even one feminist dogma, you’re a “sexist.” Support efforts to purge the public airwaves of obscenity and violence and you’re a “bigot,” just like the “dummies” who believe in objective right and wrong…Those wishing to restrain propagandizing in the classroom are called “right wingers,” and are often shunned by colleagues. Those who oppose the nanny state are labeled “uncaring,” “inhumane,” and the like. Using the “n” word is one or another brand of racism—unless, of course, the word is used by African-Americans themselves, which it often is. Spending huge sums of tax dollars to save the economy is labeled Socialism. And on and on.

This is so familiar, right? And so refreshing to hear someone call things what they are, put clear and objective words to the clouds of disingenuous rhetoric in political and social arguments, and point to the fact that they are precisely arguments and not debates because they lack civil discourse. Flame throwers “substitute banalities for thought,” Reeves says, and he is exactly right.

And it gets better…..he asks that we get past using generalities when making an argument or giving speeches but talk about ideas and back them up with specifics.

A democracy requires its citizens to think rather than simply obey. All people in a free society benefit when discourse is civil, which means that it should be reasoned, fact-filled, specific, and respectful of the highest moral standards the country has traditionally embraced. Let us think and speak clearly and with the best of intentions.

Yes, let’s have clarity with charity.

Pass it on. Thank you.