Seeking an Operational Definition of Decency

Okay, it was the week that Obama got all presidential and in that Tucson speech told everyone to calm down, to dial it back a notch – as folks had been saying stupid and hateful things that weren’t making things any better. The young congresswoman had a bullet through her brain, a federal judge was dead, and a nine-year-old little girl was dead, along with a few others, and all the nasty talk back and forth was not just petty, it was disgusting – although he didn’t use that word. But the message was clear. What are you guys thinking? We’re better than that. These people didn’t die so you could get all sanctimonious and righteously angry on the nightly cable talk shows and the big three Sunday morning network political gabfests. It might be time for a little civility – actually it was a call for what most people call common decency.

And except for the outliers on the right and left, who will always say that these momentous times do not call for decency and civility – those are nice enough things but we can’t afford them now – everyone had to concede Obama said what had to be said, and said it well, and that was a good thing.

Those on the right were pleased. Obama said stop saying this madman who did all the shooting did all the shooting because of what Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck had once said. Obama was rebuking the left, his natural base. He was calling them hatemonger sorts and bomb-throwers and whatnot. They were always picking on the Tea Party, so good for Obama. And those on the left were pleased. Obama had said that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck had poisoned the nation’s discourse. He said those two – and the whole Tea Party Crowd – were destroying America, and they damned well had better stop that nonsense.

But Obama didn’t say either of those things. He was being more general, or as Greg Sargent suggests, he was making a larger point:

It’s true that Obama stated clearly there that rhetoric didn’t cause the shooting. But these lines are best understood as a set up to the larger point that followed, which is that the shooting confers a moral obligation upon all of us to improve the tone and integrity of our discourse. If Obama had delivered this latter message in isolation, without the set up, conservatives would have rejected it as political, as criticism directed at them.

That’s a subtle point – the tone and integrity of our discourse suck, big time. (Yes, that’s a joke.) And you can say that over and over, but it won’t sink in. Pointing to dead people helps. This is serious stuff. Don’t rant and weep and scream – tone – and don’t go all end-of-the-world apocalyptic all the time – integrity – don’t make things up and don’t lie about the facts. That’s insulting these dead people.

This message was simple. Play nice. That seems easy enough, but it’s hard to tell what that might mean operationally. Yes, the teacher can say play nice, children. And they know exactly what she’s saying. And they may agree that’s a good idea. But they have no idea how to do that. What are the steps? What do you do, exactly? What does playing nice look like? The kids are at a loss.

And that’s the problem – operational decency. Decency is nice, as a concept. But how do you do it?

Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, offers these thoughts on the sort of rhetoric that’s troublesome, and demands attention:

The problem is not military metaphors. It’s not Glenn Beck joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi’s wine or Paul Krugman hanging Joe Lieberman in effigy at a party. The problem is, rather, the construction of paranoid narratives that might justify violence to a violent-minded person. When scruffy protesters drew swastikas on photographs of President George W. Bush that was obnoxious. It was not likely to incite anyone. But when eminent persons argued on the public airwaves that the United States had been lied into a frustrating war in Iraq by a cabal of Jewish conspirators? That’s a very different matter.

Likewise, it’s grossly ill mannered for a member of the House to shout “You lie!” at a president during a State of the Union address. Yet the republic staggered on somehow. What does do damage to the fabric of democracy is the charge made by prominent conservative broadcasters that the president is deliberately wrecking the U.S. economy to advance his scheme to overthrow the constitution and transform the nation into a Marxist or Leninist or even Maoist tyranny.

So here we have a problem of both tone and integrity, and in this item David Corn quotes Rush Limbaugh:

What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He’s sitting there in jail. He knows what’s going on, he knows that… the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he’s just a victim…. That smiling mug shot – this guy clearly understands he’s getting all the attention and he understands he’s got a political party doing everything it can, plus a local sheriff doing everything that they can to make sure he’s not convicted of murder – but something lesser.


Limbaugh was suggesting – no, make that stating as a fact – that the Democrats want to help Jared Lee Loughner escape full justice for allegedly murdering six people (including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl) and attempting to kill Giffords, a Democrat quite popular within her party. What could Limbaugh be thinking?

And Andrew Sullivan:

Leave Limbaugh to one side for a second. What must an entire political party be thinking that it allows itself to be defined, led and inspired by this font of despicable callousness?

Well, it’s kind of kids’ stuff, which Julian Sanchez explains here:

There’s a similar phenomenon in American politics, which I long ago mentally dubbed The Voldemort Effect. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it seems like especially recently, if you ask a strong political partisan – conservatives in particular, in my experience – which political figures they like or admire, and why, they’ll enthusiastically cite the ability to “drive the other side crazy.” Judging by online commentary, this seems to be an enormous part of Sarah Palin’s appeal. Palin herself certainty seems to understand this. Her favorite shtick, the well to which she returns again and again, is: “Look how all the mean liberals are attacking me!” Weekly Standard writer Matt Continetti even titled his book about the ex-governor “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.” Perversely, liberals end up playing a significant role in anointing conservative leaders.

Sanchez says this is a bipartisan phenomenon that everyone at least subconsciously recognizes:

A political figure – though more often a pundit than an actual candidate or elected official – gains prominence largely as a function of being attacked or loathed with special vehemence by the other side – which means it’s crying out for a convenient shorthand so we can talk about it more easily. I propose “The Voldemort Effect.”

So we may not have an operational definition of decency, but thanks to the Rowling woman, we know all about what is its opposite:

I had the sense that a year or so back, the Obama administration was rather cannily trying to exploit the Voldemort Effect deliberately, treating Rush Limbaugh as the de facto conservative/Republican leader in hopes that conservatives would fall in line, precisely because Limbaugh is very popular with the conservative base and not so much with everyone else. Which, incidentally, is a danger of the Voldemort Effect: It tends to encourage the base to embrace polarizing figures who turn off moderates, which I suspect is why it is normally observed with pundits (who can do that and remain successful) rather than with candidates.

And see Sullivan, on his own blog work, discussing the rare good conservative pundits:

What separates constructive pundits from destructive ones is often mere investment in the idea that intellectually honest exchanges can bear fruit, and that error in oneself can be usefully corrected by others. That’s certainly the aspiration here: you help me – through error and insight – to get closer to the truth sooner than if I were trying to understand the world alone.

The competing approach is to regard the whole of public discourse as a zero sum game where each side is meant to seize whatever ground is immediately before it that day. Increasingly, I think this is the core divide in our politics – not left or right, but open or closed. Both sides bear some fault for this, but in my view, the right is in a class of its own. It has become not just closed but hermetically shut.

And bitter. So bitter.

And see Paul Krugman saying there’s no room for any middle ground in American politics:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

Jon Chait agrees and that sort of Ayn Rand view is “the question that is driving most of the contemporary divide.”

Of course Matthew Yglesias had already noted that all this furious opposition to activist government appears to be make-believe.

Consider the health care debate. I didn’t really hear congressional Republicans calling for increased reliance on the free market. Did they talk about repealing the 2003 Medicare expansion? Did they argue for eliminating SCHIP? Did they push repeal of continuity of coverage regulations? Did they take up my pet cause of letting dental hygienists clean teeth without giving dentists a piece of the action? They certainly didn’t push to repeal the rule that hospitals need to provide care to the indigent. Indeed, I often heard Republicans asserting that the most popular elements of the Affordable Care Act – most notably a ban on refusing coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions – could and should somehow just be severed from more controversial aspects of the law.

And Yglesias says consider public opinion:

Expensive benefit programs that account for nearly half of all federal spending enjoy widespread support, the poll found. Only 20 percent supported paring Social Security retirement benefits while a mere 23 supported cutbacks to the Medicare health-insurance program.

And he adds this:

George W Bush substantially expanded the federal government’s commitment to health care and K-12 education, yet liberals were absolutely convinced he wanted to roll back 100 years of welfare state expansion. TARP gave Barack Obama a once-a-century opportunity to transform the American economy through state control over the commanding heights, an opportunity he deliberately declined (taking a lot of shit from his base in the interim) due to the sincere belief of his team that doing so wouldn’t be in the interests of the United States. What’s interesting to me is that we have a kind of furious partisan debate despite the fact that we don’t see large disagreements about the basic principles of welfare state capitalism.

And a day later Yglesias added this:

The American Enterprise Institute did a poll of self-identified conservatives and found that “only 3 percent of respondents favored reforming Social Security and Medicare.” The 2010 elections put a lot of new conservative governors in office, and I’m guessing that exactly zero of them will abolish mandatory minimum parking requirements in their states. …

It’s a bit puzzling. The gap is really not just between conservatives and non-conservatives, but between conservatives’ self-image and the reality of their program. Paul Ryan, for example, can’t quite seem to decide if he wants to slow the growth of Medicare while maintaining a credible safety net for elderly Americans (in which case his “roadmap” proposal is the starting point of a discussion) or if he’s an Ayn Rand devotee who’s trying to liberate America from enslavement at the hands of the welfare state. Indeed, he doesn’t really even seem to see that these are different ideas!

It’s no wonder the tone of our discourse sucks. And elsewhere Yglesias offers this:

I don’t think people should pretend to like people they dislike or avoid saying what they mean. But I do think people should be careful to avoid a certain kind of tendentious rhetoric. Some of the participants in our political debate are quite stupid, some are corrupt, some are dishonest, and some combine multiple unattractive qualities.

What should be avoided is the tendency to dramatically overstate the ideological stakes in our political debates. The choice between Democratic candidates and Republicans ones is important and has important consequences. But in the grand scheme of things you’re seeing what is basically a friendly debate between two different varieties of the liberal tradition. I think efforts to elide the difference between the religiously inflected populist nationalism of George W Bush and the religiously inflected populist nationalism of Mullah Omar are really absurd, as are the efforts by Glenn Beck to elide the difference between the progressive income tax and Joseph Stalin.

This stuff is mostly unserious, but I also think it’s potentially dangerous. If you really thought prominent American politicians were plotting to fundamentally subvert the American constitutional order and supplant it with a totalitarian dictatorship, you’d be prepared to countenance some pretty extreme countermeasures.

And that leads to this:

The problem here isn’t really about “civility” or being nice, it’s about accuracy and not treating your audience like you respect them. Beck thinks of his audience as marks, which is just plain wrong, and some day I’m afraid the con may lead someone to do something equal in craziness to the yarn Beck is spinning.

Yep, Obama was not only talking about improving the tone of our national discourse. He also talked about its integrity – and that has to do with accuracy, and not flat-out lying.

And then Paul Krugman jumps back in:

A further thought inspired by the meditations that led me to today’s column: I think I now understand the otherwise weird resurgence of paleomonetarism in the midst of a prolonged liquidity trap. It’s not really about analysis, it’s about morality.

You see, if you’re the kind of person who views being taxed to pay for social insurance programs as tyranny, you’re also going to be the kind of person who sees the printing of fiat money by a government-sponsored central bank as confiscation. You may try to produce evidence about the terrible things that happen under fiat currencies; you may insist that hyperinflation is just around the corner; but ultimately the facts don’t matter, it’s the immorality of activist monetary policy that you hate.

And Kevin Drum extends that:

Sure. Temperamentally, liberals are New Testament critters and conservatives are Old Testament critters. Conservatives believe in retribution. They believe in suffering for your sins. If you went into debt, it’s right that you should suffer for it. If the economy partied too hard, a hangover is the proper cure. We may or may not learn from our mistakes, but it’s still right and proper to pay for them.

And as for where such thinking leads, see the Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson:

A fabricated specter of impending governmental totalitarianism haunts the right’s dreams. One month after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, Beck hosted a show that gamed out how militias in Southern and Western states might rise up against an oppressive government. The number of self-proclaimed right-wing militias tripled – from 42 to 127, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – in 2009 (and that doesn’t count those that are entirely underground).

As much of the right sees it, the government is planning to incarcerate its enemies, socialize the economy and take away everyone’s guns. At the fringe, we have figures like Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, who told a rally in Washington last April that, “We’re in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it. They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of socialists.”

Drum suggests the problem is that, for some, the political is personal:

Are the fever dreams of the right worse than the fever dreams of the left? I’d say they obviously are, but that’s a matter for evidence and argument, not listicles. But nobody on the right is ever going to acknowledge this anyway. They really do think of carbon taxes as tantamount to Stalinism and they really do think of national healthcare as a socialist experiment in starting up death panels for old people. I’m not even sure how you have a conversation about this stuff.

Of course there are “doom merchants” on both the left and right, but there are more on the right:

There were people on the left who were afraid that Bush had turned us into a fascist country and that his national security apparatus was turning us into a police state. So what’s the difference? I think the distinction I always come back to is that for right-wingers this stuff is so much more personal.

What I mean by that is that, generally speaking, lefties weren’t afraid that they personally were going to be rounded up in terror sweeps or sent off to war. They may have had strong views about these things, but (obviously with exceptions) their views were still fairly abstract: fascism is bad and police states are bad, but they themselves weren’t really the ones who would suffer from it. It was others. And no matter how dedicated you are, you’re never as passionate about other groups as you are about yourself.

Conservatives, by contrast, take this stuff very personally indeed. The government is coming for their guns, the government wants to kill their grandmother, the government wants to confiscate their money. Needless to say, this provokes a whole different level of frenzy. When you conceive of your political opposites as literally coming after you, it makes a lot more sense to take a very apocalyptic view of things – thus, the popularity of Glenn Beck.

And Voldemort is out there too.

But what we have here is quite curious. Obama gave his speech. He was right. Everyone agrees we should play nice. And no one knows what that means operationally. What are the steps? What do you do, exactly? What does playing nice look like? The kids are at a loss. And maybe we just can’t do it.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Seeking an Operational Definition of Decency

  1. Richard T says:

    If you look at the other English speaking democracies, the political debate is robust even acrimonious at times – Prime Minister’s Question time at Westminster or Canberra is hardly conducted in civil measured terms – but nowhere is the debate so polarised as in the USA. The Tories in the UK do not generally question the patriotism of their opponents nor do they make outlandish claims about each others’ intentions of eliminating democracy and erecting a communist state, let alone that one of the party leaders has a largely foreign origin. In the last election campaign the Daily Mail made itself ridiculous by describing Nick Clegg’s (the Lib Dem leader) family background but it cut no ice and indeed sank without trace; there are some wannabe Becks and Limbauds lurking in the darker undergrowth of the Daily Telegraph and Mail, they have little traction.

    I wonder whether it is partially attributable to 2 constrasting factors – in the UK the broadcast media have a duty of balance and must by law give equal and fair treatment across the spectrum even to the fascists; the printed media is under no such duty and as we retain a very diverse national press -4 quality papers (and another 2 in Scotland), 2 very rightwing tabloid and 3 red tops – perhaps the lack of any ability to dominate the expression of opinion is the key. It may also be that our politicians do not take themselves quite as seriously as many of those in your country; Newt Gingrich for example could never have the influence he seems to exercise in the US as his self importance would be mercilessly pricked by our press. Incidentally, I think they may be waiting for the prospective visit of ex Governor Palin with some relish.

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