Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Case for Civility

I've met and spoken with Os Guinness on several occasions and even shared a meal with him once. He's a fine man, a brilliant speaker and a prolific author. He's also dismayed at the current state of discourse in this country, and his dismay is certainly warranted. Out of that concern has emerged yet another book from a man who has already authored or edited over two dozen of them.

The Case for Civility And Why Our Future Depends on it is one of the most important of the many themes he has addressed over his long career as a public intellectual, but unfortunately it's not one of his strongest efforts.

Os urges us to elevate the level of our discourse and disagreements. He's dismayed by the "culture wars" raging in the U.S. over issues like abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, Iraq, etc. He calls for leadership from our politicians in promoting a civil public square. In all of this I cheer him on, but he cripples his case in the very beginning of the book, and continues to do so sporadically throughout its 175 pages, by taking precisely the kind of cheap shots at President Bush, though not always by name, that irritate people like me who think that this President has been one of the most civil, longsuffering, and least vindictive men ever to hold the office of president.

Bush has been relentlessly, and sometimes viciously and unfairly, vilified in the press by the Democratic opposition and even by some Republicans, yet he has never once, so far as I know, responded in kind, at least not publicly. He has tried repeatedly to demonstrate good will toward his political opponents only to be whacked in the head for his trouble. Nevertheless, rather than hold him up as an exemplar of the very attitude Os urges upon the rest of us, rather than cite his willingness to turn the other cheek as an example of how civility might work itself out in our politics, Os seizes whatever opportunities present themselves to take a few whacks himself.

On pages 5 and 6, for instance, he says: "I write as a longtime European admirer of the United States, with the deep conviction that the quest for civility in world affairs has to begin in America; but also with a growing sadness that America's recent leadership has not matched up to her global responsibilities." How so? In what way has our leadership failed to exercise civility on the world stage? Is this a reference to Afghanistan or Iraq? If so, in what sense do these ventures demonstrate an unfortunate lack of civility? They can do so only if they were inexcusably misguided, but if Os thinks they were then he needs to make that case because it's certainly not self-evident.

He also writes on page 6 that, "Like a later American president's 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq, Allenby's rash claim was soon to be contradicted..." This is simply uncharitable. The Navy suggested the "Mission Accomplished" sign after deposing Saddam and the completion of the aircraft carrier's mission to Iraq. The White House okayed it, but Bush probably wasn't even informed of it. The President even said in his speech aboard the ship that the mission had to continue and that the work was not done. One can understand, perhaps, why partisans might exploit this opening to insult Bush, but why would a man calling for more civility in our politics do so? If the sign has to be mentioned at all why not try to put the best construction on it rather than the worst?

The book also suffers from a lack of specificity. Os bemoans "culture warring" throughout the work, particularly on pages 16 and 17, but he's never clear about exactly what he has in mind by the term. He talks about the need "to wrest back the culture wars from the domineering pundits and activists who have become the warlords of American public life," but who are these people and in what ways are they domineering and what's wrong, exactly with being an activist?

He warns us not to remain passive before the bullying of the culture warriors, but the reader has no idea what or whom he's talking about.

On page 18 he conflates the two biggest weaknesses of the book, his lack of specifics and his predilection for taking swipes at Bush: "The tie-in between the religious right and the person and policies of George W. Bush, has provoked a mounting backlash that has made the liaison a severe liability for both."

Is Os criticizing Bush's "person" here? What is it about Bush's person that makes him so odious? Which of his policies should Bush have not pursued? Appointing qualified pro-life judges? Opposing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research? Doing more than any president in history to help alleviate the suffering of the poor in Africa? What exactly?

Guinness adds that "...certain Christians form the bulk of one of the two great extremes in the American culture wars and are stirring up against themselves some of the most vehement antireligious animosity in the modern world." Who are these Christians? How are they stirring up animosity, and why is this bad? If the world hates Christians for taking a stand against modern social trends why is that the Christians' fault? Os doesn't explain.

He laments the militancy of atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and seems to blame it on the Religious Right (p.18) as if had Jerry Falwell never existed Dawkins would never have felt the need to write The God Delusion. Could it not be argued just as easily that the Religious Right is the backlash and that the debasement of our culture by the secularists is the stimulus?

He also gets a little too full of himself on page 19 where he writes that he's "setting out a vision of civility in the American public square that, if realized, could be the key to resolving the cuilture wars, could be a stunning tribute to the brilliance of the 'great experiment' devised by the American founders, and also could stand as an encouragement and as a model for public civility in other parts of the world." He sounds here like he's campaigning for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There needs to be made a case for civility, and I thank Os for keeping that need before us. I just wish he'd be more specific and civil himself.

After a historical longuer on the first amendment and the challenges of pluralism, Os gets to the heart of his topic in Chapter 4.

He sees two impediments to a more civil discourse in this country. First, is the desire by some (don't expect him to name names or cite examples) to try to sacralize the public square. Here he steps into a trap to which many fair-minded commentators seem prone. In trying to be credible he wants to pronounce a pox on both the houses of the left and the right which implies a kind of moral equivalence between them. Thus he either has to dredge up some specific example of right-wing perfidy or continue to speak in mind-numbing nebulosity. He chooses to do both:

"As one who holds the Hebrew prophets in the highest esteem, I am outraged by the false prophets of fundamentalism, who violate the biblical canons of prophecy and pronounce in the name of the Lord what is theologically obscene and historically untrue.... I am appalled by the way the Religious Right attacks its fellow believers and demonizes its enemies. Shame on the scurrilous attacks in much Christian direct mail, and on fundamentalist pastors and their followers who hold placards in public such as 'God Hates Fags,' 'Thank God for Maimed Soldiers,' and 'God Hates You.'"

This sort of behavior is indeed deplorable and I join Os in deploring it, but who's doing it and what wickedness does the direct mail contain? Without that information we're left in the dark as to whether this really is a significant phenomenon. Is it limited to people like the dozen or so family members who comprise the Westboro Baptist Church or is it much more typical of the Christian right?

He complains (p. 94) that "many in the Religious Right are more obviously fundamentalists than they are Christians." This may well be true, but it would help if he would give us examples of what he means so that we can judge whether it's true that "many" religious conservatives are actually guilty of the charge.

He gives some advice to Christians on this page that is worth repeating. In talking about how Christians sometimes portray themselves as victims of secular persecution he enjoins us to, in effect, get a grip. He reminds us that what Christians are facing in the U.S. is nothing compared to what they're facing in China, North Korea, Burma, and Sudan.

He makes another interesting point on page 96 where he points out that it is a bit of a mistake to think that the genocidal tendencies of Islam are a throwback to the 7th century. He writes: "Its view of its advocates as a revolutionary vanguard, and their belief in the power of violence to remake humanity are highly modern ideas and closer to the views of the nineteenth century anarchists and nihilists than to those of their Muslim forebears. As such Islamism is truly a modern reaction to the modern world."

He's also helpful when he notes on page 102 that, "whichever side it comes from, politicized preaching is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church." These are words that should be meditated upon by the Jesse Jackson's, Jeremiah Wrights and Al Sharptons of the world as well as those normally thought to be on the Religious Right.

The best line in the book comes in his chapter on saying no to the naked public square when he says that he finds it "curious to be treated by Muslims as a second-class citizen and by atheists as a second-class thinker - a dhimmi to one and a dummy to the other."

He's at his best in defending the open public square and this chapter (Chapter 5) is worth the price of the book. Unfortunately, he never overcomes his penchant for vague generalizing and thus never brings himself to explaining exactly what civil discourse would or should look like (perhaps because it might look too much like G.W. Bush). On pages 150-152 he talks about what it is not, but leaves us to form our own opinions as to where the boundaries of civil discourse actually lie.

Nevertheless, Os is to be commended for directing our attention to the need and importance of civil disagreement, and we would all do well to keep in mind that we do nothing to advance our own causes when we resort to aspersions, name-calling and attempts to embarrass and humiliate those with whom we disagree.