By Sarah Roark |
It’s my own personal, considered opinion that the events of the last few weeks should have put the “debate” about whether we owe fascists our “civility” to bed, along with all connected myths. To me, the mere sight of children of “tender age” being warehoused in accommodations frankly less dignified than a zoo’s – the reports of such children being treated callously or cruelly by concentration-camp staff – the rank failure of our Congress to put a stop to this inhumanity – should have ended any remaining pretense that we are still having the familiar political battles according to the traditional ground rules.
But apparently it hasn’t, so let’s teach the controversy! Allow me to take from the pages of the Gray Lady: here’s a textbook example of what’s wrong with all these laments for our dearly departed civil discourse. It’s a piece by Frank Bruni, and it’s titled “Public Shaming Feels Good. That’s No Reason to Do It.”
Let’s clear something up right off the bat. We are not confronting fascists because it feels good.
To give the fairest summary of his argument that I can, what Bruni is saying in this piece comes down to the following.
- Civil discourse is a foundation of democracy; when you kill civility you kill democracy and it all just descends into tribal bloodbath.
- Confronting the fascists just ends up serving them by giving them outrage fuel and distracting everyone from the substance of the issue.
- We can still win over the “skeptics” (by which he seems to mean people who support Trump but in a more lukewarm, erodible way) by maintaining civility. But ugliness and rudeness from anyone who’s not Trump (or Huckabee Sanders, or Bannon, or Kellyanne Conway, or…) will sour them on opposing the regime’s evils and drive them back into the fascists’ arms.
- The Trumpists will hang themselves on their own rope if we will just get out of their way.
- Keep calm and bring forth the #BlueWave! That’s true #Resistance, because what’s important is not “what viscerally satisfies or what’s morally just,” but victory.
Let me state at the outset that I completely get how intelligent and well-meaning people can buy this argument. I’m a pretty mainstream lib. I prefer using my indoor voice too. I always want sweet reason and mutual respect to prevail too. And right now the world is falling ever further away from that. It’s frightening.
But it’s not falling away from that because the oppressed and those who stand with them are being big meaniepants about how they object. I wish that were the problem we had. It would be much easier to fix.
Our problem, unfortunately, is something a little knottier: a consolidating fascist regime.
So let’s go through the points of his argument and examine them on that basis.
1) You can’t kill what’s already dead.
To their credit, most commentators on the civility bandwagon concede this—in part. They admit the playing field is already grossly uneven. That the Trumpists and the entire GOP abandoned not just civility but human decency a long time ago. But they also think that if we don’t uphold civility unilaterally on our end, civility will disappear, with civilization soon to follow.
To say that is to forget what the whole reason for civility is. Civility is based on the much deeper social value of respecting other human beings. Manners are a manifestation of that respect. They can’t create respect where none exists. You can say something unspeakably cruel with perfectly “civil” phrasing. You can be kind with loud profanity.
What these pundits should be mourning is not the gloss of respect for humankind, but the substance. Ruffled feathers can be mended where there’s mutual goodwill. But fascists have no goodwill for any of the many innocent people they consider enemies. There’s nothing there to save. What you’re hoping to recover is an illusion—an illusion those who approve of putting children in cages are doing a pretty half-assed job of even trying to hold up these days.
2) Directly confronting fascists on their actions is not “letting them change the subject.” Tone-policing a charge of inhumanity, instead of focusing on the charge itself, is what actually changes the subject away from the people who are directly suffering, and allows fascists to play martyr.
And we have quite enough trouble staying on the point already, as Bruni’s own piece demonstrates. Speaking of the widespread response to the news that we’d built literal concentration camps for children torn away from their families, he notes:
The outrage transcended political party, forced President Trump to change course and represented an all-too-rare instance when his reprehensible actions earned a properly disgusted, widespread rebuke.
“The dumbest thing in American politics” is how a Republican strategist described the mess that Trump had needlessly made. “The dumbest, dumbest thing.”
See the problem yet?
“The dumbest, dumbest thing.”
Not the cruelest thing. Not the vilest thing. Not the most hateful thing. Just the dumbest thing.
Bruni is trying to show us how, before they were so rudely interrupted by the uncivil protesters of these policies, the GOP strategist was issuing a shamefaced mea culpa. How, in other words, we were possibly starting to get somewhere productive:
So why, when the strategist said this to me, did he sound upbeat? The answer is that it was Monday night and a miracle had occurred: The Democratic Party — well, one Democratic congresswoman in particular — had given journalists a different story to turn to, and this new narrative allowed Trump and his enablers to play the parts of victims.
“Thank you, Maxine Waters,” the strategist said.
But were we? Really? Because if all we were debating was the intelligence of locking children up for the crime of fleeing war and horror in their home countries, I have to question how far we were actually getting with the rational discussion.
I’d go further and submit that in fact we were already conceding the only really important ground; that we had already allowed the subject to be disastrously changed away from what most mattered – THE IMMORALITY OF FAMILY SEPARATION AND IMMIGRANT CONCENTRATION CAMPS.
The Red Hen owner and staff who (politely) requested that Huckabee Sanders leave were in fact moving us back in the right direction conversationally. Our media, or at least Frank Bruni and his source, had already moved on to indulging in fascinated horse-race handicapping about what children in cages would do to the parties’ prospects in the midterms. The folks at the Red Hen made very clear that their action was not about personal animus, but about Huckabee Sanders’ direct individual involvement in a scheme to deliberately torture children in order to deter their desperate families from seeking asylum – and, not incidentally, take those children as political hostages for ‘negotiations’ with Democrats on immigration, as well.
The folks at the Red Hen got it right.
Likewise, with the heckling of Florida attorney general Pam Bondi—the protesters who confronted her didn’t say she was ugly and her mother dressed her funny. What were the words they used, and who were the people they were talking about? The babies being ripped out of their mothers’ arms, and the people who lose their healthcare if pre-existing conditions are reinstated. So the protesters are, in fact, the only ones literally talking about the actual issue. Bruni, and those who join him in calls for “civility,” are the ones getting off-message.
3) “Civility” imposed equally on both the powerful and the powerless serves the former at the expense of the latter.
The tone argument has been put down a thousand times—notably and recently, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black activists have repeatedly and correctly pointed out that the civility “standard” is actually a bad-faith argument with an ever-shifting goalpost. What starts out as a reasonable wish for peaceful protest becomes a complaint that that the peaceful protest shouldn’t block the roads; if it’s not blocking roads, the complaint becomes that it shouldn’t insult the police; and then when Black activists don’t insult or even chant but instead kneel quietly, they’re disrespecting the flag and needlessly alienating the patriotic.
Why does that goalpost keep moving? One reason is simply the raw power politics of racism: after all, the point here is not to help clueless Black activists find the correct messaging for a plea for justice that simply hasn’t been marketed properly. The point is to make it so there is no right way for Black activists to protest and their only really acceptable option, by process of elimination, is silence.
The way you can most clearly see this segment of the argument fall apart is to ask the person promulgating it exactly what kind of resistance they are suggesting, and what the sequence of events that gets us from that “proper” approach to the desired end state of justice looks like, in their mind’s eye.
In this case, while he doesn’t make it explicit (probably because being explicit would expose its flimsiness), for Bruni the answer basically comes down to “the Blue Wave.” See below for why that doesn’t cut it.
4) Civility is not what will change anyone’s mind. If anyone changes their mind, it will be because they finally see the true horror of the situation, and there is no undisturbing way to show someone a horror.
Again: don’t confuse the glitter of civility for the gold of true humanity. That is what serves fascism. The bad guys would rather we were discussing literally anything other than what is being done to human beings, and what other human beings should feel and think and do about it, because the longer they can keep juggling our attention away from that, the more of us they can render numb and silent.
Some facts cannot be sanitized or understated or glossed over without making them lies by omission. I’m pretty sure baby jails have to be in that category. Because if they aren’t, what is?
This is not about finding some magic, precise, slick calibration of our anti-Trump outrage that will (somehow) spur those who’ve already proved they have no conscience left to start pretending otherwise again. This is about connecting vile actions to felt consequences for the powerful in one of the few ways ordinary people in this country have left.
Think about it this way. Would you change your stance on whether babies should be put in baby jails based on how nice the proponents of baby jails are to you? Is that how you measure your great moral choices? (If it is, I pity you—you must be forever spinning like a political weathervane.) Yes, I know: you’re about to point out to me that the anti-baby-jail side of the argument should be emotionally and factually more convincing…and you’d be right. But the assumption that anyone who supports baby jails is permeable to reason or empathy? Just might be one that needs interrogating. Can you say you’ve even seen that strategy succeed yet? Have the purveyors of civility made much headway with it?
You could argue I’m straw-manning there, because the point I’m supposed to be rebutting is the civility argument’s assertion that we’re not actually trying to convert those die-hards, but a much more important cohort of undecided or ambivalent people.
You know. The people who are undecided or ambivalent about baby jails.
Who, I ask you, can be ambivalent about such a thing? Someone who’s merely a victim of faulty reasoning? Someone who’d totally be against baby jails if those jerks on the left would just be more polite? (Again—if that’s really how a person operates, how would you keep them from being converted back by the next polite white supremacist who comes along?)
Or is it more likely that what we actually need is to wake up the slumbering sensibilities of people lulled—however that happened—by the faux-civility and fake logic of fascists and their apologists?
Is it possible that the further we slide into denial, normalization, and excuse-making, the more adamant, the more emotionally awake, and the more honest about the facts we must be to have a hope of breaking through that moral fog?
I believe we must and can. I believe when we shun Sarah Huckabee Sanders—not because of her party affiliation but because of what she’s personally done and its consequences for innocent people—we reaffirm for ourselves, we reassure the targets of this regime, and we warn its proponents that these are actions that should earn you a shunning. I believe that when we call Steven Miller a fascist—nothing more than a dry technical fact, by the way—we show everyone in the US and people of goodwill across the world that Trump hasn’t yet been able to destroy reality and truth. And that we won’t let him. Don’t forget the millions of people who are still anxiously waiting to hear that message from us. If not now, then when?
When something worse than children being put in cages has happened?
5) The hour is getting awfully late to keep waiting for the fascists to destroy themselves.
I’ll put this as succinctly as I can: if fascists being publicly terrible were enough to cause their self-destruction and save the lives of all their present and future victims, we would not have needed to have the second World War.
Instead, the decent world waited until after the concentration camps opened; after the Knight of the Long Knives and Kristallnacht; after the Nuremberg Laws; after Hitler broke the Munich Agreement, and invaded all of Czechoslovakia instead of only part.
There were multiple historical forces behind this inaction, which I won’t go into here but are well worth the study. But one significant reason the Allies waited so long is that they insisted on dealing with Hitler as though he were a normal and well-intentioned head of state—and in return, he reasoned with them, civilly.
So mark that: we’ve been here before.
Nazi Germany lasted for twelve years, Fascist Italy over twenty. Franco’s Falangist regime not only survived World War II despite his covert aid to the other fascist powers, but continued for several more decades until his death of natural causes.
How many years are we willing to endure the advance of Trumpism for, and how many will suffer or die under its actions in the meantime? Is there some point at which the guardians of civility will agree their strategy is a failure? And if we’re not at that point now—with families already undergoing incalculable and needless suffering—what is it going to take before we finally have permission to let the Trump regime’s servants know what we truly think of them?
6) There are many ways to oppose the Trump regime, and doing so in every way is laudable; but only one way stands a chance of actually correcting the situation in time to restore justice to the people who are suffering in this human rights emergency.
I’d counter that no “victory” can exclude moral justice, but otherwise, Bruni is correct on one very crucial point:
So what matters now isn’t what’s viscerally satisfying and morally just. What matters is the absolute best strategy. What matters is victory. And behavior that could imperil that victory can’t be encouraged on the grounds that it’s reciprocal and feels good.
But then he continues:
“I’m outraged all the time,” a friend said to me near midnight Monday. “You want to know what I’m doing with it? I’m going to polling places right now to put up signs outside.” She had a preferred Democrat in a congressional primary in New York on Tuesday, someone she’d chosen because she felt that he was the likeliest candidate to unseat the Republican incumbent, and she’d been volunteering her time, day and night, to get him elected. “That’s my outrage: Take back the House!”
“She has the right passion. She also has the right approach.”
Depending on your personality, right now you’re either rolling your eyes or nodding your head sagely. You see, this is an argument crafted to be very seductive to folks like me (and probably a lot of you). It’s the narrative of the grownup in the room.
It is grownup—and often wise—to delay gratification. It’s grownup to consider before acting. It’s grownup to prioritize the consequences of your actions above your own emotions. And absolutely, any political effort’s success depends on the actions of many folks coming together to work hard without asking for any glory. Volunteering on a campaign is intense and stressful, but it can also be a profound experience in witnessing the power of patient cooperation. So this is an argument that sounds rational and knowledgeable. That’d lead you to believe it must be correct, right?
Only problem is, it isn’t. Only problem is, we don’t have that much time.
I’m not going to go into the gory electoral details here—although I as a Democrat do support and hope for a #BlueWave—but the sad fact is, even if Democrats win every single national race in November, and even if every one of them is genuinely on fire to defeat Trump and end his regime’s crimes, the most they’ll be able to do is slow down the damage…a little. They will not have the Senate supermajority needed to impeach, which will most likely make Mueller’s investigation moot no matter what he finds.
(Side note: Reflect that prior to 2016, voting, volunteering, donating and writing Congressfolk was called “civic engagement.” Not “resistance.” In other words, it’s simply the normal process working as intended—just like you learned in Civics class. Now granted, when a tyrant is in office, these activities become more courageous; and granted, more civic engagement is something that could have helped prevent this disaster. But that doesn’t mean it alone is enough to fix things now.)
Slowing the damage is still worth doing, of course. But as we speak (July 1, 2018), according to New York Magazine’s The Cut, more than 11,000 immigrant children are still in detention, and over 2,000 children have been separated from their families over the last six weeks.
Who is coming to help them today? How long are you okay making them wait? The Democratic Party doesn’t get its long shot at taking either house of Congress until November. The bureaucracy is being drained of all its competent and ethical operators, to be replaced by the likes of Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen. Trump has been filling the many empty benches of the federal judiciary with his odious picks. With the most recent Supreme Court decisions and Justice Kennedy’s resignation, it is clear now that SCOTUS will not be a check to the regime’s power but a legitimizing weapon.
Do the grownup, rational thing: research what I’m saying. Check the numbers. Check on what exactly it would take to end gerrymandering. Or Russian election interference. Check on how easy it would be to break up the 9th Circuit Court. Or to end the legislative filibuster. Check on what the consequences for real human beings are projected to be from the sabotaging of the ACA. Then check on what winning one or even both Houses of Congress allows us to actually do about those things. And then try to tell me that our institutions, or our elections, can solve it.
No. We must face the stark reality that, as the June Jordan poem says, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” There is no hero coming to save us—no deus ex machina who’ll show up in the nick of time to reward our faith if we just wait, keep calm and vote. But there is a known, nonviolent means open to us as ordinary people, which has worked to remove corrupt or oppressive heads of state from office before their term is up—a Velvet Revolution. This may not be the usual way power is transferred in the American process, but it is well within our Constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly. Indeed, it is exactly why those rights were instituted in the first place.
Read more about it here: Who Says We Can’t Drive Out a Tyrant? Mubarak ruled as dictator in Egypt for three decades. The Tahrir Square protests deposed him in 18 days. I wonder what Frank Bruni would say about that.