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The Media’s Feel-Good Crusade for Polite Discourse
by George Salamon
“Is civility an absolute value, to be adhered to at whatever cost?” —Nat Hentoff, “Dangerous Men,” Village Voice, February 21, 1970
HENTOFF RECEIVED a clear “yes” answer, as far as courtroom behavior goes, when he asked this question (while covering the Chicago Seven trial): In Illinois v. Allen (197), the Supreme Court found 8-0 that, in Justice Hugo Black's words, "It is essential to the proper administration of criminal justice that dignity, order, and decorum be the hallmarks of all court proceedings in our country. The flagrant disregard in the courtroom of elementary standards of proper conduct should not and cannot be tolerated."
Civility has never been proposed as a precondition to public debate or journalistic coverage of our political culture, however — until the entry of Donald Trump into the 2016 presidential race, which has spiked the incivility level on the Republican front, leading to behavior more akin to that among the shouting and brawling participants of Jerry Springer’s television show than the expected clubby exchange of platitudinous promises.
An ongoing chorus of newspaper editorials and columns has by now condemned the vulgar and uncivil tone and content coming out of the mouths of GOP contenders, and suggested that the current spectacle may be unprecedented and harmful to our political structure, to democracy itself.
That is rubbish, which propels us to ask why mainstream media are pursuing this sanctimonious and hypocritical crusade. What are our respectable papers, television networks and websites saying when they urge that “civility” return to our political debates? As in: “Presidential candidates should try civility;” “Mr. Trump’s emergence has done grave damage to American civility at home and prestige abroad;” “Debating Trump: Whatever happened to Civility in politics?”
THEY SHOULD KNOW BETTER. The presidential campaign of 1828 pitted Andrew Jackson (D) against John Quincy Adams (R) and saw the Adams camp accuse Jackson of “living in sin” with his wife Rachel while the Jackson campaign accused Adams, who had been America’s first Minister to Russia, of pimping for Tsar Alexander I by supplying him with American virgins as servants at his St. Petersburg court.
The 1884 Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland was greeted by choruses of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” about his illegitimate love child with a woman with whom he was “illicitly acquainted,” as his staff described so memorably. He won the election and his supporters sang “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
The media, as historians observed, covered this episode “breathlessly.” No damages to our democracy were claimed or recorded. As to the Post’s suggestion that Trump’s clumping and blustering entry into the campaign has done damage to civility at home, even a cursory glance at the front pages of the New York Daily News, the New York Post, or the news on AOL before Trump offended Georgetown sensibilities, would clear him of that charge.
The first problem with the media’s civility campaign is that it looks on a civility only as an outer display of tact or deference, as adherence to static norms and practices, not as a reflection of inner values. When Bill Clinton ran against Bob Dole in 1996, their debates were noticeably civil, leading Hendrik Hertzberg to write in the New Yorker that year that “1996 might have been the year when the public’s disenchantment with politics began to wane” because "candidates were being polite... their speeches were marked by gentlemanly gestures of mutual respect..."
Benjamin DeMott scoffed at such civility in a perceptive piece for the Nation less than two months later, entitled “Seduced by Civility: Political Manners and the Crisis of Democracy.”
The incivility railed at by the elite should be seen as a protest by Americans outside the ranks of the publicly articulate against the conduct of their presumed betters... Sold as a diagnosis or nostrum, civility is in fact a theater of operations – the classless society’s new class war zone.
And looking at that war zone, its existence denied by mainstream politicians and media alike, what DeMott he see? He cited this sentence from an article called “A Crisis of Civility”: “honesty, respect, principle, openness, fairness, accessibility and involvement are all issues of civility” and concluded:
The sentence sounds the theme of that tightly binds old myths of classlessness to new scams of civility — that inequity is verbal, flows from tone, not structure, bears no relation to power differentials. Sanitizing and miniaturizing the worst of the past and present, this theme — the language of civility and incivility as a whole — sweeps away human meaning from slavery, the civil rights struggle, one episode after another of murderous cruelty and greed... In this cloud of abstraction nothing survives except pieties of the airheaded faith that no talk is more exalted than talk about talk.
WHY DO OUR papers continue to preach the pieties of airheaded faith in civility? What’s at stake for them, and in some cases, for their readers? At the time DeMott wrote his piece, the class war was in full swing and being won by the rich and powerful and the professional class in their employ — the rising stars of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the corporate and banking executives, the leaders in education, law, medicine and communications. By 1996, the Democratic party had given up “on its historic mission of serving working people and chose instead to make itself into the party of professionals, of the New Economy winners,” as Thomas Frank recently wrote the New York Times.
The lower segments of the middle class, blue-collar workers, the working poor, the unemployed, all began to feel as a separate nation, as beings of a lesser America, no longer its fabled “backbone” but its throwaway children. A decade after DeMott’s article appeared, Jeff Faux recalled how the new elite preached and practiced its secession from “the other America”:
In the fall of 1993 a corporate lobbyist, exasperated by my opposition to NAFTA, stopped me in the corridor of the Capitol. ‘Don’t you understand?’ she demanded. ‘We have to help (then-Mexican President Carlos) Salinas. He’s been to Harvard. He’s one of us.’
Her reference to ‘us’ seemed odd. Neither she nor I was a Harvard graduate. So it took me a while to get her point: ‘We’ internationally mobile professionals had a shared interest in liberating similarly global investors from regulations imposed by national governments on behalf of people who were, well, not like ‘us’. Despite the considerable social distance between Salinas and both of us, she was appealing to class solidarity.”
NAFTA exposed the Clinton-Republican alliance that, as Faux observed, pushed it and additional trade agreements through for cross-border class interests and simultaneously traded away the interests of what was the blue-collar electoral base of the Democratic Party. (The Republicans didn’t look that gift horse in the mouth then, but they went on to betray the working/middle class Americans who had migrated to them.)
Among the elites, class trumped party allegiance and tradition, gender and geography — and set the stage for the party crashers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as the only politicians whom voters now even want to believe when they speak for working class Americans. Time magazine described one of Trump’s speeches as “sounding more like a union rally than a Republican campaign event”.
All this could have been predicted by a reader of Christopher Lasch’s 1995 book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, or of Mickey Kaus’s 1992 title, The End of Equality. America was turning itself into a two-tiered society.
So where, we now must ask, were the media when all this was going on during the gung-ho days of the Second Gilded Age? Where were the media, which once claimed to be on the side of the little man, of John Q Public, in the daily battle against the inhumanity, injustice and unfairness inflicted by the government, corporate and financial powers that be?
THEY FAILED to tell the people that both parties had sold them out. They recorded the failures or “mistakes” by the Democratic administrations of Clinton and Obama, but presented them as strategic miscalculations or lapses in judgment — rather than as a deliberate continuation of Ronald Reaganism.
It takes the leftwing Counterpunch to tell us that "The Clintons’ $93 million romance with Wall Street" is "a catastrophe for Working Families, African-Americans and Latinos”.
It takes the Telegraph in the United Kingdom to tell us that "Life under Obama sucks. And these numbers prove it”.
The biggest story of the past thirty-five years has been conveyed by the media only in slivers: the transformation of our society into an “us” (the wealthy and the professional elites) and “them” (the rest). And that the “and” in “us” and “them” could as well read “versus.” The winners have taken almost all by now, and only a few Cassandras among our political philosophers and economists have dared to predict the consequences.
Sure, the Washington Post and the New York Times cover the misery of the poor, the frustration of the unemployed, and the fear of dropping out of the middle class. But it all must be done in civil fashion, in a civil tone, with civil words. Politicians and journalists must not advocate reform or (the political mantra since Ike) “change” in the style that populists did during the First Gilded Age, when populist Mary Elizabeth Lease said in a speech in 1890:
We wiped out slavery and our traffic laws and national banks began a system of white wage slavery worse than the first. Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The people are at bay; let the bloodhounds of money who dogged us this far beware.
"Raise less crops and more hell,” she told farmers in Kansas.
When a politician raises his or her voice today, as when Sanders suggests the idea of a “political revolution,” the Times is there to restore quiet in the nursery. The editorial of March 14, 2016, “The Bernie Sanders Revolution,” opens with Miss Grundy-like prissiness. Then comes a little moralizing lecture saying that what Sanders really wants could “take years to achieve -– and that’s evolution, not revolution.” Move on, folks, nothing to see here but the usual calls for reform. And nothing to worry about, old boys in the corporate and congressional clubhouses.
THE ESTABLISHMENT media know why they call for civility: It stifles the anger and rage felt by a majority of Americans. Draped over political and journalistic outrage, civility prevents the demand for real reform. Whenever they do expose or rail against corporate, financial and government malfeasance, they do it in defense-contractor style: blame the usual suspects, aka the “few rotten apples in the barrel.” Readers don’t get to understand how and why the whole barrel is rotten. Only a few politicians, upon their arraignment or retirement will say so. (See, for example, “Steve Israel’s retirement and the Corruption of American Politics”).
But a lesson hides under the media demand for civility. What their shallow and fragmented coverage of the business of politics in America has blurred is the rise of a new ruling complex, one that has taken the reins of running America from the still powerful military-industrial one. Stories in the media merely touch the outline: “Wall Street and Washington Share Millions of Dollars, Lot of People”. The story, based on information from the Center for Responsive Politics, reveals, for example, that (in 2012) 285 former members of Congress were working as registered lobbyists. Just like members of the military, members of Congress joined teams or committees or agencies where government and industry become familiar bedfellows. Members from both sides, one dedicated to service (supposedly), the other to profit (undeniably) know who butters their bread.
President Eisenhower, too late alas, warned America what the merger of government and business meant for America in his January 17, 1961 farewell speech: “The total influence — economic, political, spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office in the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implication.”
Has anyone warned us of what its “grave implication” is? Yes, but who took note? In her book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009), Karen Ho uses language similar to that of Eisenhower to tell us: “Wall Street values have reached out to so many corners of people’s daily lives that actually changing the system means everyone has to change.”
The fact is that the presence of so many “financial industry types” in the halls of Congress and in the White House has a very grave implication. It means that industry, led by its financial segment, now plays the leading role, or at least a powerful role, in the administration of the Constitutional powers vested in Congress and the President. Call it our administrative-financial complex.
The American people “should be enraged by the broken promises to Main Street and the unending protection of Wall Street,” wrote Neil Barofsky in Bailout: How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street (2012). Their rage should be taken seriously by the media and receive far more attention than the personal incivility exhibited by GOP fat cats posing as populist rescuers of MGM’s version of the American Dream.
George Salamon professed German language and literature at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth, and Smith colleges, worked as a business reporter and editor, and now writes for the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News and Jewish Currents from the American heartland in St. Louis, MO.