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From The Atlanta Journal Constitution 02/18/2001
[This piece overlaps with the Christian Monitor piece on civility and the Ashcroft vote, but also raises additional themes]



Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming, "Let civility roll down like waters, and politeness like a mighty stream." Not likely, for King considered justice a far higher virtue than civility, and challenged the false peace of his time while working to achieve it. But how strange to hear Clarence Thomas beating a similar drum. Yet there he was last week in Washington decrying an "overemphasis on civility," an overreliance on moderation, and an excess of timidity, "when courage is required."

Thomas is right on the limits of civility. But his principles are a long way from King’s vision.

How we judge the civility of particular actions may depend on our perspective. To Thomas, the crowd of Republican congressional aides who shut down the Miami vote count was acting civilly enough. To me, they helped steal an election. When Newt Gingrich gridlocked the Congress, I was furious. Yet as Senate Democrats continue to give in to George Bush, pleading like Dickens orphans for a few morsels of bipartisan decency, I pray for less civility, less polite deference, and a good deal more filibuster and fight.

But to go beyond scorched earth politics, we would do well to remember (or learn) some basic lessons of nonviolence: When facing an opponent, even a bully, you don’t have to demonize. You can speak to their core humanity, and even at times work together. But you don’t have to give your cooperation, just because they tell you to do something. And you need to honestly challenge actions you oppose.

King respected the core humanity of even the worst segregationists, but he held them responsible for their choices and refused to politely comply with the injustices they created.

King didn’t just challenge segregationists. In "Letter From Birmingham Jail," he explicitly questioned well-meaning liberal clergy who deplored racial subordination but counseled endless patience and forbearance. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion," he wrote, "that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice."

Nearly 40 years later, we still suffer from a counterfeit harmony, a cultural pressure to silence troubling concerns and mute our questioning of the powers that be. What worries me about our current time is not excess clamor in the streets. Rather, I fear our culture’s lack of accountability, where the worst abuses are buried in the details, and powerful individuals and institutions consistently get away with vastly destructive actions. Think of the recent John Ashcroft nomination for attorney general. It went through partly because the Democrats wanted to be bipartisan and work together, to end, in the words of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), "the growing predilection to treat nominations as ideological battlefields." The Democrats deferred to Bush’s presidential prerogatives, and to the collegiality of the Senate. They wanted a civil politics, not a permanent state of war.

Yet it’s not a gratuitous personal attack to be honest about Ashcroft’s past, to point out that he blocked efforts to boost voter registration in inner-city St. Louis, blocked school desegregation until forced to back down by a judge, and gave a fawning interview to a neo-Confederate magazine, Southern Partisan, that had embraced David Duke, and which Ashcroft praised for helping "set the historical record straight." Likewise, the Democrats have an obligation to point out that Bush’s tax plan will overwhelmingly benefit that tiny minority of Americans who already control far more wealth than all the rest of us combined. And to remind Bush each time he claims a mandate for some dubious plan, that a majority of Americans rejected his path, by more than a half million votes.

Accountability also demands truth-telling, about whatever complex issues we take on. Which puts Thomas in a highly dubious light, even forgetting Anita Hill. Admitted to Yale Law School’s affirmative action program, Thomas then made a career of attacking this approach as a patronizing trap. As Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said, Thomas was a "nominee who wants to destroy the bridge that brought him over troubled waters [and] pull down the ladder that he climbed up." When a Louisiana prison guard so severely beat a hog-tied inmate that he sent him to the hospital, Thomas said the court lacked the jurisdiction to take a stand, because, whether or not the guard’s actions were moral, this was not "cruel and unusual punishment," and the court had no right to create "a national code of prison regulation." He used similarly narrow definitions of law to reject the rights of a black correctional officer fired after protracted harassment, saying the officer had proved a crusade to harass and intimidate him, but not one that was racially motivated. Last November, Thomas’s concerns with states’ rights and narrow jurisdictional definitions miraculously vanished. While his wife worked out of a Heritage Foundation office, screening candidates for the Bush transition team, Thomas followed the lead of Justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist in overruling the Florida Supreme Court, blocking the examination of contested ballots and handing George W. Bush the election. I’m not suggesting that truth comes solely from the liberal side. Just that Thomas is a poor model of integrity. Yet I agree when he asks us to speak out from our deepest convictions, stepping beyond "our more confined, comfortable sphere of life . . . to face the broader, national sphere of citizenship."

So how do we sort out conflicting moral claims in ways that respect our differing perspectives? For all civility’s shortcomings, we can distinguish between nonviolent disobedience, of whatever political stripe, and physical bullying--which is one reason the Republican mob that stopped the Miami vote count seemed so dubious. Inconveniencing business as usual can bring critical issues into the public eye. Physical intimidation attacks human dignity and creates a climate of fear. We can still describe arrogant actions of power in harsh words. "There are moments," writes poet Charles Simic, "when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language." But however we act, we’d do well to treat ordinary citizens with respect.

We also might learn from the stories that go to the core of the issues we take on, particularly ones that challenge our assumptions. We’re more likely to question homelessness if we hear the testaments of people living on the street. We can work to overcome illiteracy after gaining a sense of what it’s like to be unable to read. Feeling the loss of a specific place that’s been environmentally desecrated, or adopting and reclaiming it, can give us the strength to face a larger truth--that destroying the living forms that theologian Thomas Berry calls "modes of divine presence" has become our culture’s routine way of doing business. But stories can mislead as well as reveal. Ordinary citizens can easily become poster children for the powerful, like the small businesspeople trotted out to argue for the end of an estate tax that affects only the wealthiest two out of 100 Americans. Sometimes real stories clash, in their content and implications. Appropriate solutions often represent compromises between legitimate competing interests, requiring us to listen to those who disagree with us, acknowledge truths in their positions, and try our best to find common ground. People will always disagree over policy. But good policy can’t be developed unless all relevant voices are taken into account, not only those of the well connected.

This returns us to Thomas’s challenge "to not allow our desire to be decent and well-mannered people to overwhelm the substance of our principles." He’s a dubious prophet, but his words remind us that we can’t afford to be shy, as we demand our elected leaders not let social progress roll backward. Beyond holding the line, we might also insist our country finally move on key issues such as reforming campaign financing, reducing vast inequalities of wealth, providing health care for all who need it and becoming serious stewards of the Earth. Solid majorities of Americans say they believe in these causes, but progress has been blocked in large part by people like Thomas and those who’ve cheered him on. If he wants to shift his course, he has my blessings. But whether or not he joins in, we’ll need ample courage, commitment and a strong and compassionate incivility to shift this country down wiser paths.

Paul Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time" (St. Martin’s Press,