The Coronavirus Could End the Trump Presidency, but not Trumpism. “Militant Civility” Can
Before Coronavirus became the only real story in our global news, a fair number of words were written about the loss of civility in U.S. public discourse. As someone with a life-long interest in dialog, the topic has a strong personal resonance for me. For several years, I studied what it is that makes it possible for people — that is, everyday citizens like myself — to have meaningful conversations with other citizens who have dramatically different points of view. I have practiced the skills that make such communication possible with my conservative-leaning friends and spoken on the topic to small groups in the Washington, DC area.
Unfortunately, the deeply divisive tactics pioneered by people like Newt Gingrich and deployed so effectively by President Trump have made the topic suspect to many of my friends on the left. When the president prioritizes calming the stock market over communicating information to save human lives, do we really have time for civility?
The question of whether civility can still be relevant for a progressive has haunted me increasingly recent years. When the teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg asked, “How dare you?”, I recognized myself as the kind of adult she was challenging — someone who knows the seriousness of the threats to our world but doesn’t do enough to address them. The image of her young face on the TV news also reminded me that I had been an activist myself during my teenage years. At age 15 during the first Vietnam moratorium day, I had a dangerous encounter with group of teenagers on the opposite side of the day’s political divide that turned me away from activism and toward a kind of complacent agnosticism about politics.
The urgency of the challenges we now face — climate change, grotesque income inequality, persistent racism, and the specter of a global pandemic — forces me to try to reclaim some of the passion and moral clarity of my teenage activism. This urgency has also forced me to define a new, more politically committed kind of civility, a civility not driven by uncertainty of belief but by a desire to connect with the people on the opposite side of the issues. I want to make the case that this kind of civility is not an alternative to activism, but a necessary complement to it, if we are to succeed in defeating the poison of Trumpism. But before I make this pitch, let me tell you what happened in my hometown on Vietnam moratorium day, because I think it will illustrate what I mean by civility.
My sophomore year of high school coincided with another, highly polarized time in the U.S, a time when our politics felt nearly as tribal as they do today. In the fall of 1969, Richard Nixon had been in office less than a year, and his campaign promise of having a “secret plan” to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war was already ringing hollow. In communities around the country, grass roots activists planned the first Vietnam Moratorium for October 15. The idea was for a day of protest, a weekday where people around the country would hold teach-ins, rallies, marches, candlelight vigils and other events to show their opposition to the war rather than participating in business as usual. As they do now in climate change and anti-gun violence activism, young people, including high school students, played a huge role in this movement.
Sometime in September of that year, I was invited to a planning meeting of students trying to decide what to do for Vietnam Moratorium day. Yorktown Heights was a pleasant suburban town in Westchester county, about 30 miles north of New York City. Sitting in the warm grass outside our high school in a circle of 30 or so other students, I felt a thrill of being part of something much bigger than myself, something that could do some good in the world. Added to that was a sense of having found a group of like-minded peers.
When Moratorium day finally arrived, the expectation of peer approval, the thrill of taking collective action to speak up about a wrong, and the added novelty of a day off from school made me giddy with excitement. Most students planned to arrive at the school campus at the usual time, assemble at a spot outside the main building and march off the school campus for a brief rally at an adjacent park. I was part of a subgroup of students who had elected to minimize the risk of confrontation with other students by avoiding the school campus entirely. Instead, we planned to collect signatures on a petition to prevent a resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam and meet the rest of the group at the afternoon rally.
My signature-collecting partner was another sophomore named Cliff Meltzer. He and I had barely collected a signature when we began to hear rumors of trouble. A group of counter-protestors had followed our group off the high school campus, jeering and throwing eggs. Several carloads of counter-protesting students were driving around town looking for ways to express their disapproval. After several hours of petitioning, we decided to walk the two blocks to a nearby shopping center where we might encounter more foot traffic. As we walked along the left-hand side of Commerce Street — where there was no sidewalk — we saw a bright blue convertible full of counter-protestors at an intersection ahead, waiting at the light to turn left toward us onto Commerce Street.
They had an American flag draped across the back of the car and a handmade sign with the slogan “War is Cool” attached to the side. As soon as they saw us, they began to jeer, and I gave them the finger, but I immediately thought better of it and converted it to the “V” peace sign gesture. When the light changed, the car began a left turn onto Commerce Street in our direction. As the car started its turn, I took a few steps away from the street up a grassy incline, but I didn’t turn away to run. I remember focusing on their faces and trying to make out their words. They were taking their turn very slowly, presumably trying to maximize the opportunity to express their views of us. I locked on to their faces, which seemed gripped with anger and contempt.
In a flash, I realized that the bright blue fender was very close to me. Fortunately, I was now standing with my body slightly turned to the left with my weight on my left leg on the uphill side of the incline. I felt the car hit my right leg, turning me clockwise with it as it passed, and I fell softly to the grass. Cliff ran to call an ambulance, and I sat on the grass, looking at my leg and then down the street to see where the blue car had gone. As I remember, I could see that it had stopped, and its occupants seemed to be taking something off of it.
The driver and one of the other passengers arrived just before the police did, and I saw that the former were scared. They asked if I was OK and repeatedly said that they hadn’t meant to hit me. I was so mad I could barely respond. At one point during the police interview, either the driver or passenger whispered to me to tell the policeman that I’d fallen under the car — the lack of logic of which, given that I hadn’t been seriously injured, probably reflected how scared they both were. I immediately told the policeman what they had asked me to say, but he didn’t seem interested.
A few moments later, sitting on the grass alone while Cliff called his parents, a kind of impotent fury overwhelmed me, and the tears began to flow down my cheeks. Something about the confrontation triggered memories from earlier in my childhood of being bullied. I remember thinking to myself something like “This time, they’re not going to get away with it, because I’m part of a movement.”
I was taken to the hospital, x-rayed and released in a few hours with a pair of crutches. During the intake process, no matter how carefully I described what had happened, I was handed off to the next emergency room worker as “one of those kids out raising hell with the protestors.” Though I knew this description was objectively unfair, a part of me was pleased with the image of myself as a “hell-raiser.”
One other memory from that day is worth sharing: sometime after dark, a small multi-generational group held a candlelit procession to mourn the lives lost over the course of the war so far. In the crowd, I recognized the parents of several friends and my biology teacher from our high school. We were a quiet, dignified group, our faces lit by hundreds of candles carried inside wax paper cups. As we passed the Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting hall, we noticed three older men standing at the base of the flagpole, beneath the illuminated, gently-fluttering flag. Each of the men stood at attention holding a rifle against his shoulder.
There were soft groans among the adult marchers as the meaning of this scene registered. Our procession paused, and one of the organizers, a mother in her 40s, spoke to the men across the well-kept grass that separated us.
“You know, we’re not here to tear down the flag. We’re here because we love our country too.”
In the hush of stilled voices, I heard one of the three armed men on the other side of that perfect lawn reply quietly “Not enough.”
My first response to my own encounter on Moratorium day was outrage. Some of that outrage was probably natural and justified. After all, the counter protestors seemed to have been trying to stifle my right to express my views, and they had been reckless enough to endanger my life in the process. In retrospect, the anger I felt was probably intensified by an unconscious bitterness I felt around my early school experience with bullying.
My parents and Cliff’s parents also felt that there were some serious free speech issues involved. We contacted the local branch of the ACLU and one of their more prominent attorneys expressed interest in the case. A meeting with this attorney was scheduled at our house not long after the moratorium.
The meeting was wholly unlike the straight-forward call to action my teenage mind had conjured up. None of the legal options seemed to offer the moral clarity that I’d expected. Yet, the attorney seemed extraordinarily confident in all of his opinions. To defend our right to express our opposition to the Vietnam policies of the administration, we could initiate a lawsuit against the parents of the driver and the student in the passenger seat. “You won’t get any money because they don’t have any. But we can make them think twice before they try these shenanigans again.”
During the discussions, the attorney expressed some unflattering information about the parents of the driver, and he seemed to guide the conversation toward the type of people he felt they represented. In his portrayal, they were from the same “class” of people who had thrown stones at the buses of socialists who had come to hear Paul Robeson perform in nearby Peekskill in 1949. (These stone-throwers had included off-duty firemen and the local policemen reportedly stood by and watched.) In his view, these people were ignorant, dangerous and hostile to free speech and dissent.
At one point, my father objected to the one-dimensional portrait the attorney had painted. He recalled the near-drowning of my younger brother almost ten years before. One of the responding volunteer firemen had been with him watching when my brother began at last to cough and then to cry. My father had looked over and noticed this enormous man wiping away tears. When he realized my father had noticed, he apologized. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got one that age of my own at home.” The attorney dismissed this story with an airy contempt: “Yes, yes, and the Nazis used to cry when they listened to Wagner.”
Despite some misgivings, we decided to proceed with the lawsuit. The case was assigned to a less prominent, more likeable attorney, who assigned me the task of taking several photos of the location where the accident had occurred. The parents of the driver and the passenger retained their own attorney, and a pre-trial hearing was scheduled for the spring.
In the meantime, I immersed myself in the anti-war movement and the emerging “counterculture.” I wrote articles for an alternative student newspaper, and in November went to Washington to march in the largest anti-war rally yet. From time to time, I’d catch a glimpse of the driver whose parents we were suing in the hallways of our high school. These sightings were always unsettling – partly, because his appearance failed to match the caricature of the ignorant, swaggering bully I’d carried in me.
The kid in the passenger’s seat looked a little more the part — he had a filmy moustache that he grew out from time to time. I tried to settle my thoughts on him as my enemy. Yet, neither of them approached me or did anything else to interfere with my life before the pre-trial hearing. All of this made the idea of the lawsuit more unsettling for me. The attorney’s statement about their families that kept coming back to me was the simplest one: “They don’t have any money.”
By the time of the pre-trial hearing, I’d taken none of the photos of the location and felt unprepared. When I entered the small hearing room, he and his attorney smiled politely toward me. He was wearing a suit, like his attorney. I was wearing jeans.
After some preliminaries, his attorney began to question me about my initial summary of the event.
“You said in your statement that you were walking about 10 feet from the road. When you first saw the car driven by Mr. Carmelo, you said you moved about 10 feet more away from the street. Then, when the car began to turn onto Commerce Street, you said you moved another 10 feet away from the street. That would have put you 30 feet from the street at the time the car hit you. Yet in your earlier statement, you estimated that you were about 15 feet from the edge of the street when the car hit you. How do you account for that?”
Embarrassed by these inconsistencies, I had to admit that I must have over-estimated the distance I had moved away from the street.
Later, his attorney asked me a series of questions about how I’d been affected psychologically by the incident.
“Well, I feel a little anxious when I’m walking close to traffic.”
“Do you want to jump in the bushes every time you see a car?”
“No, but — “
“– and don’t you say “yes”, or I’ll send this information to DMV and you’ll never get your learner’s permit.”
After the hearing, I met briefly with our attorney. I apologized for not having taken any photos of the scene of the incident and for my inconsistencies, which he reassured me were not a big deal. I think he could see how conflicted I was about having to prove “psychological damages.” No teenage boy wants to think of himself as a victim.
I never took the photos of the location, and after a year the ACLU wrote us to say they were dropping the case. I tried to forget about the whole complicated, confusing mess.
Looking back on my teenage activism from an adult perspective, I now understand that my own personal fears and demons had clouded my judgement and kept me from seeing these older kids for who they were: fellow adolescents in trouble for doing something stupid and reckless. My own personal demons had distracted me from the goals of the movement, from seizing any opportunities that their desire for good will might have created. (In fact, when the passenger seat kid showed up at one of our antiwar rallies a few years later, his hair grown long and shaggy, I couldn’t bring myself to approach him.)
I suspect that a similar unconscious mixing of personal, psychological issues with genuinely altruistic motives both fuels and misdirects many adult activists today. If you spend enough time working with most volunteer organizations, you’ll encounter certain people whose justified anger at the injustices of our society seems mixed with something else, something not quite rational that prevents them from bringing their full humanity to the formidable challenges of the progressive agenda.
Another factor that undercut the effectiveness of my teenage activism was the lack of awareness of my own classism and elitism. At times, there is no doubt that I and others like me looked down on the predominately working-class kids who opposed us. We knew that their parents were less educated than ours, and we felt contempt towards them for their apparent ignorance. Even today, I’m embarrassed to admit that we called them “greasers” because they tended to wear their hair pomaded and combed back into a bow wave rather shaggy and long as we did. (I doubt any of us were aware that this term originated as a slur against Mexican-Americans.) While adolescents can be forgiven for their tribalism, as adults we need to look closely at any feelings of superiority towards citizens who oppose our agenda. Condescension, whether conscious or not, is usually most obvious to its targets and makes real dialog impossible.
What inspired us then and what makes young people so effective now as change agents is the clarity of their moral vision. Greta’s call to us to respond to the threat of climate change with the same urgency we would if we knew our literal homes were on fire speaks to us because it poses a moral challenge to us in simple, human terms. As adults, we acquire information that complicates that vision, that introduces nuances and “shades of gray.” I got to experience a few of these adult doubts six years later as I watched a crowd of Vietnamese U.S. embassy workers grasping for the struts of a military helicopter as it lifted off the roof of the embassy in what was then still Saigon. As adults, we come to realize that the world is a more complicated place than we imagined as adolescents, that taking a stand can have consequences that are hard to foresee at the time. That awareness necessarily introduces a degree of humility and caution into our thinking.
Those ingredients — humility, caution, and doubt — are indispensable to civility, which is in turn essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy, of a society that wishes to resolve conflicts through democratic processes. After all, it’s the ability to entertain doubts about our own positions — to remain open to the possibility that we could be wrong — that allows us to listen to people with conflicting points of view.
Unfortunately, this brings me back to the present moment. Should we as individuals continue to cultivate the habits of citizens living in a democratic society at a time when democratic institutions appear to be failing? Do the threats of climate change, income inequality, rising ethno-nationalism, and a rapidly spreading global pandemic allow us time to listen patiently to people with misguided, incoherent, dangerously uninformed opinions?
I believe that if we want democratic processes to survive and flourish, we have no choice. But to do so effectively will require a new kind of civility, which I’ve sometimes called “militant civility.” But, let’s use the less paradoxical, more boring term: “committed civility.”
By “committed civility,” I mean an approach to activism that strives to locate good and evil in people’s actions rather than in their beings. As citizens, we must gather all of the facts we can and make our best judgements about actions, policies, and decisions. We need to be more cautious about making judgements about people and their motives. We’re all moving targets.
Should this principle apply equally to our thinking about ordinary citizens and to those who hold power in our political system? I believe that it does apply equally, at least to the way we think about fellow citizens and those in power. Yes, there are people at the highest levels of power in our government who are pursuing policies that, if unchecked, could leave our planet uninhabitable for millions, perhaps even for all of us Yes, the president of our country and a cadre of allies in congress continue to propagate falsehoods and use tactics that have already damaged the fabric of our democracy. These actions are unquestionably evil. Yes, we must fight them using the best tools compatible with democratic values. But, it doesn’t diminish our effectiveness to remember that even these leaders are human beings. As an agnostic, I don’t know if every human soul is redeemable. But, I do know that I must hold on to that possibility for me to be personally effective.
In terms of the methods we use, I readily acknowledge that there will be times and situations that may require rowdy, even disruptive tactics. Like Michelle Goldberg (NYTimes: “We have a Crisis of Democracy, Not Manners”), I’m agnostic on whether attempts to disrupt the personal lives of Trump administration officials does as much good as harm. Once these confrontations are captured on cell phone and shared on Facebook, I suspect that the value of any personal discomfort these officials feel may be outweighed by red-state backlash. Committed civility does NOT require us to fall for phony equivalences, to cede ground by letting those in power define the terms of debate, or to prize “moderation” for its own sake.
What committed civility does require is to refuse to reduce the fellow citizens and leaders on the opposite side of the issues to caricatures or “boogeymen.” When engaging with our fellow citizens, let’s start with two specific guidelines:
- Avoid focusing on Trump himself and his many moral failings. (Want to waste time on the internet? Try arguing with someone on the opposite side of an issue about the moral character of a public figure.) Instead, we need to focus on how his policies have further enriched the wealthy and hurt many of the voters who elected him. Sadly, Trump’s rhetoric may be literally deadly for some of these voters by the end of this pandemic.
- We must talk more effectively about fact-checking and its role in a democracy. When our countryman and woman repeat fabrications or unsubstantiated theories, we must challenge them to cite actual evidence that has been vetted by fact-checked publications. We cannot accept the premise that there is no longer such a thing as objective truth.
We will need more specific guidelines as we move forward. Perhaps, one of us needs to write an updated version of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.”
In many ways, we have been living through a time when politics are even more polarized and tribal than in October of 1969. The terrifying threat of the Coronavirus pandemic may change that for a time, but Trumpism, like most successful political strategies, will probably re-emerge in a different guise. When it does, Richard Wilbur’s short poem “For the Student Strikers” from the time of the anti-war movement can still speak to us:
Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you,
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.
It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sounds in our streets be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
Doors will be shut in your faces, I do not doubt.
Yet here or there, it may be, there will start,
Much as the lights blink on in a block at evening,
Changes of heart.
They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them, then, and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman’s son.
“We have a Crisis of Democracy, Not Manners” Michelle Goldberg, NY Times, 6/25, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/opinion/trump-sarah-huckabee-sanders-restaurant-civility.html
“The Man Who Broke Politics” McKay Coppins, 10/17/2018 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/newt-gingrich-says-youre-welcome/570832/
“‘Combative, Tribal, Angry’: Newt Gingrich Set the Stage For Trump, Journalist Says” 11/1/2018 (Terry Gross Interview with McKay Coppins on National Public Radio) https://www.npr.org/transcripts/662906525
“We have a Crisis of Democracy, Not Manners” Michelle Goldberg, NY Times, 6/25, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/opinion/trump-sarah-huckabee-sanders-restaurant-civility.html
“For the Student Strikers” by Richard Wilbur, first appeared in Wesleyan Strike News, Spring, 1970, in The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976), and in New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988