The history of nonviolent protest in the United States, from the woman’s suffrage movement to civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, have inspired positive social change and reforms to unjust government policies. But when peaceful demonstrations cross the line into mob rule, when an African American Congressman from Missouri, Emanuel Cleaver, is spat upon by a grotesque and disgraceful display of venomous immaturity, there is something wrong with the body politic.
I understand those who share a passion for politics and who feel strongly about issues of importance. The art of politics, the thrill of debate, the intellectual give-and-take of verbal combat – while not for everyone – are notions I embrace. On some issues, on matters of conscious, when injustice is perceived, public demonstrations in an effort to move public opinion or influence the vote of a Senator are shining examples of democracy and a resounding proclamation of the freedoms we all share. But the ugliness on display in the recent past, especially when wrapped in shades of racism and homophobia and a false patriotism disguising a xenophobic nationalism – are detrimental to democratic values, to republican ideals, and to robust citizenship.
Incivility is distasteful regardless of its political stripes. I was in law school in 1981, when just ten blocks away President Reagan and White House aide James Brady were shot (Brady paralyzed for life) by a mentally disturbed gunman. When news accounts first reported that Reagan had survived, I winced at and denounced a classmate who “joked” that she wished the gunman’s aim had been more accurate. The remark was humorless and shameful. Although I had opposed the election of Ronald Reagan several months earlier, on March 30, 1981, he was our elected President and, not unlike the Kennedy assassination, the attempt on Reagan’s life was a near tragedy from which this nation would have suffered greatly. I also was disturbed at left wing critics who suggested that President Reagan, and later President George W. Bush, were modern versions of Hitler, or were fascists and other historical inaccuracies.
So, I recognize that the current state of affairs, the belittling and degrading attacks on President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and John Lewis, are not exclusive to Republicans or Tea Party activists (though I find it laughable that anyone could equate Obama with Hitler – please, go back to school and read a history book). But the acts of violence, the insane level of anger displayed during the protests on Capitol Hill this past weekend have reached heightened and potentially dangerous levels. I hope that Frank Rich of the New York Times is wrong when he suggests, “To find a prototype for the overheated reaction to the health care bill, you have to look . . . to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” A historic piece of legislation that outlawed racial and other forms of discrimination at public establishments and businesses affecting interstate commerce, it was impugned as a “threat to the very essence of our basic system” by the Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater, while Richard Russell, the Democratic senator from Georgia and a staunch segregationist, said the bill “would destroy the free enterprise system.” Although history has proved these statements absurd, the right wing and segregationist opponents of the law exhibited much hysteria in attempting to persuade the populace that civil rights laws would destroy America. The issues are different, but much of today's rhetoric sounds all too familiar.
It appears that much of the feverish excitement these past several months has very little to do with the proposed changes to our health care system. Do the Tea Party protesters really oppose requiring insurance companies to permit parents to keep their sons and daughters on their health plans until age 26? Do they really want insurance companies to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions? Are they opposed to tax credits for small businesses? Or is something else at work, something more sinister, an awakening of a repressed and dark resentment of the changing face of American society. “It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver – none of them major players in the health care push – received a major share of last weekend’s abuse,” wrote Rich in The Times op-ed piece. “When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan, ‘Take our country back!,’ these are the people they want to take the country back from.”
That Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, shouted to a group of Tea Partiers, “Let’s beat the other side to a pulp!” and that Representative Randy Neugebauer, a conservative Republican from Texas, shouted “baby killer” at pro-life congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan on the House floor on Sunday night, attests to the sad state of affairs of American politics. John McCain, who ran for president on the slogan, “Country First,” now proclaims a vow of “no cooperation for the rest of the year.” As Steny Hoyer of Maryland said, “Democracy can’t survive unless we can have a civil society in which debate is open and free and unfettered.” But a civil society implies that we listen respectfully to the other side and respond appropriately. It does not involve death threats and rocks, racist slurs and spit.
Peaceful protest, vigorous debate, creative expression, and public statements of persuasion are the fuel upon which a healthy democracy thrives. When public anger turns to mob rule; when stones are thrown through windows of congressional offices; when a Member of Congress, Bart Stupak, feels compelled to refer 50 death threats to the FBI because he voted for legislation that expands health care for the uninsured; and when John Lewis, who forty years ago withstood near fatal beatings and vicious verbal attacks in fighting for equal rights for black Americans, is called racist names because he wants all Americans, black and white, rich and poor, to have access to health care, we are in trouble as a country. It is time for the leadership of both parties to stand up and put an end to angry distortions and rhetoric that encourages violence.
It is entirely possible to engage in aggressive and spirited debate, yet acknowledge that, as fellow Americans, you and your opponent share equally in love of country. Were he alive today, I believe that Ronald Reagan would have denounced the recent bad behavior. While he often sparred publicly with Tip O’Neil and Ted Kennedy, he (and they) never lost cite of their common citizenship.
Treating those with whom you disagree as the Enemy is so much easier than seeing the other side as friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, fellow citizens whose views merely differ on an issue. With all of the problems confronting the United States and the world today, will there be a time when liberals and conservatives, Tea Partiers and Coffee Drinkers, talk, listen, and work together to find common ground? For the future of our country, I hope that day comes soon.