Reading Nietzsche taught me one thing: People can talk about values and really be interested only in getting their way. Case in point: All the talk about political “civility” is more about power than good manners. Specifically, it’s about marginalizing everyone who finds it necessary and appropriate to speak passionately on the subject of abortion.
The new civility spreads self-doubt and moral apathy. Those who speak boldly on behalf of life are treated like ill-tempered children who must be sent to their rooms until they learn to behave. It is strange living among adults who are not mature enough to discuss their differences frankly.
Being uncivil has little to do with provoking the hurt feelings of those who avoid serious moral issues. No matter how you talk about defending life, some people will take offense.
Who can blame these “civilizers” for preferring “dialogue?” To them, it is more important to protect their feelings than a human life. More important to “feel the pain” of someone who takes a life than to defend that life from harm.
Many good people have been duped by the call for civility. Nowadays, only politically acceptable evils can be passionately discussed — tobacco, assault weapons, toxic waste. Show your temper on the subject of abortion, euthanasia, or school prayer, and you are accused of being divisive.
The founding fathers were certainly willing to acknowledge natural and revealed law. Politics alone, they realized, did not provide the foundation of a morally sound society. All religiously informed conservatives must take advantage of their broader perspective and call this nation back to decency.
In its root meaning, civility refers to the skill of living in, and governing, a city. What is more important to the skill of governing a city than speaking plainly about the moral evils that threaten it? Instead of speaking out, our leaders are reduced to wooing “soccer moms” (an odious phrase), like naughty boys afraid of being found out. Their big, bad secret is believing in the right to life.
Every major institution in our society encourages delayed adolescence. We are not just dumbed-down, we are literally drowned in a fountain-of-youth culture. Unfortunately our minds have regressed rather than our bodies rejuvenated.
Over the years, I’ve observed the media employ an effective strategy to ensure this childishness. It proceeds in four steps:
- The major papers and TV networks begin speculating whether “negative” campaigning will turn off undecided voters, especially women.
- Subsequent polling, commissioned by those same media, proves the American public highly vulnerable to suggestion — a large percentage will disapprove of negative campaigning.
- Newspapers and networks report the polls, thereby reinforcing the original strategy and deepening its message.
- Any candidates who are disposed to speak forthrightly on moral matters are put in fear of their political lives.
Thus trained in civility, a confused and apathetic nation allows the media to define the accepted meaning of good and evil. Some of the evils they identify are serious, others are relatively trivial compared with the evils they ignore.
I have been accused of idolizing the Middle Ages. In the past I have, in fact, threatened to flunk any student who uses the phrase “Dark Ages.” The medievals, however, had an unflinching view of evil. “Herod the King” was one of the most popular plays of the Middle Ages. Hardly a more despicable character exists in literature. In watching this play at Christmas, the medievals faced the stark contrast between the innocence of the child Jesus and the ruthlessness of a political leader who protected his power at any cost.
It has always been difficult to talk about Herod at Christmas. The sobs of heartbroken mothers hardly set the mood for Christmas morning. As the most ignored figure in the infancy narratives, Herod the King reminds us that Christ’s birth, not just his death, came with a cost.
By ignoring the slaughter of the innocents, we risk forgetting the lengths that power will go to protect its privilege.
This column originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.