Every year during August recess, many members of the U.S. Congress go back to their districts and hold town hall meetings to get a sense of what their constituents are thinking about, and to apprise them of upcoming legislation.
This year, instead of the usual sparsely attended events, town hall meetings across the United States have turned into raucous free-for-alls as opponents of President Barack Obama’s health care reform proposals have taken to shouting down a host of senators and congresspersons.
Over the years, one could slice and dice just about any period of U.S. history and determine that a “civility” project might have been useful. During the past few decades, however, churlish and bombastic invective has often prevailed over carefully calibrated discourse.
When former Republican Party vice presidential candidate and former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin recently commented about Obama’s health care reform initiatives, she claimed that his “death panels” would decide who would live and who would die.
Palin was not only playing to the Republican Party’s wired up base, she was clearly displaying a lack of civility (she later reversed course and came out in favour of civility).
Mark DeMoss, a long-time Christian Right/Republican-oriented public relations expert who believes that today’s political landscape is completely out of whack, has launched “The Civility Project,” an attempt to provide guidelines so that political opponents can disagree without being disagreeable.
So if you were DeMoss, and you were starting up something as high-minded as “The Civility Project,” would you start off by bashing gays and lesbians?
Recognising society’s division and polarisation, and concerned “about the hate and animosity being aimed at men and women with whom we may disagree on one issue or another”, DeMoss, a conservative Southern Baptist whose clients have included the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, recently “reached out to some people from various political, racial and religious backgrounds to see if we could join our hearts and minds together in calling others to civility”, he wrote in a statement titled “Welcome to the Civility Project.”
Unfortunately, DeMoss started out by attacking gays and lesbians. “I had spent about two years volunteering for Mitt Romney, and I saw a lot of ugly rhetoric and behaviour aimed at Mormons and then at me,” DeMoss said.
“And then the results of the Proposition 8 vote in California [the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that passed last November'] contributed to my thinking – when you saw gay activists responding to the… vote by vandalizing churches and temples,” he claimed.
DeMoss’s comments were an odd way to get started in the civility business. Over the past several decades, the Religious Right’s fortunes have in part been built on demonising gays and lesbians. By recognising that history, DeMoss might have started out on better footing.
DeMoss is the president of a public relations outfit called The DeMoss Group, which, on its website claims that it is “the largest PR firm specializing in faith-based organizations and causes.” The DeMoss Group focuses on communications, media relations, marketing, non-profit management, and crisis management.
According to its website, “The Civility Project [is] a collection of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, and people of various faiths – or no faith – who agree that even in sharp disagreement we should not be disagreeable.”
“I decided to launch a project where I would talk not about unity, not about tolerance, not about getting along, not about compromise, but just about civility,” DeMoss said.
Participants are invited to “Take the Civility Pledge”, in which signatories agree to: “Be civil in my public discourse and behavior; be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them; stand against incivility when I see it.”
The key Democrat supporting The Civility Project is Lanny Davis, a tough political combatant who has been a longtime adviser to the Clintons, and who has served three terms on the Democratic National Committee.
According to CitizenLink, a news service of the conservative group Focus on the Family, “DeMoss was so impressed with Davis’s civil tone [while he was involved in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign] that he wrote him a letter:
“I suspect that politically you and I may have nothing in common,” DeMoss wrote. “But as I’ve watched you conduct yourself in the public arena, I’ve always appreciated how you handled yourself, how you handle your adversaries, how you show respect for those who disagree with you, and for modeling civility in an increasingly uncivil town.”
Davis said the letter came as a surprise: “I’m getting all this hate mail, and I get this amazing letter from a perfect stranger who identifies himself as an evangelical Christian. I always try to give deference to somebody who disagrees with me. That is the point Mark made in his letter, that he noticed that about me, that I always try to be respectful of people who are of a different opinion.”
Writing about the Civility Project at Religion Dispatches, Candace Chellew-Hodge pointed out that perhaps the religious right was “taking its cue from George Barna’s book UnChristian, which calls for conservative Christians to be kinder [and] … soften their rough and often hateful rhetoric, especially toward gays and lesbians.”
“DeMoss has no intention of learning about the person on the other side of the issue,” Chellew-Hodge maintained. “He’s not interested in tolerating them, or finding a place of common ground where there can be unity, or compromising on his principles, or even getting along — it’s simply about being polite to one another — to not yell at one another, but to still push our own agendas.”
“In short, DeMoss has no interest in dialogue. He has no interest in learning about what those who oppose him think or believe, or even how they arrived at that thought or belief. He just wants them to smile, slap him on the back, and get out of his way while he pursues his agenda,” she asserted. “If they don’t, then he can paint them as the ‘uncivil’ person or group who is obstructing his progress.”
Many questions remain as to the efficacy of The Civility Project.
How will the third point in the civility pledge, the one about “standing against incivility when I see it”, manifest itself?
Does it mean that when former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin gives a speech, Ann Coulter writes a column, Rush Limbaugh broadcasts, and Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs take to the air, Civility Project folk will be monitoring their speech?
Thus far, the project has not issued any statements condemning the current Republican/insurance lobby-sponsored tactic of aggressively breaking up town hall meetings in districts of Democratic Party Congressional representatives.
Is DeMoss sincere with his plea for civility, or is he reading the political tea leaves (the Republicans and the Christian Right have hit low points in public opinion polls)?
Candace Chellew-Hodge characterised DeMoss having started out by gay-bashing as an example of “bigotry with manners.”