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Forget Civility, We’re Fighting for Civilization

February 12th, 2011 by dk

A tragedy befell Tucson, followed by immediate calls for civility. President Obama from a funeral urged us to fulfill the expectations of a nine-year-old girl who had been killed in the melee. United States Congress abruptly suspended business, retooling their terminology for the opposing party. Lawmakers literally came together for the State of the Union address, forming odd couples from opposing parties throughout the chamber.

All in honor of civility.

But meanwhile, Tunisia’s government has been toppled, triggered by a spike in commodity prices that pushed basic food staples just beyond the reach of the barely working class. Now the government of Egypt teeters, but without identified leaders or programs to take its place.

When unrest begets violence from Tucson to Cairo, aimed directly at the status quo, it may not cohere to the level of revolution. Chaos and fear may not be followed by a new order. It may be anarchy.

We may have defended civility these past few weeks, when it’s been civilization under assault. Without the orderliness of civilization, civility will be necessarily vacuous. In the worst cases, an empty civility can mask how rickety our civil order has become.

Running up to last fall’s election, Senator Mitch McConnell was asked what would be his first priority if his party won a majority. His answer was disconcertingly direct. His party’s first priority for the next two years would be to deny President Obama any chance of being reelected in 2012.

As a political leader, his words looked forward to a revolution two years hence. But as a sitting lawmaker, he was promising two years of anarchy to achieve that political goal. Forget helping the unemployed, or rebuilding roads, or fighting a war. His first priority would be to make the current government ineffectual, denying the sitting president any success at his job for the second half of his elected term.

Civilization is not a given. It provides order, but it starts with and then is extended by trust from its people. Order is experienced as safety, but it defines winners and losers.

Osama bin Laden doesn’t like the current order, so he’s been actively scheming to undo it. His best tool is to replace that sense of safety with fear. With terror. That’s why he’s called a terrorist.

Lately we seem not to be needing his help. What’s settled we’re making unsettled.

Twenty six states have gone to court to overturn the new health care law, insisting that government cannot compel individuals to buy health insurance by fining them if they don’t do it. (Never mind this was a workaround devised first by Republicans, adopted to appease them, and unnecessary if the so-called “public option” had been retained.)

Our own U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio has proposed a remedy, allowing individuals to opt out of the health insurance mandate, but in return they would have to pledge not to accept indigent health care at government expense. That seems fair enough, until it happens.

Then we’d have a grisly scene foretold by St. Vincent dePaul Executive Director Terry MacDonald: “We won’t have universal health care in America until people have to step over the dying poor on their sidewalks.” Currently we bring them to the nearest emergency room, where their treatment is required by law.

That’s civility masking how rickety our civilization has become.

Hubert Humphrey reminded us in 1977 how we will be judged. “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

I appreciate DeFazio’s pluck, but Humphrey’s theorem must extend to the feeble-minded, which includes those who believe they can prevent a personal health tragedy by refusing to participate in its prevention.

Which brings us back to Tucson. Jared Loughner, the accused shooter, had demonstrated symptoms if not a proper diagnosis of mental illness. Federal funds for the treatment of mental illnesses have been cut by $2.1 billion in the last three years. Can we really act surprised when a citizen falls through the cracks that we are deliberately widening?

Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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