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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 1-13-11

It’s time to return to the notion of ‘malice toward none’ and ‘charity for all’

A makeshift memorial for  victims of the shooting in Tucson: the tragedy sparked concern about  overheated political discourse.

A makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting in Tucson: the tragedy sparked concern about overheated political discourse.

Photograph by: Eric Thayer, Reuters

The tragic Arizona rampage that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six citizens, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who wanted to see “how our government works,” has triggered the predictable recitations about America’s long history of political violence -without any evidence that this was a political crime.

That vast numbers of shocked observers immediately concluded that the gunman’s lunatic actions were in some way linked to the present fervid red-blue debate in the United States speaks volumes about the overheated rhetoric that has come to characterize much of America’s political discourse in recent years.

But political civility has an equally long and robust U.S. pedigree. We should appreciate the coalition-builders, not the partisans; the statesmen, not the demagogues; the magnanimous uniters, not the cranky dividers. In matters political, the big broad tent with stakes driven deep into America’s rich soil is more constructive and more lasting than partisan lean-tos tilting left or right.

Transcending partisanship, understanding that every discussion about politics or culture or society need not be reduced to a red-blue, all-or-nothing partisan paradigm, is an essential first step in embracing a civilizing center. As a man of enlightenment, George Washington assumed that if his reason led him to certain conclusions, someone else’s reason, equally reasonably, could lead to an opposing position. Alas, two centuries later, such civility often invites charges of being weak and vacillating from both sides of the great over-reported color-coded divide.

Some anger is healthy in a democracy. Especially in our consumer-addled, narcotized societies, anger motivates. We need passion to pull ourselves away from our iPods and plunge into politics. Moreover, anger can be logical. The humanitarian philosopher Elie Wiesel notes, wisely, that anger is the rational response to terrorism. The mass murder of innocents and genocidal calls to destroy Western society should not be treated lightly, moderately.

Nevertheless, our parents were right: when you play with matches you risk getting burned. Red and blue partisans stoke a fury that demonizes fellow citizens and curdles their own souls, singeing the social fabric that strong communities and effective democracies need.

Although partisan mudslinging has long been as American as apple pie, the U.S. tolerance for calcified and polarizing partisan conflict seems to have mushroomed in the two centuries since the founding fathers wrote the constitution. The constitutionalists expected conflict -but they hoped to manage it, subdue it, dissipate it. During the passionate debate over whether to ratify the constitution, the man who would be remembered as “the father of the constitution,” James Madison, wrote the classic American text on the subject in The Federalist Papers. Madison identified the “tendency to break and control the violence of faction” as one of the most important “advantages promised by a well-constructed union.” He sought “enlightened statesmen” who could “adjust … clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.”

Of course, U.S. politics has long been brutal, more contact sport than bake-off. But attitudes change. Leadership counts. Today’s sour, cynical climate is a historical construct. It can be made better -or worse.

After the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for “malice toward none” and “charity toward all.” In the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan presided over periods of patriotic renewal and increased idealism. In the 21st century, that kind of leadership, those kinds of results, are still possible. We eagerly await such leaders.

This search for civility, learning to disagree agreeably, might be the quintessential democratic quest. Democracy represents a leap of faith that a diverse group of people can find common ground, be they the 22 kids in my elementary school who elected me class president or the 300 million people the U.S. president represents. Seeking to make as many people in a given society winners, without alienating or marginalizing the losers, is a noble endeavour. Developing the common vocabulary -Madison’s “public voice” -and finding that broad social consensus is indeed democracy’s Holy Grail.

Today, more and more people turned off by the shrill partisanship of the engaged few are joining a disengaged majority. They escape the hardscrabble fights, seeking comfort in what Thomas Jefferson, quoting the Renaissance thinker Montaigne, called the “softest pillow” of political ignorance. Fortunately, even amid our current challenges, most Americans enjoy the luxury of being able to escape. But rather than being forced between the “softest pillow” of political ignorance and the hard rocks of partisan warfare, Americans once again need to seek the Madisonian golden mean, Washington’s “goodly fabric,” a muscular moderation and civilizing statesmanship that tackles problems practically and creatively rather than ideologically with blinders on, from the left or the right.

Civility is mass-produced by millions of small but bighearted gestures, but all too easily destroyed by a few loud or violent small-minded people. All of us, regardless of our political colors, should make amends for the hysteria of these last few years, reflect on today’s continuing tensions, and approach tomorrow with more openness, mutuality, acceptance, respect, humility and love -even for those who will still dare to disagree with us.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University. He is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.
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