Thursday, August 25, 2011

Re-Enacting the Last Days of Rome

"There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times."—Chapter 31, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon

One of my family members has worked for a small, independent bookstore for several years. The owner recently decided she wanted to sell, then discovered that because she has full-time employees with benefits, her profit margin was not as good as it might be. If her full-timers were not there, tamping down her profits, she could sell the store for a larger sum. The solution? Harass the full-time employees by screaming at them and telling them that everything they do is crap so they will leave. One of the three full-time employees is so distraught she is counting her days. The other two, despite feeling stressed, intend to stay until they are fired so they will qualify for unemployment and COBRA. How could someone behave like this? Easy. Just look at our media role models—from Congress to reality television. Abuse has gone mainstream. 
The world can be a nasty place. People, in their self-absorbed pursuit of money and/or power, often feel justified in brutalizing anyone who gets in their way. Fortunately, there are still people who believe this is wrong. Two of them are men who stand at the opposite poles of ideology. In 2009, Mark DeMoss, a Republican and prominent evangelical Christian who runs a public relations firm in Atlanta, joined forces with a friend, Lanny J. Davis, a Jewish Democrat and lobbyist who worked for Bill Clinton, to establish the Civility Project. They formed their initiative in response to what they viewed as an increasingly vicious tone in American politics.

"I am concerned about the hate and animosity being aimed at men and women with whom we may disagree on one issue or another and have decided to do something about it."—Mark DeMoss

Those of you who are my age will remember civility—the ability to calmly discuss issues with people of opposing viewpoints without name calling or disrespect. We learned about it in our civics classes where we were taught an important principle of democracy—intellectual, fact-based debate.
The Civility Project founders created a pledge with the goal of having every member of Congress and every state governor sign it. Here’s their “Civility Pledge”:

I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
I will stand against incivility when I see it.

Sounds like something we might have learned in kindergarten. Sadly, our legislators didn’t. Out 585 letters sent asking every sitting governor and member of Congress to sign the pledge, only three did so. They were Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut; Representative Frank Wolfe, Republican of Virginia; and Representative Sue Myrick, Republican of North Carolina. That’s right, my liberal friends, the Repubicans took the feeble lead on this one. Let us hang our heads in shame.
DeMoss folded the project after spending two years and about $30,000 in expenses on the endeavor.

My heroes, Mark DeMoss (left) and Lanny Davis. Courtesy of

In a letter written on January 3, 2011, to the three admirable legislators who signed the pledge, DeMoss said, “I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar.”

DeMoss, a former aide to Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell and an unpaid adviser to Republican Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2008 presidential campaign, said that he was particularly surprised by the hostility to the civility pledge from conservatives.

"Incivility is the extreme of pride; it is built on the contempt of mankind."—Johann Georg Von Zimmerman, Swiss physician and philosopher (1728 - 1795)

“The worst e-mails I received about the civility project were from conservatives with just unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call,” he said to an interviewer from The New York Times.  “This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat. That would probably be true about some liberals going the other direction, but I didn’t hear from them.”

He went on to say, “Whether or not there’s violence, whether or not incivility today is worse than it’s been in history, it’s all immaterial. It’s worse than it ought to be.” Well said. Thank you, Mr. DeMoss.

What it comes down to is this: When a society degenerates into reducing human beings to things to be destroyed or removed, we all lose a little bit of our humanity. And make no mistake. Once that happens, no one is safe.


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