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After Tucson: Can America be a more ‘civil’ nation?

At last week’s memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shootings, President Obama called for Americans to put aside “cynicism and vitriol.”

The president is right, said The Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial. It’s “time to cool it.” At last week’s memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shootings, President Barack Obama paid moving tribute to the 19 people killed and wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and then issued a stirring call for Americans to put aside “cynicism and vitriol” and learn to “question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country.” Brilliantly, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, Obama managed to ask for more civility in public discourse without accusing anyone of incivility. Instead, he cited the memory of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, born on 9/11, who was shot dead in Tucson as she waited to meet her congresswoman; with his voice cracking, Obama asked Americans to help make “our democracy as good as Christina imagined it.” Reforming our “choleric and dysfunctional political culture” won’t be easy, but Obama’s powerful speech—hailed by critics and supporters alike as the best of his presidency—made that goal “no longer seem impossible.”

Make no mistake, said Byron York in WashingtonExaminer.com, this was a political speech from start to finish. Calling for civility was easy enough for Obama, after his surrogates in the liberal media had already done the dirty work of blaming conservative “rhetoric” for the Tucson massacre. But his flowery rhetoric was nothing more than an attempt to shame his critics into tempering all future criticism. That he used a little girl’s death to do so was “breathtakingly cynical.” Of course Obama wants more civility in public discourse, said Investor’s Business Daily in an editorial. After two disastrous years in which he added trillions to the national debt and gave us a government-controlled health-care system we don’t want, people are understandably very angry with the president. He just doesn’t want to hear it. The real goal of this speech was not a more civil public discourse, but “the replacement of public discourse with public acquiescence.”

Not much danger of that, said Robert Robb in The Arizona Republic. America is a contentious, divided nation with a long and rich tradition of “vilifying and demonizing political opponents.” Anyone who thinks today’s political atmosphere is “rougher than it has been in the past” needs to recall that our first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, was shot and killed in a duel with the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr. Let’s also not forget the civil-rights debates of the 1950s, said John Sununu in The Boston Globe, or the rancor and riots of the Vietnam era. Still, demonizing political opponents and questioning their motives “poisons the well”—with the result that less gets done. Whatever one’s party, whatever one’s goal, we all benefit from “good manners” in government.

Good manners, though, begin with humility, said David Brooks in The New York Times, and humility, in this era of bombast, is in very short supply. The reason we’re drowning in “intellectual thuggery and partisan one-sidedness” is that our culture “encourages people to think highly of themselves,” and to believe that they and they alone “possess direct access to the truth.” The civility Obama made the case for so movingly in Tucson comes naturally to anyone with the wisdom to know that he might, on occasion, be wrong, and therefore needs to listen to “other points of view.” We’re all fallible. We’re all sometimes foolish. Instead of angrily insisting that our side is always right, how about “a return to modesty”?

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