March 10, 2010

Some civility would be quite healthy

''I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, 'That government is best which governs not at all'; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.''

-- Henry David Thoreau, ''Civil Disobedience,'' 1848

There could be few among us who have not been inspired by Thoreau's lecture, which was later published as an essay, ''Civil Disobedience.''

It is often required reading in high school after a dose of ''Walden,'' and for many people, young and old alike, the essay fully illuminates the light within us that we are allowed in this country to be independent thinkers who can protest, who can fight back, even against the ultimate human authority: government.

Over the decades, the Thoreau lecture has been inspiration to great nonviolent protesters, including Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It frightened anti-communist hatemonger Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who successfully had it banned from some bookshelves.

While it is impossible to know what Thoreau would think about the current national debate over health care, it is probable to imagine that he might be aghast at the violent and disrespectful nature of the debate, particularly in the current town hall-type meetings.

If you read the opening lines of Thoreau's lecture, it might be easy to concentrate on his ideas about less government, which he later amplifies as a wish for no government. It is no wonder he is often the poster boy for libertarians. What is more essential and what truly set apart his ideas from others at that time in history, however, is the line: ''I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.''


Our best examples of a lack of systematic response are the scenes from two meetings held by Sen. Arlen Specter, particularly scenes that show a man, surrounded by police, shouting in Specter's face. Over the course of that meeting, the senator was bombarded with insults. Among other things, he was accused of trying to destroy the country and of supporting a bill that would allow the government to kill aging patients.

Specter, the Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat from Pennsylvania, has been among our finest public servants. He is a man of character and depth. He has been a man of reason. Treatment of him and his office these past weeks has been disgraceful and rude. He deserves better. The country deserves more.

Town meetings are not meant to be barroom arguments.

Most of what we've seen and heard has been raw emotion from people who were either misinformed about the facts of the current health care proposals or did not care to know them.

And despite their views on the prospects of less government versus more, these people, and many of those on the far left and far right, have shown a total disregard for the meaning of acting ''civil.''

There is a need in this country for serious debate on a number of issues, but mostly what we are getting is nonsense and stridency. Hollering has become the primary mode of communication. And no party and no political philosophy, liberal or conservative, is any better than the other at raising the level of serious thought and discussion.

We need a return of civility in debate.

True bipartisanship is called for at a time when our nation is challenged by war abroad and economic hardship at home. Americans are scared, and perhaps it is from being frightened that our countrymen are reacting so irrationally.

We now have our second president who has arrived in Washington promising collaboration and peaceful coexistence, only to fail on delivering true partnerships.

President Obama not only promised it on the stump, but has written eloquently in two books about the need for all of us to work together, to work as ''one.''

It is speculative to wonder what happened to his promise or to wonder why George W. Bush could not bring to Washington the same spirit of teamwork he fostered with Democrats and the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock in Texas.

We could argue that President Obama does not need to work with Republicans because his party has the majority of votes in Congress. We could say that former President Bush was not allowed to cooperate because his party leaders would not allow him to do it.

The reasons matter little. What is important is that leadership begins at the top, and Obama can still lead the way. He is going to have his way on national health care reform. He must succeed because he has made health care the top priority of his early administration. And he has the votes.

His skills at communication and public relations are superb, much better than Bush's. It is proper for him to use his intellect and charm to frame the concept of civil debate and bipartisan governing before we endure more thoughtless haranguing and the flood of misinformation further tears us apart.

We've witnessed what happens in countries whose leaders and citizens do not practice or truly comprehend democracy, and do not value free speech.

Our most recent example was the imprisonment of two American journalists by North Korea. Freeing them should go down as one of former President Bill Clinton's finest hours.

It is a national contradiction and is hypocritical to speak out against imprisonment of journalists while at the same time abusing free speech at home in these town meetings.

Disobedience? Yes. Celebrate our right to protest and to protest often and loudly.

Civil, as in ''civility''? We need more of it. Now.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Publishing Co. and MaineToday Media, owner of newspapers in Portland, Augusta and Waterville. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees.

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