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Sep. 10 2009 - 1:32 pm | 15 views | 1 recommendation | 2 comments

How’s the right handling Joe Wilson and the end of civility?

The Decline of Western Civilization album cover

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So I decided to see what the Right wing is making of Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s healthcare speech last night before a joint session of Congress.  How would those most invested in upholding a “moral majority” of supposedly old American values of (straight) families and (Christian) God defend the complete and utter breakdown in civility that happened when Wilson called Obama a liar last night?

They’re handling it very well.  In fact, they’re right/the Dems are wrong;  they’re respectable/the Dems are criminals, and they continue to maintain the moral high ground in all matters political and personal, despite displays such as Wilson’s, extramarital affairs, drug use, and deceiving the American people in order to line the pockets of the rich and  wage unjust wars forever and ever.  Amen.

What the Right is saying is this: Obama is the one who had the nerve to call Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity liars.  When Obama said there were no death panels and that this is an outrageous lie about healthcare reform meant to derail it, he was clearly calling all those who spread this misinformation liars.

Forget Joe Wilson: Barack Obama called Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin Liars Last Night.

Oh yeah, and the Dems were super rude to George Bush when they grumbled at some of his more outrageous lies during his 2005 State of the Union address  and then (gasp!) refused to give him a standing ovation.

It makes sense that the Right sees nothing wrong in Wilson’s actions.  It also makes sense that most of the rest of the country does.  Wilson’s actions represent a true breakdown in civility.

According to Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process volume 1, what distinguishes Moderns from PreModerns is the move from being subjects of the crown and thus putting on courtly manners to being citizens of the nation state and thus engaging in civil behavior in nearly all aspects of public life.

This civilizing process manifested itself in little things, like an increasing control of the body and its functions.  For instance, in courtly times, one blew one’s nose in one’s hand, ate with a knife, and went to the bathroom pretty much anywhere one wanted.  The introduction of increasing shame and control (from handkerchiefs to the privy to the much celebrated fork) was what the civilizing process was all about.

But this internalized form of discipline that represented the modern subject was not necessarily a good thing.  In fact, as Michel Foucault lays out in Discipline and Punish, the civilizing process had a way of making us all more and more subject to state rule.  Rather than liberating us, civility imprisons us.

Like all processes, the civilizing one can stop.  It clearly is stopping in American politics and maybe daily life more generally.  Not to sound too much like my mother, but bodily control (from farting to burping to habits of eating) is surely less severe than it was just a generation ago.  And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

But the Right and now the Dems will act like it is.  That’s because gaining political power in this country is about the ability to display “civility”- a highly disciplined self subject to the state.  This discipline is bodily (no fat Presidents), sexual (no sex outside the discipline of marriage), and behavioral (no swearing like a sailor or picking your nose or calling the President a LIAR).

But it’s as ridiculous to bemoan the end of the Civilizing Process as it is to bemoan the end of the corset.  If anything is universally true about humans it is that we change over time.  What is highly acceptable behavior at one point becomes utterly revolting at another (do you know Medaeval Princes were encouraged to pass wind, according to Elias, including at Court?).

What the Dems ought to do is learn to respond to this breakdown effectively- not with the shock of Miss Manners witnessing a contemporary teenager eating dinner, but with the knowledge that civility is no longer what is needed to control the political debate.   In fact, civility may soon be as dated as the nation state itself.


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  1. collapse expand

    I hope you are wrong and this is the just the last gasp of the GOP old guard acting badly and so many Americans will be shocked by their behavior the country will become civil once again!!

    nah, you’re right, civility is in a death spiral.

  2. collapse expand

    Well we are certainly in bad shape when the public or our leaders don’t know a lie when they hear it. Some things are debatable…some things are just flat out provable lies…if the press did its job and helped the public to point out flat out lies maybe we would get back to a point where the liars of this world would suffer some shame and recognize that lying, as our mothers taught us, is a vice and sin.

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