[Marxism] White America’s Age-Old, Misguided Obsession With Civility

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 2 11:10:51 MDT 2018


NY Times Op-Ed, July 2, 2018
White America’s Age-Old, Misguided Obsession With Civility
By Thomas J. Sugrue

Mr. Sugrue is a professor of history and social and cultural analysis 
and author.

Recent disruptive protests — from diners at Mexican restaurants in the 
capital calling the White House adviser Stephen Miller a fascist to 
protesters in Pittsburgh blocking rush-hour traffic after a police 
shooting of an unarmed teen — have provoked bipartisan alarm. CNN 
commentator David Gergen, adviser to every president from Nixon through 
Clinton, compared the anti-Trump resistance unfavorably to 1960s 
protests, saying, “The antiwar movement in Vietnam, the civil rights 
movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, both of those were more civil in 
tone — even the antiwar movement was more civil in tone, but certainly 
the civil rights movement, among the people who were protesting.”

But those who say that the civil rights movement prevailed because of 
civil dialogue misunderstand protest and political change.

This misunderstanding is widespread. Democratic leaders have lashed out 
at an epidemic of uncivil behavior in their own ranks. In a tweet, the 
House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, denounced both “Trump’s daily lack 
of civility” and angry liberal responses “that are predictable but 
unacceptable.” Senator Charles Schumer described the “harassment of 
political opponents” as “not American.” His alternative: polite debate. 
“If you disagree with someone or something, stand up, make your voice 
heard, explain why you think they’re wrong, and why you’re right.” 
Democrat Cory A. Booker joined the chorus. “We’ve got to get to a point 
in our country where we can talk to each other, where we are all seeking 
a more beloved community. And some of those tactics that people are 
advocating for, to me, don’t reflect that spirit.”

The theme: We need a little more love, a little more King, a dollop of 
Gandhi. Be polite, be civil, present arguments thoughtfully and 
reasonably. Appeal to people’s better angels. Take the moral high ground 
above Trump and his supporters’ low road. Above all, don’t disrupt.

This sugarcoating of protest has a long history. During the last major 
skirmish in the civility wars two decades ago, when President Bill 
Clinton held a national conversation about race to dampen tempers about 
welfare reform, affirmative action, and a controversial crime bill, the 
Yale law professor Stephen Carter argued that civil rights protesters 
were “loving” and “civil in their dissent against a system willing and 
ready to destroy them.” King, argued Carter, “understood that uncivil 
dialogue serves no democratic function.”

But in fact, civil rights leaders, while they did believe in the power 
of nonviolence, knew that their success depended on disruption and 
coercion as much — sometimes more — than on dialogue and persuasion. 
They knew that the vast majority of whites who were indifferent or 
openly hostile to the demands of civil rights would not be moved by 
appeals to the American creed or to bromides about liberty and justice 
for all. Polite words would not change their behavior.

For King and his allies, the key moment was spring 1963, a contentious 
season when polite discourse gave way to what many called the “Negro 
Revolt.” That year, the threat of disruption loomed large. King led a 
mass demonstration in Birmingham, Ala., deliberately planned to provoke 
police violence. After the infamous police commissioner Bull Connor 
sicced police dogs on schoolchildren and arrested hundreds, including 
King, angry black protesters looted Birmingham’s downtown shopping 
district. Protesters against workplace discrimination in Philadelphia 
and New York deployed increasingly disruptive tactics, including 
blockading construction sites, chaining themselves to cranes, and 
clashing with law enforcement officials. Police forces around the United 
States began girding for what they feared was an impending race war.

Whites both North and South, moderate and conservative, continued to 
denounce advocates of civil rights as “un-American” and destructive 
throughout the 1960s. Agonized moderates argued that mass protest was 
counterproductive. It would alienate potential white allies and set the 
goal of racial equality back years, if not decades. Conservatives more 
harshly criticized the movement. National Review charged “King and his 
associates” with “deliberately undermining the foundations of internal 
order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagogy, they have 
been cracking the ‘cake of custom’ that holds us together.” By 1966, 
more than two-thirds of Americans disapproved of King.

King aimed some of his harshest words toward advocates of civility, 
whose concerns aligned with the hand-wringing of many of today’s 
politicians and pundits. From his Birmingham jail cell, King wrote: “I 
have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great 
stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s 
Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more 
devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which 
is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of 
justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, 
but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’.” King knew that 
whites’ insistence on civility usually stymied civil rights.

Those methods of direct action — disruptive and threatening — spurred 
the Kennedy administration to move decisively. On June 11, the president 
addressed the nation on the “fires of frustration and discord that are 
burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at 
hand.” Kennedy, like today’s advocates of civility, was skeptical of 
“passionate movements.” He criticized “demonstrations, parades and 
protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten 
lives,” and argued, “it is better to settle these matters in the courts 
than on the streets.” But he also had to put out those fires. He tasked 
his staff with drafting what could eventually become the landmark Civil 
Rights Act of 1964. Dialogue was necessary but far from sufficient for 
passage of civil rights laws. Disruption catalyzed change.

That history is a reminder that civility is in the eye of the beholder. 
And when the beholder wants to maintain an unequal status quo, it’s easy 
to accuse picketers, protesters, and preachers alike of incivility, as 
much because of their message as their methods. For those upset by 
disruptive protests, the history of civil rights offers an unsettling 
reminder that the path to change is seldom polite.




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