December 2009

Civility in Politics

Beginning his presentation with a quote from “that noted rabble-rouser Tom Paine,” retired history professor Alan Coombs immediately engaged the audience.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women.”

Whatever his other virtues, Paine was not especially kind or charitable to his ideological enemies so it may seem strange to begin a talk about political civility with him, said Combs. But political rhetoric has always been harsh and appeals to emotions rather than logic.

For instance, the presidential campaign of 1800 was about as rough as any in our own time, like accusations of Thomas Jefferson being born an atheist, which he was not, and a revolutionary because he sympathized with the French Revolution. During the campaign of 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s opponents often portrayed him as the “Illinois Orang-utan,” and an uncultured, ignorant country bumpkin. Joseph McCarthy ruined scores of public servants and other prominent people, and even Harry Truman and General George Marshall were branded as traitors.

It seems that “brutish behavior” has always been a part of American politics. The basic assumption of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” is that we have the intelligence and critical acumen to govern ourselves based on reason and common sense. But what has been happening in American politics the past thirty years has made Coombs wonder if this is still valid. Thus, his theme tonight of the dramatic decline of Civil Discourse in the political arena, some of the causes, and what remedies if any are possible.

In years past, members of Congress when in session spent most of their time in Washington D.C. and at times, they and their spouses socialized at receptions and parties so that they became acquainted, even with those they debated against. These personal connections lent itself to more compromising and passing important legislation.

Today members of Congress are constantly running for re-election so that come Thursday afternoons, they’re flying home making the workweek 2 ½ – 3 days long.

Extravagant courtesy on the floor also used to be the norm, noted Coombs, such as using terms like “the distinguished Senator from Utah” or “Will the gentleman yield?”

In fact, the Standing Rules of the Senate states that: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” Moreover, it is prohibited for Senators in debate to “refer offensively to any State of the Union.”

Digressing a bit, Coombs recounted an incident to illustrate how civility was not always thus. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered over two days a vicious speech attacking not only slavery but also two fellow Senators, one about his slobbering (suffered from a stroke) and his taking a mistress “the harlot, Slavery.”

The next day, the stroke victim’s cousin, also a Congressman walked onto the Senate floor to Sumner’s desk and beat him bloody and senseless with a gutta percha cane. Though the cousin was not expulsed from the House, he later resigned. But in the meantime he was sent dozens of new gutta percha canes for beating other recalcitrant abolitionists.

Because political incivility has existed in American history and survived over 200 years, Coombs wondered if he had much more to say about civility. Before the Civil War, members of the House even carried loaded pistols to the floor. Recently Congressman Joe Wilson rescued him by his “You lie!” In addition to indignation afterwards, Wilson also received campaign money.

But Coombs questioned whether Congress at this point in time is the real problem, apart from the anger, especially among right-wing Republicans that has made moderate Republicans an endangered species. Distrust of Congress as an institution is manifest, painfully apparent this summer when members went home to town meetings and was confronted with rooms full of angry and distrustful people.

So why is the public mood so angry, vicious, and intolerant? Obviously some of it arises from the current economic hardships that many Americans are facing, said Coombs. Losing one’s job or watching retirement savings shrink causes stress and unhappiness, exacerbated by Wall Street executives rewarding themselves with millions of federal dollars. Or Americans are angry about Afghanistan.

With such a deluge of anger and unhappiness comes an inability or unwillingness to process complicated explanations for our economic distress or global strategy so people turn to easier answers. And they abound.

There’s talk radio programming, like Rush Limbaugh, now easily accessed via You Tube and Facebook. There’s Fox News with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and, most recently, Glenn Beck. One result of these programs is that the line between reporting and editorializing has become badly blurred, encouraging distrust on every side.

To counter far-right programming, came MSNBC’s Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow. Said Coombs, “My wife’s sister-in-law loves them and watches them, should I say to a bunch of humanists, ‘religiously?'” He admitting that he also watched though not as “religiously.” Did this make even more difficult the process of rational exchange of ideas? And unfortunately, busy people succumb to easy bullet points.

Less obvious causes of the present discontent could be from the shrinking globe and growth of information, specifically information overload. Coombs wondered if the average American possesses the critical faculties of insisting on verification and real evidence to process the huge amount of information so readily available. If not, we are in real trouble, he said.

Much of the animosity, even hatred, is directed at the Obama administration and the President personally. A couple of months ago, Jimmy Carter said that he thought a major cause of that hatred was racial bias directed at the first African American President.

And somehow Obama’s race and his name meant his election could not have been legitimate. Thus the “Birthers,” who believe Obama was not eligible to be President because he had not been born in this country. Investigation revealed that he was born in Hawaii in 1961, but many “Birthers” may not know Hawaii is in the U.S.

President Carter said he was confident that Obama would be able to survive those attacks because of his “personal qualities,” but Coombs finds it troubling that racist feelings still exist 55 years after Brown v. the Board of Education. In fact, Coombs believes that many people who harbor such feelings do not think of themselves as racist.

“It’s just a built-in reaction to having someone who looks different as Chief Executive. And what’s especially galling is, He’s so good! So smart, so eloquent. To use an NBA analogy, if you’re a Utah Jazz fan, you don’t waste your time hating Nick Collison. You reserve your hatred for Kobe Bryant. (Okay, through his eight years in the White House, Democrats had a lot of unflattering things to say about George W. Bush and some historians I know spent time debating the question “Worst Ever?” But that merely serves as another example of the decline of civility.)”

Coombs argued that hatred of any kind and personalizing issues is destructive of the rational discourse necessary for our system to function properly. Turning the clock back more than fifty years, when he was a debater in high school, they were taught that there are at least two sides to every issue–or it wouldn’t be an issue.

Lending rationality, intelligence, acceptance, and civility–and hope–are some of Coomb’s heroes: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and others who still try to do it the right way. Bill Moyers though coming at current issues from his own perspective still keeps it civil. And, for the most part, Brian Williams and Katie Couric try to remain bipartisan in delivering the news.

Coombs admires Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and gives high marks to David Brooks, New York Times columnist who regularly appears with Mark Shields on Jim Lehrer’s “News Hour.”

Also cause for optimism and hope is Laura Bush who in a CNN interview said President Obama was doing a good job amidst very difficult problems. And American school children should hear encouragement from their president.


–Sarah Smith


I will tell you a pleasant tale which has in it a touch of pathos. A man got religion and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said “imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him.”

The man studied the Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance instituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him.

Then he reported to the priest, who said THAT was not the way to imitate his Father in Heaven! The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having up his way.

–Mark Twain
Letters From the Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

~Book Review~

I recently purchased Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. While I have not finished the book yet, I have looked it over from cover to cover and am sufficiently far enough along in consuming it to say that it is a wonderful read and perhaps his best yet. Dawkins states in the beginning, that the book is not about religion. It is about presenting “the evidence for evolution.” This is made clear by the first two sentences of the preface: “The evidence for evolution grows by the day, and has never been stronger. At the same time, paradoxically, ill-informed opposition is also stronger than I can remember. This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the ‘theory’ of evolution is actually a fact–as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.” He admits that while he has written other books about evolution like The Selfish Gene, these other books didn’t discuss much about the evidence.

Richard Dawkins

This book is one that will be very useful for those of us who sometimes struggle while attempting arguing against the creationist notion that evolution is “only a theory.” Indeed, he deals with this notion right at the beginning, as chapter one is titled, “Only a Theory?” This section deals with the definitions of theory and hypothesis against the backdrop of what can be considered a fact.

Another pleasant aspect of this book is that there are four sections spaced throughout the book with several pages of glossy photos relating to what is being discussed. I was also happy to notice that at the beginning of the final chapter he includes one of my favorite passages from The Origin of Species.

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being, evolved.”

–Robert Lane

President’s Message

December 2009

December 10 is the day we have our annual membership meeting and social. We will do a little chapter business. Then we will have an open microphone along with lots of good food provided by the Board members and the chapter. So be sure to come and enjoy the food and company and conversation with friends.

At our January meeting we are going to have a night where members tell us about their own personal “Journey to Humanism.” We haven’t done this for a few years so we felt it was about time to do it again. Follow this link to read stories from past presentations. If anyone would like to tell us about his or her journey, please contact any Board member. Presentations should be 10-15 minutes, it isn’t that difficult and everyone else will enjoy hearing how you found humanism.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU