Joe Biden, James Eastland, Just Getting Along, and Cutting Your Own Throat

The Backstory

Cue the outrage from social media and at least four of Biden’s 2020 opponents — -especially Senator Corey Booker, who, looking for a lifeline to drag his sagging campaign into the upper echelon, traversed the cable circuit complaining that Biden seemed oblivious to the times in which we live. He even likened Biden to Trump, noting Biden’s seeming inability to apologize for mistakes:

To be sure, much of the swift criticism of Biden is lacking in nuance and context. Setting the record straight, Congressman John Lewis:

And Rep. James Clyburn:

MSNBC host, Chris Matthews, put it best when he noted the importance of considering “context, time, and place.” Take a look:

In fairness, Biden tried to clarify his remarks by (albeit clumsily) saying:

This is a self-inflicted wound. Biden’s repeat of the Eastland anecdote reveals his inability to discern that behind this forced gentility and civility as manners, there is disenfranchisement and real loss. Yes, Biden could argue with segregationists, then go have a meal with them because he was White — - and, therefore, deserving to them. Folksy James “Jim” Eastland and Herman “Hermy” Talmadge spent their legislative lives depressing the hopes and aspirations of millions of real life human beings who they would never have allowed to sit at that table — -only serve it. Biden doesn’t get it — -and his inability to read the political tea leaves is telling. The only way old-time segregationists were “beat” was through overcoming them, not working with them.

Frankly, a lot of them just had to die out.

But, with the exception of the most pedantic among us and a few zealous anti-Biden social media denizens, no one has said that they believe Biden is a racist because he worked with racists. The appropriateness of him going around bragging about it points to being out of touch and stubborn but, compared to what’s perched in the people’s house right now, all of these Democrats are Abraham Lincoln.

Civility and Cutting Your Own Throat

In the years since Summer 2015 when Trump bounded upon the front row seat of the GOP nominating contest, numerous pundits, academics, and others have lamented what they see as the serious partisan fractiousness that has seeped from politics into the general citizenry. All of this, many claim, can be blamed on the emergence of Trump and his brand of insult-packing politicking. Incivility, they argue, has reached an all-time high under Trump’s reign as the candidate terrible. Predictably, many mainstream Democrats and Trump-averse Republicans lament what they see as a loss of civility in DC and the citizenry, more broadly.

By the way, incivility in politics is not historically unique.

What I want to ask is: just what does being civil mean?

In its simplest incarnation, it means to be courteous, polite, to possess good manners. In the political sense, this means that one is willing to engage in genteel discussion even though doing so may sometimes go against one’s ideological grain. The “problem” of incivility, some argue, is a plague unprecedented in American history. It is this kind of, frankly, uncritical conviction that drives the modern calls for civility at all cost.

Those who champion civility at all cost — -let’s call them the civilitarians — -proffer that incivility is the root cause of all that is wrong in politics and the chief reason voters turn away from political participation . Although there are numerous studies documenting the presence of negativity in campaigns, it is far from clear if lack of civility leads to low participation in the political process or whether it’s voter mistrust of politicians or voter apathy.

But, there is another way to think about the cacophony of calls for civility — how incivility accelerates society toward a more equitable outcome with respect to the quest for social justice. The legal scholar, Randall Kennedy, persuasively argues that… “moral progress does not just happen. It is made to happen.” What Kennedy had in mind were actions that are tainted with coercion (like strikes and boycotts); aggressive agitations exemplified by the antislavery polemics of people like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, both of whom decried slavery as debased and savage. Think of the violent incivility surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s marshaling of Union forces against the Confederacy. Think of the charitable, but unapologetic, words of that President’s second inaugural.

These words were astounding for Lincoln to utter in support of the long suffering bondsmen. In a time of aggrieved Northern loss and humiliating Southern defeat — in a White America not overly welcoming to millions of emancipated slaves — -the truth, however bitter, was what the nation required, not soothing words of civility.

Professor Randall Kennedy on the cruel incivility practiced everyday in one of the most civil venues, the American courtroom

Kennedy believes that we over-rely “on a conception of civility as manners” — -and that is the least helpful way of thinking about the relationship between civility and the need for redress of wrongs perpetrated against the marginalized. This “mannered” conception of civility–-cloaked in conforming ways of address and an ideology of politeness–-limits us to merely tolerating differing points of view. This bare tolerance distracts us from addressing real problems and, in many ways, operates as a silencing mechanism, where arguments are dismissed as uncivil regardless of the merits of the disagreement. In contentious environments (such as that which occurred in Ferguson, Occupy, Chicago, among other venues), the behavior of those offering disagreement becomes the issue and the injustice that animated the disagreement is rendered inconsequential.

Civilitarians assume that positive relations with one’s opponents should be maintained, less the relationship devolve into a negative, dysfunctional, and less productive engagement. And yet, disagreement lies at the heart of democracy. Indeed, disagreement often holds more truth and legitimacy than an artificial edifice of manners. In his treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that opinion gains value when it faces criticism. Truth is the political outcome when difference–-what Mill called a “collision of error”–-is allowed to strengthen democratic engagement. Disagreement is endemic to politics, but there is still a natural human desire to seek commonality and downplay contentiousness.

So, in our time now, we should ask ourselves whether individuals like Donald Trump irreparably harm or continually strengthen our democracy?

In the process of deciding, we would be wise to consider Mill, Kennedy, and others who recognize that in seeking a driven unanimity, we do not appreciate the crucial role that difference plays in democratic engagement. If the goal in a democracy is to seek a more engaged and informed public so as to service justice and egalitarianism, should we not consider that it is power that benefits when civil discourse is primal? By refusing to critically enrage those with offending points of view — -hiding behind a countenance of manners — -do we risk allowing privileged members of society to incubate power among themselves? In the end, democracy benefits from a multiplicity of worldviews — — where criticism of the status quo is endemic to the democratic political process.

This latest Biden blunderbuss will most assuredly blow over when the next Trump outrage careens across the news wires (every Monday morning) and wreaks havoc with common sensibility. But there is a larger debate about civility, incivility, and what advances democracy, equality, the quest for social justice — — and defeating the enemies of these aspirations.

Take a look at Mike Wallace’s 1957 interview with the late Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland. Although these days he’s a caricature of old time Southern segregation, listening to Eastland in this clip is quite instructive in understanding racist propagandizing and lies masquerading as reason, logic, and gentility. But, more broadly, it is and an exemplar of the false notion that everyone benefits from the status quo — -that there are losers in “getting along” at all cost — -that the “political system” Biden says was working was waging war against so many more.

Kudos to the late Mike Wallace for his tough questioning (Chris Wallace, you listening?).

A native of of the great state of Mississippi and proud resident of New Jersey. Lecturer and Doctoral candidate in Media, Race, Class, and Politics @Rutgers.

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