Thursday, September 28, 2017

Civility is not our biggest problem

While colleagues posted their sermons about the political dangers we're in, about the re-appearance of Charlottesville-level racism/anti-semitism, or about kneeling NFL players and Black Lives Matter, the rabbi where I go gave us a sermon on civility.

He didn't use that word. He talked about how the fabric of our political culture has been torn, and how we have to put it together, not just by sewing it, but by reweaving it, His example was a member of the congregation who was a Hillary supporter living next door to a Trump supporter, but even though they disagreed about politics they had each other's garage-door codes and this one gave a eulogy at the funeral of the other one. This was held up as a model of how we should behave, and the rabbi suggested a series of coffees with him that we should attend with someone with whom we disagree politically.

Where to start? The example given is of two middle-aged, middle-class white guys who live next to each other in privileged Johnson County. This isn't a very wide sample, to say the least. The framing posits politics as rather a hobby, or an identity marker, and not really that important in the scheme of things – or, not as important as neighborliness.

But for some people, politics really matters. Let's take the examples that I used before: Trump really is tearing the country apart, and there really are people who either don't care about that or are okay with it as long as their team is winning. There really are black people getting killed by police almost every day. There really is a resurgence of the hard right in this country. These things will not be addressed by coffee shop tete a tetes. What they will be addressed by is people organizing to oppose them. But even the idea that they should be opposed is not found in this framework.

I personally don't think the problem is civility. Or maybe it is, but in the other direction – the need for (white) people to get along with each other has meant that the political window has been moved farther and farther right with hardly a fight – lest we be accused of incivility – with all the problems that this has caused, including the horrible mess we're in now.

I am not suggesting that we would be better off if the two Johnson County men were at each other's throats. Everybody has to decide in each situation how much politics to inject into each relationship. But I think of many churches or small towns I've visited where people don't speak up for justice for fear of rocking the boat. That's how injustice continues – or gets worse. To suggest that this is a model for the re-weaving of the social fabric is, I think, both false and ill-advised.

The world is burning – in some cases, quite literally. I would hope that that, rather than manners, would be worth discussing on Rosh Hashanah morning.