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Civility and American Democracy: A National Forum
Civility and American Democracy A National Forum screen capture.

Civility and American Democracy A National Forum screen capture.

Tom recently moderated a discussion between a group of leading historians, scholars, political scientists and journalists about the meaning of civility and its role in our public discourse. Panelists included  Joe Klein of Time Magazine/CNN and syndicated columnists Kathleen Parker and Ellen Goodman. Both live and online audiences participated in the event.

You can a two-hour program here, featuring highlights from the forum “Civility and American Democracy: A National Forum.”

Here are some videos from the forum:

Session 1: Civility in American History
Featuring: Randall Kennedy, Jill Lepore & John Stauffer

Session 2: Civility and Morality
Featuring: Austin Sarat, David L. Smith & Alan Wolfe

Session 3: Civility and Culture
Featuring: Diana Eck, Mark Lilla & Ilan Stavans

Session 4: Civility and the Media
Featuring: Ellen Goodman, Joe Klein & Kathleen Parker


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  • Guest

    Two sets of immigrant grandparents with the same culture and language, two different classes.

    One set stayed within the confines of “the old country, barely able to speak English, even by the time of their deaths, despite all the years in the U.S.

    The other set believed that it was vital to assimilate, not to the point of abandoning ethical values, traditions, or name-changing to do so, but set about to exist in the “total” culture.

    In both cases, their children had to be fluent in English.

    As one would expect that, in order to achieve tolerance, (and whatever degree of assimilation was sought), in any country by using its primary language, so, too must one consider the importance of learning and utilizing a nation’s languge.

    Reference was made to Latino television, and that, if only non-Spanish language speaking could understand it, viewers would experience an entirely different point of view.  Well…

  • Anonymous

    Episode 3 just aired in Maine, “civility and culture” and, as usual for public radio, you can hear a pin drop when it sounds like someone might mention Israel.  Yet it is not mentioned.  “Cognitive dissonance” might be useful here, defined as the experience of clashing phenomena, which are dealt with by tuning out one competitor.  Israel is a state whose interests define US foreign policy yet which is based on principles contradicting US ideals such as separation of church and state, equal treatment of the laws.  If totalitarian culture is marked by apathy and lying, what happens when a democracy adopts a totalitarian agendum?  What, then, does this dead culture do to civic institutions?  Public broadcasting demonstrates what happens peripherally, on the free press frontier–free for those who own a press.  The question of whether these cultural/civil-society infirmities destroy civil institutions like law and democracy puts this conversation where it belongs: an examination of human nature as either naturally embracing a “small-c constitution” of consensus and cooperation or not.  I’d say, if it did not, liberal constitutions would never even be dreamt of.  The problem, as J. J. Rousseau said (?), is to remove the chains of oppression, such as those kept in place by Israel: oppressing people and ideas with equal vigor.  The only safeguard for people and peoples (i.e., social identities) is reciprocity.  Exceptionalism is as opposed a concept as “one” is the opposite of “zero”. When it is tacitly countenanced on a stage, no amount of affability, etc., can lift the gloom.

  • Anonymous

    More to the point, perhaps:  I notice, by its absence among the episode titles, what this colloquium was aiming at:  civility and law.  E.g., is law reasonable?  What does that mean?  Who decides?  How is compulsion justified?  What is the relationship between law and democracy? 
    Failure to engage these vital issues as we go from one nation-building failure to the next in our foreign policy is planning to fail.  If we can’t talk about how civility and law relate in a comparatively calm question like the choice, de facto and de jure, of language of civics instruction in the US, how do we expect “nation-building” in general, where Authority starts from a blank slate and writes with lethal force, to work in the case of Afghanistan or Israel or Egypt?  The answer must be that we don’t expect success.  If not, because we don’t want to know what justice involves or costs, why are we talking about Latino television?  If we can’t spot the anomaly of the missing rationale when policy involves lethal force, how do we expect to spot it when policy involves couch-potato-ing?

    • Zero

      “What is the relationship between law and democracy?”

      I think having a secular constitution of rights in which laws have to adhere to tends to produce equal power of voice across racial, religious, and sex differences.  It forces law to remain abstract and universal; e.g., “Should two consenting adults have the same rights as two other consenting adults?”

      Egypt is a good example.  The conservatives look like they are going to write Islam into Egyptian law, and that is likely going to have negative repercussions.

      It also helps that the Judicial branch is coequal, which would strike down laws that marginalize people–no matter how the law was enacted (congressional or a democratic vote of the citizens).  I know the last one sounds strange–but, as you well know, democracy can undo democracy, the majority can marginalize a minority.      

      • Anonymous

        Egypt is a good case to study.  Remember my proposal for the topic’s title: civility and law.  Egypt, like other countries in the region, lives under the threat of a genocidal state which strikes me also as a suicide cult: Israel.  In the presence of such a threat, the disinterested observer can choose to believe that the people of Egypt recognize the need for special authority (realizing the danger of the concept) akin to martial law.  An Iraqi Kurd, after ten years working for US forces as an interpreter, told me in Iraq in 2004 that the US goal there was a “weakened state”.  He was inferring this, and did not approve of it.  Many Iraqis today may judge themselves to have lost much by the loss of Saddam Hussein.
        So I introduce the concept of people willingly giving up some freedoms in order to safeguard, as it were, the fountain of freedom, in this case representing freedom from foreign aggressive force.
        The test is whether that threat really exists.  This brings this theological-sounding issue back to earth (where God also dwells).

        • Zero

          Do I understand correctly that a region of cold war politics (to say the least) weakens the possibility of democracy amongst individual states…? 

          • Anonymous

            Which do you think is more democratic at the moment, Egypt or Israel?

          • Zero

             At the moment, I have to say Egypt.

          • Anonymous

            It’s hard to imagine a less democratic state than one which bases its existence on the non-existence of the people who were living there when the people who set up this state showed up.  We’re talking about law, and when you make your law accommodate that premise, nothing reasonable comes out of it:  if law is a machine to make sure that the most people get the most of what they want, you break your machine when you try to make it work with this component in it.  So it can be said that Israel is designed to fail, which it is now doing on almost a daily basis, seemingly doing everything it can to make its own continuation impossible.

          • Zero


  • bruce anderson

    Where hoi polloi? Where where where? the most massive influence on societal behavior exempt from this discussion? Inarticulate, maybe…but I assumed that intellectuals would acknowledge the need to hear from the folk.

  • Sincereradical

    What a biased panel.   Where are the leftists?   Joe Klein is one of the biggest frauds we have.   We blacklist guys like Noam Chomsky and Greg Palast but front idiots like these.   ZZZ.

  • Spectator

    Does anyone really think the Republican Party or the Democratic Party are any different than the UAW or any other huge union organisation. The organisation becomes the reason to exist, not the workers or industry. The UAW broke GM: the Democratic and Republican unions have broke the USA.

  • RolloMartins

    I would have thought that someone would have written about the Coffee Party, which is an effort to bring civility into the political discussion. 

  • Elangon5

    Hi Tom, I like Douglas Holtz-Eakin he spoke on your show the other day. President Obama has been speaking often about the Buffett rule. Today he spoke from the White House again about the Buffett rule. A group of men and women stood behind the President. I am not sure but I gather, the men and women on stage with the President support the Buffett rule. Someone should ask are they millionaires or billionaires,and if they are with the President on this issue why they did not speak for themselfs 

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