Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The loss of civility as a Christian concern

I was just re-reading an absolutely wonderful article by Russell Baker about the lost art of conversation. He quotes a number of colorfully adroit political insults from the 19th century ("with a few more brains he could be a halfwit"), comparing them to "poor Dick Cheney's" inability to come up with anything but the Anglo-Saxon expletive when he wanted to disrespect someone. (Isn't "disrespect" a splendid neologism?) . Then Russell Baker swears that "only fifty years ago" he heard with his own ears these words uttered by Senator Everett Dirksen, foretelling the death of an opponent's bill: "It will have all the impact of a gentle snowflake falling on the broad bosom of the Potomac." They don't make 'em like that any more.

What is happening to us? These reflections are occasioned by the news that the mild, kind, devoutly Christian civil rights hero John Lewis was called a "nigger" by the Tea Party protesters (and Barney Frank was called "faggot"). The sheer nastiness, meanness, pettiness, and stupidity of the rhetoric we hear on the airwaves (I'm ignoring cyberspace for the moment--it seems hopeless to try to change that) has profoundly affected American society. Isn't this an issue for the Christian churches? It should strike us to the heart that so many churches with minority congregations have tried for so long to maintain habits of decorum in order to instill standards of courtesy among their young people. In black churches in the South, elegant language (based often on the King James Version) was prized and imitated. To this day this can still be recognized, occasionally, on the streets of New York when a black laborer addresses a woman in a church hat with a twinkle and a turn of phrase. As a hat-wearer, I can speak warmly of the joy this brings me.

One of the new books about the 2008 Presidential campaign discloses that John McCain directed thirteen angry sentences at his wife Cindy in public, in which he used the f-word twelve times. Is this what we want in our public servants? (At least Joe Biden was using the word affectionately this morning, at the signing of the health care bill. But please! Joe! watch the open mike!)

The Russell Baker article was in the May 11, 2006 issue of The New York Review of Books, but you have to subscribe to read it.