Excessive civility can turn into complicity

Are we expected to be civil to any and all who in one form or another rule our lives, spiritually, politically or economically? Even when they show themselves immersed in corruption; or when we see them walking knee-deep in blood with little concern for human life?

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Manners… a contrivance of wise men to keep fools at a distance,” the wise men he probably had in mind were simply people in power, the fools being the rest of us: the powerless. Which brings up the question: is civility the standard by which we measure progress, civilization… in individuals or in nations? Not civility in the way we treat our neighbors, but those holding the reins of power.

These last few days since the death of former president Gerald Ford has brought this topic front and center for me. Civility towards those who are supposed to be serving us, elected or appointed seems to have been mandated as the indispensable ingredient above everything else: reason, compassion, even truth. And the higher the office held by the politician, or administrator, the greater the demand for such courteous behavior, politeness and deference; reaching its pinnacle with our monarchical POTUS (President of the United States), concurrently designated as the “Leader of the Free World.”

Institutionally we may claim to be a republic, but operationally we have been marching away from our democratic ways into an autocratic form of government reminiscent of Europe of old; ironically, as those nations across the Atlantic were adopting the more egalitarian and democratic style we were once so proud of. Pomp and ceremony has definitely crossed the pond westward, establishing permanent residence on these shores as if in celebration of that ever-increasing chasm between those effortlessly floating in wealth and power, and those hopelessly drowning in poverty and impotency.

We will soon be finishing the grieving period for the death of Gerald Ford, the only “selected” president the nation has had; well, at least through the twentieth century. A gracious and well-liked individual, in and out of politics, he has been eulogized in the past few days as representing, perhaps more than any other politician before or since, the strict moral and ethical code that we refer to as integrity. At Mr. Ford’s departure, for the benefit of the last two generations, he was reintroduced to Americans as the man who healed the wounds left by Nixon and his Waterloo (Watergate); a man of honor; a man of integrity. Civility runneth over from all quarters for this Thirty-eighth President of the United States. And perhaps this is one time civility should not be challenged.

As much as I was carried by the moment, the death of a good man, I was also getting uneasy, or maybe sad, at our lack of challenge to those who hold our future and our fate. For Gerald Ford, as honorable as he may have been as a human being and a member of the House of Representatives, as a president and former president, some will consider him a failure. Although I dread this confession, count me among them.

For starters, pardoning Nixon was really more an act of friendship than of national unity. In fact, there was no healing at all, Ford’s later election loss attesting to that; and, had Nixon been allowed to face the music, the nation might have grown civically seeing the workings of democracy, and the application of the most basic rule of all: that each and every individual in the nation, no matter what his social or political station, must abide by the same rules of law. Had Nixon been put to trial – even if later granted a pardon – presidential successors might not have been so reckless with their actions. And we could have avoided Iran-Contra and other illegal entanglements – including the fiasco we’re living in Iraq. Mr. Bush is unlikely to have acted with such recklessness.

And it was also friendship, this time for Indonesian leader, President Suharto that did provide America’s tacit consent to the invasion of East Timor in 1975; resulting in the decimation of that former Portuguese colony’s population – well over 100,000 dead as a direct result of the conflict, and a comparable number tallied in the next quarter century of occupation. This was a very sad outcome for a very poor Ford decision made under the counsel of Dr. Henry Kissinger, the macabre seer and overseer of American foreign policy since Vietnam days.

Perhaps, where I feel Ford failed as both a man of wisdom and conscience was in his silence just prior to the Iraq invasion, feeling the way he did about both the invasion of Iraq and the planners to such abominable undertaking. Where Jimmy Carter showed courage denouncing what Bush was about to do in launching a war of choice, Mr. Ford kept his feelings to himself, frittering away the opportunity to prove both the integrity and compassion that we so readily give him credit for.

It might be wise to skimp on civility for the sake of civility itself, particularly when we feel it is undeserved. When civility extends beyond a nominal level of courtesy and respect, it will become at best servility and at worst complicity, neither of which should be considered an acceptable condition for an individual or a nation claiming to be free.

No, we shouldn’t be expected to bow or genuflect as we enter the Capitol or the White House… nor should we stop challenging those who in a democracy are expected to act prudently and wisely on our behalf. Respect both laws and decisions coming out of those two places that merit such respect, but be frugal dispensing honors to the offices themselves. Civility, yes, but only as long as it doesn’t become sheer complicity to the personal objectives of those who govern.