Civility Is More Than Symbolism

American politics has never been a polite parlor game. The level of civility once was low enough to result in a civil war, and American political conflict at times has been reduced to violence. Nevertheless, the horrific events in Tucson have provided a shock to the political process and it appears as if we may be taking a step or two back from the edge of the cliff.

The political ice age began to thaw with President Obama's warm, generous and moving speech at the memorial service in Tucson. The president rose to the occasion with his emotional depiction of Congresswoman Giffords' life and of the other lives lost, saved and forever altered. He transcended his partisan role as head of the American government and assumed the role of head of the American nation. His words were praised by political supporters and opponents alike, who appeared grateful for his reassuring and heartfelt communication.

There is something about our political life these past few months that seems almost dream like, or at least cinematic. It opens with the "shellacking' that Obama took at the midterm election. The scene moves rapidly to his "comeback" with the most successful lame duck session of Congress in recent memory, if not history. Then it shifts to those frightening moments outside the Safeway in Arizona. Next we see the president moving the live and television audiences to tears when he says:

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed... I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles."

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

The president, like many of the rest of us, can't help but see our own daughters' eyes in those photos of Christina. Suddenly, we feel a little ashamed that our focus on political gamesmanship may have distracted us from more important values. Like being a role model for our children. Or making sure that the world we have made for them is safe and secure. And so we look for gestures to reassure ourselves and our families that the American civil society can in fact be civil. Ironically, the dictionary definition of civil refers first to the state and its citizens and secondly to courtesy and politeness. The double meaning of civil couldn't be more relevant than it is today.

And now the scene moves to the president's State of the Union Address. Some of our more astute legislators are recognizing that the traditional hyper-partisan pep rally would be wildly inappropriate in the aftermath of a massacre of six Americans simply exercising their democratic rights. Some, like Senator Mark Udall, have decided to sit with their political opponents and dial back the rhetoric a bit. It seems like a natural thing to do while a respected colleague faces the daunting challenge of recovery from an assassin's bullet.

In a recent NY Times piece Jennifer Steinhauer and Carl Hulse reported that:

"The idea of mixing and mingling was originally advocated by the centrist group Third Way after the Tucson shooting that left Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat from Arizona, critically wounded and spurred calls for a more civilized political discourse. Mr. Udall quickly embraced it as a way for lawmakers to create new signs of civility visible to the public. It would be a stark contrast from previous years when the two sides of the aisle appeared to be listening to different speeches from different presidents, with Republicans leaping to their feet at the mention of tax cuts, for example, and Democrats embracing pledges of support for social programs..."

Not everyone, though, is feeling the vibe. "I already believe very firmly that it is a trap and a ruse that Democrats are proposing," Representative Paul Broun, a conservative Republican from Georgia, said in a radio interview. Other Republicans have also scoffed at the idea as childish and irrelevant, calling it an effort to muzzle Republicans and prevent them from expressing reservations about Mr. Obama's speech."

I guess some folks didn't get the memo. It is clear that there are sharp policy differences among people throughout America, but as the president correctly observed, Americans have a great deal in common as well. This desire for freedom, community and safety for our families is not limited to America, but it is well understood here. Moreover, we all have an interest in ensuring that policy differences are discussed and addressed without violence. The effort to vilify your opponent and delegitimize their perspective is dangerous to everyone.

Gestures of friendship and appeals to our common humanity and patriotism are not simply silly symbols, but meaningful indicators of a tolerant and mature civil society. When New Yorkers give up their subway seat to someone frail, pregnant, or in need, we don't check to see if they share our political views. We simply wish to demonstrate our commitment to a compassionate community: what George H.W. Bush once referred to as a "kinder, gentler nation." It is good to see our national legislators sitting together, sharing a laugh with their political opponents. I think that this is what President Obama meant when he said he wanted our democracy to be good as the one that Christina Taylor Green expected; that can serve as a role model to our children. A civil political discourse is more than symbolism. It is a goal worth working for.