Remember What Civility Was? A Book to Remind Us

In a dream world where the shouting stopped, where of course Americans argued with each other, but where we all assumed that we were all in this together, that we all wanted a better America, that it was about building community and treating each other with decency and respect, what would our discourse sound like?

I am happy to report that I can point to an example of what America could be about if sanity prevailed. People who have read my books about my life over the past 20 years know that I have a friend in left-wing Santa Monica, California, named Frank Gruber, an old-fashioned "jobs, housing, education and the environment liberal." Back in the days before I left the Republican Party (or it left me), Frank and I used to argue a lot about politics, but it never became personal. We both knew that we wanted the best for each other, for our families, for our communities, for the country and for the world -- we only disagreed about how this might best come about.

Ever since I knew him, starting around 1990, Frank was involved in local politics, which in Santa Monica -- sometimes called the Peoples Republic of Santa Monica -- is taken seriously. Frank likes to say that he went from citizen activist to public pariah in seven years. That was the time it took him to go from being a resident working on plans to redevelop Santa Monica's civic center, to being voted onto the Planning Commission, to being voted off the commission when he opposed the winning slate in a City Council election.

But the end result was good, because after losing his seat on the commission, and just before the 2000 election, Frank started to write a weekly column for a new website that had been founded to cover local news in Santa Monica. The column was to be about local life and politics, and it was, but it grew into something much more. A collection of columns from the years 2000 to 2004 has now been published as a book-- Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal. I recommend this book to all who enjoy a good read. It's a great example of a better way to communicate ideas than all the irrational screaming and yelling that passes for "debate" in America today.

Urban Worrier is an extraordinary book about an ordinary life as lived in extraordinary times. How I wish voices like Gruber's were the voices of politics and argument we were hearing on cable TV! Excerpts taken out of context don't do the book justice, but here are a few.

As I said, Frank is "of the Left," and he opposed the invasion of Iraq. But in February 2003, when the Santa Monica City Council passed a resolution opposing the war without knowing the meaning of text of the resolution, Frank went after the Left:

A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a speech the playwright Tony Kushner gave at an anti-war rally. Much of the speech consisted of calling George W. Bush names and equating the possible war in Iraq with the aggressions of Hitler and Mussolini. Here's a sample quote: "Most people, when they hear 'This Fratboy Plutocrat Blood-Grizzled schmuck of an inarticulate Rancher from Crawford Texas' say WAR WAR WAR, have a better idea, an answer, and now, all over the world, people are making sure that Bush, even Bush, hears their idea. And their idea, OUR idea, our answer to his WAR WAR WAR is PEACE PEACE PEACE."

What's the purpose of this kind of rhetoric? (And if I had a dollar for every useless "how stupid is Bush" joke I get by email I'd be rich enough to appreciate Bush's good points.)

Frank's writing about this left-wing version of today's "tea parties" , "deathers" and "birthers" -- written while imploring liberals to get their act together so that they can win elections again -- almost feels like way back in 2003 he was wishing the presidency of Barack Obama into existence. But most of the book is not about national politics. It's about life in an American place, and works on several levels.

One level is local politics and policy -- the kinds of issues and personalities that anyone who lives anywhere will relate to. Here is Frank writing about homelessness, which is a big issue in Santa Monica:

I'm cynical, too, about the political rant from the Left. This is not about capitalism. As mean spirited as some business people are, they are not upset about poor people, they are upset about people who have diseases -- alcoholism, addiction, mental illness. Perhaps this is just as bad, or even worse, depending if you think there is a moral difference between poverty and illness, but class struggle has as much to do with it as it would with an outbreak of leprosy.

I'm cynical about no-growthers and NIMBYs who whine about the crisis in affordable housing when over the years they have done their best to stop the building of apartments all over the Westside, including in Santa Monica.

I'm even cynical about the homeless themselves and their apologists, or at least some of them who testified Tuesday night, who seem to think that being drunk excuses being disorderly.

Mostly I'm cynical about all of us who don't like looking at the homeless but who won't face up to the price of making a dent in the problem. No one wants to pay the taxes necessary for a mental health system that might be able to deal with people deranged or sick enough to spend their lives dying in our streets. Instead we want to make sleeping on the street criminal without even providing enough beds for these potential criminals to "flop" in.

If people were slowly dying in our streets of cancer, wouldn't we do something about it? Problems seem intractable because people try to solve them using means that conform to their own preconceptions, as grist for their conceptual mills. If everyone tried to look at intractable problems from different perspectives, perhaps these problems would not be intractable.

Frank is a local, thinking person writing about his place in the world. Here is something that Frank wrote after 9/11 that I find eerily prophetic:

We Americans have, in fact, already started fighting back: The passengers in the fourth jet, when they learned what was at stake, did not hesitate to join the terrorists in battle-and win. . . .

I hope we are as smart as we are tough. I have a fantasy that the U.S. will obtain and show the Taliban convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden is guilty, and that the Taliban will give him up to our justice system. Think what a triumph it would be to show that we can give our sworn enemy a fair trial.

I know that is a fantasy, and an unlikely one. We rightly characterize these atrocities as acts of war. We will not limit ourselves to judicial process.

I accept that, but as I look out over the Pacific, trying to calm my emotions, I see peace for half the globe, notwithstanding that other "day of infamy" sixty years ago. In a vast sea that recently saw vast strife, ships, and planes carry trade and tourists and the hope of mutual understanding.

But I also think of Vietnam, where we lost a war because we did not understand what the other side was fighting for.

I recommend reading Frank's book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, because it shows what the world would be like if facts, compassion and common sense ruled. It's also a great read. Urban Worrier won't be reviewed by the Times, nor will it be a brick in some culture war barricade. But it's an example of what America could be all about if we could just scale back the hate and talk to each other.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).