Civility and compromise: what Jon Stewart said

I’ve been enjoying several very funny clips from last weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear at Comedy Central’s website. But what I found most striking, as I’m sure many others did, was Jon Stewart’s unexpectedly stirring “Moment of Sincerity” at the end of the event:

We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. But the truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day.

The only place we don’t is here [pointing at the Capitol] or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.

Stewart then goes on to say that most of us don’t conduct ourselves purely according to our political ideologies. Instead, we live our lives more mundanely, as “people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do”; and we accomplish “impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little reasonable compromises we all make.” As an example, he points to a video of a sea of cars, slowly merging into orderly lines in order to enter the Lincoln Tunnel:

[T]his is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear — often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers. And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, thirty-foot-wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river — carved by people, by the way, who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go.

It’s a very humble, mundane, workaday instance of the ways we compromise to help everyone get through the daily grind. Yet, by the same token, it’s also a brilliant example, which illustrates what I think is a profound point: As naïve as this inevitably sounds, a pluralistic society such as ours only works when people’s cherished ideals and convictions — as important as they are — aren’t set above the overriding need to get along.

And it’s no accident that the Lincoln Tunnel, which facilitates the conveyance of all these travelers with all their conflicting beliefs, was a government project funded by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. I don’t know if Stewart intended it, but it’s the perfect metaphor for what American government should be: not a means to enforce or favor the beliefs of any one subset of Americans over all others, but a civic infrastructure that benefits everyone — that enables us to move and coexist alongside each other, sharing the road, on our way to a million different destinations.

In a fascinating article for The National Review that explores the role of religion in public life, Damon Linker elaborates on the liberal notion of America as a “centerless society” — and how, in such a society, government’s role shouldn’t be to dictate “the highest good” but rather to arrange, as much as possible, for people to peaceably pursue their individual visions of virtue and happiness as they see fit:

Perhaps the most famous example of this liberal orientation can be found in the Declaration of Independence and its ringing invocation of a natural right of individuals to pursue happiness. The document’s silence about the content of happiness and about what actions or ways-of-life are conducive to happiness would have been unthinkable in earlier forms of political thinking. But for a political liberal like Thomas Jefferson, the silence was an unavoidable outgrowth of the lack of a sufficient consensus regarding humanity’s highest ends. Where such a consensus is lacking, it is foolish to expect more from politics—to expect the state to articulate and enforce a single, comprehensive notion of the highest good. Far from restoring the sense of spontaneous unity and shared meaning we like to see in pre-liberal forms of political life, such efforts would inevitably end up using state power to impose the values and beliefs of one part of a deeply divided community on its other parts. […]

It is in the United States, with its large population, vast size, highly dynamic capitalist economy, and ethnically heterogeneous population united by little besides the liberal creed classically expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that centerlessness has been taken to its greatest extreme, creating a society with no single center and no part that can claim unchallenged supremacy over the country as a whole.

In such a divided society, how is anything to be accomplished? Through compromise, as Stewart noted. It’s a shame that compromise seems to have become a dirty word in today’s political culture; if Democrats are trounced at the polls this Tuesday, as seems likely, it will be in no small part due to the lack of support from disgruntled progressives, who feel that the Dems have compromised away too many of their ideals: passing the health care bill without the public option, failing to immediately repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and so on. And certainly the intransigence of the Republican Party hasn’t helped, but this just demonstrates the point: the unwillingness to compromise is what causes the government to seize up in gridlock. Why on earth the American people would choose to punish the compromisers and reward the stubborn naysayers is beyond me.

Compromise and incremental change have always been how things got done. Many of the social and political benefits we take for granted today — Social Security, civil rights laws, the universal right to vote — were not waved into existence in their current form by a single act of political revolution, but by piecemeal reform, borne of years and decades of patient struggle. Compromise is at the heart of the founding of the nation itself: Jefferson famously deleted an anti-slavery clause from the Declaration of Independence, removing a point of contention that would have prevented the Southern delegates from signing it. In the musical 1776, Benjamin Franklin furiously upbraids John Adams for campaigning for abolition so single-mindedly that he risks alienating the South and sinking hopes for independence:

These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about; they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like it or not, they and the people they represent will be part of this new nation you hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home!

The point seems clear: Compromise can be painful — indeed exceedingly painful, as we may be asked to give up, or at least delay for the time being, even such fundamentals as our demand for the recognition of the rights and humanity of others. Or rather: compromise requires not that we give up our just demands, but that our leaders, representing many different beliefs and working toward many different priorities, find a way to reconcile their differences and move the country forward — however slowly and imperfectly — as a whole. That he represents the entirety of this bickering nation is something that President Obama understood and made clear, even as far back as his victory speech on Election Night, two years ago:

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House — a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, “We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn — I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

Of course, compromise only works when all parties at the table are willing to engage. And I fear that tomorrow’s elections will sweep into power a new crop of politicians all too eager to impose their own vision of “the highest good,” and unwilling to consider other views — unwilling, for example, even to accept the facts about climate change in spite of overwhelming evidence, which does not bode well for the kinds of decisions they might make on environmental issues that impact not just Americans but everyone on the planet. I can only hope that, just as conservatives’ fears about Obama being a secret Marxist or socialist have proven unfounded, perhaps some of my knee-jerk fears about the imminent Republican majority will prove unjustified as well.

I’ll continue to advocate for progressive causes, of course; and I’ll continue to vote my convictions at the polls, whether political victory or failure is in the cards. But in the spirit of Jon Stewart’s rally I’ll also try to remember that, in the real world, I get along with people of wildly different beliefs all the time. This Thanksgiving we’re attending a small family reunion in Ohio, hosted by an uncle — a staunch conservative and Tea Party enthusiast — who, I hear, has just finished laying down some new carpeting in his home, to make it more presentable and welcoming to his far-flung relatives: moderate Democrats from California, devout Christians from Michigan, progressive atheists from New York. We’ll spar a little over politics and religion, no doubt. But we’ll also exchange some early Christmas gifts, play some Beatles Rock Band, and try to catch a screening of the latest Harry Potter. We’ll eat, and shop, and argue, and laugh, and enjoy each other’s company. And life goes on. Together.


Update: And, yes, I also recognize the validity of this:

The truth is that the sanity of the majority of the American people — kind of like, at the risk of sounding trite, the courage and brains and heart of the travelers in “The Wizard of Oz” — never had to be restored. It has been there all along. What was lacking was the passion and the commitment and the energy to make sane ideas happen in the face of fear and opposition. Unfortunately, nothing much happened this weekend to move that ball forward, either tomorrow or in what will likely be an ugly aftermath.

Obviously, claiming “sanity” while remaining above the fray is ineffective, and is simply begging for defeat; but I don’t think that’s Stewart’s intent. Clearly, we must argue for our principles and ideals with passion and courage, and attempt to persuade others, and VOTE. But if we can do so without demonizing the other side (no matter how much we ourselves get demonized); and if we can recognize that change is always harder and slower than it seems, and not get discouraged from participating in the democratic process; and if we can engage in fierce debate while remembering that our political opponents are fellow citizens and human beings, not mortal enemies; if we can commit, in short, to engage others in brave yet civil conversation — then, I think, we’re doing something close to what Stewart is calling for.

And if the Radical Right refuses to extend us the same courtesy? No matter. Since when do we let our opponents define who we are or how we should conduct ourselves? Civility has to start somewhere, and it might as well start here: with us. With me.


Update 2: I’ve just realized that Stewart’s ideas are very similar to Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be A Dick” argument — aimed at strident atheists, and causing similar debates in the skeptical community. I highly recommend the video, as well as Plait’s comments afterwards, clarifying that he certainly did not mean giving up arguing with anger, strength, or passion. It seems obvious to me that Stewart is making the same case.

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