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Let me recommend my colleague Sam Rosenfeld's whacking of Richard Cohen's absurd civility column. Along with what Sam says, though, let me add something else. I don't actually understand why so many people (who, invariably, seem to work for The Washington Post) don't seem to find it possible to stay on friendly terms with people in the context of vigorous political disagreement. Some people I like very much and socialize with frequently think I'm all wrong about Social Security. So what? I've had many, many, many perfectly pleasant social interactions with people whose political beliefs I think are a bit nutty (and vice-versa).

That's just how life goes. You disagree, you argue, you agree to talk about something else, whatever. Not only is a stupid to think that everyone should change their approach to politics for the sake of DC social life, only some kind of serious misfits would even think it necessary to establish political consensus before everyone can have a pleasant social life. The one thing just doesn't have much to do with the other.

December 23, 2004 | Permalink


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My best professor in college, Beryl Crowe, constantly said "In America political arguments always stop at the point where they really should begin." Putting it another way he also said that we generally begin to fight at the precise moment... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 24, 2004 3:56:55 AM


> That's just how life goes. You disagree,
> you argue, you agree to talk about something
> else, whatever

Even in the Reagan years it was possible to do that. Today, there is an active element on one side of the political spectrum that is working to isolate and destroy anyone that disagrees with it. Norquist's "geld them" quote comes to mind, as do the actions of the Radical Fundamentalists. In fact, the fundies ideology explicitly prohibits "moving on, whatever" as doing so clearly violates various Biblical injunctions as they read them.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 23, 2004 3:58:31 PM

"Let me recommend my colleague Sam Rosenfeld's whacking of Richard Cohen's absurd civility column."

David Broder must be rolling over in his grave.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 23, 2004 4:02:48 PM

> That's just how life goes. You disagree,
> you argue, you agree to talk about something
> else, whatever

That assumes, of course, you have something else to talk about. Perhaps the problem with the folks at the Washington Post is that all they have to talk about is politics.

Posted by: bgn | Dec 23, 2004 4:04:11 PM

From the Broder piece:

When a born contrarian such as Novak says the dissonance in the Capitol building has become so screechy that even he can't stand it, you know things have hit bottom.

I would argue that the current tone in DC can be laid at the feet of Democrats, who didn't get partisan enough when the GOP started moving the goalposts during the impeachment.

Once GOP boosters and operatives found out that they could almost completely change the acceptable paramaters of debate, utterly without conciliatory gestures of their own, and that the Democrats would respond by trying to adapt to these new parameters, the game was up. Any behavioralist will tell you: if you reward screechiness, screechiness ensues.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Dec 23, 2004 4:08:58 PM

Yeah, me and Newt can talk for hours about the weather.

And moms. Pat Robertson -- had a mom. Oliver North -- again, had a mom. David Duke -- another guy with a mom. We're really all the same deep down inside.

Ann Coulter? Not so sure. Michael Savage? I rather doubt it.

More research is needed.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 23, 2004 4:10:05 PM

David Duke -- another guy with a mom. We're really all the same deep down inside...

Ann Coulter? Not so sure.

Trust me; Ann Coulter is just another guy with a mom.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Dec 23, 2004 4:15:37 PM

Cadillac freaken liberals have no passion for politics. Come on, be a man for a change - scream, kick 'em in the balls, spit in their face, pull their guts out. Go, Matthew, go.

Then describe it here and we'll discuss.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 23, 2004 4:15:59 PM

Let's return to a real gentlemen's sport: dueling!

AF-47s at 50 paces!!

Posted by: EG | Dec 23, 2004 4:19:01 PM

Part of it is real-life consequences. When Jim Jeffords did not get his milk price supports, he had to go home to friends he had known for thirty years and tell then they were screwed. No fun.

Part of it is holding people responsible for their beliefs, which may not be fair. And maybe good people can have some evil beliefs or prejudices, or good beliefs with insufficient attention to unintended consequences. Takes a saint to believe all people are of good will. Though they probably are, very few are intentionally evil, by their own standards.

I think about this a lot, since I have hated Republicans for thirty years.
Not on policy so much, as in the deception they use in advancing their agenda. I watched little girls and grown men cry as Nixon boarded the helicopter, saying the best man in the world had been terribly wronged. I'm still seeing the same pernicious bullshit today, they haven't changed.

Will Wilkinson isn't a Republican, but even if he was, I doubt if he would cry over Bush resigning. I don't think he is nutty either.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 23, 2004 4:19:49 PM

I have two friends who are overwhelming republicans.

One of them I can get into an argument for hours with, but end up agreeing to disagree and we are still on good terms.

One of them is so friggin pig headed, ridiculously stubborn, and completely ignorant about facts that at times I literally have to walk away. We are still friends, and I wouldn't even ask anyone for a compromise, but there comes a point when I can't even talk to him for a while. He's a perfect example for the broad Washington Republican establishment.

Posted by: Adrock | Dec 23, 2004 4:37:42 PM

That's the spirit of democracy....to agree to disagree, and yet remain friends personally and united as a country.

It's a concept that George Bush has yet to grasp.

Posted by: Deborah White | Dec 23, 2004 4:52:11 PM

Not only is a stupid to think that everyone should change their approach to politics for the sake of DC social life

Emphasis mine, of course. Once one leaves the beltway, the right-wingers one encounters tend to be the brainwashees, rather than the brainwashers (or sensible, principled conservatives and libertarians you keep assuring us retain a foothold in that rarified habitat). They're a little bit harder to agree to disagree with, because for them rightism is not so much an intellectual position held as a conditioned hatred of your guts.

Ok. To be honest, my "once one leaves the beltway" is a bit dishonest. I don't know that your image of the right is reasonable in your environment, having never run in DC circles. I only know that it's baldly inaccurate in all the circles I have run in and am giving you the benefit of the doubt.

Posted by: some guy | Dec 23, 2004 5:12:15 PM

??? Frankly Matthew, I'm puzzled by the hostility of your response to Cohen. Your view actually seems closer to Cohen's view than Rosenfeld's view.

The issue, I take it, is the connection between political disagreement and their spillover into broader feelings of animosity and tense, testy social interactions between the parties to the diagreement. Cohen contrasts the world of Washington, where it is possible to combine serious political disagreement with George Tenet about his management of the CIA with a pleasant social relationship with the man, with the world he sees "out there" reflected in talk radio and driveby emails from the common man, where political disagreement is connected with anger, incivility, paranoia and outright dislike or even hatred.

But you and Cohen, then, both seem to be saying the same thing: that it is possible to have vigorous political disagreements and arguments with people, and still maintain a generally pleasant social relationship with them. I don't at all see where Cohen argues for anything like the view that "everyone should change their approach to politics for the sake of DC social life."

Rosenfeld, on the other hand, seems to agree that there is a rising level of general social animosity between political opponents in Washington, but accepts that this is a natural consequence of the depth of the disagreements among people who "take current developments in American politics seriously", and also blames Republicans for being the main offenders in spreading intolerance.

Rationally, I suppose I should be glad that there are places like Washington where disagreement coexists with civility, so that disagreements can be resolved in a constructive manner. But from my outside-the-beltway perspective, I am suspicious of too much friendliness. For example, when I watch a baseball game, and I notice the shortstop and the man on second base chatting it up and laughing after a close play, I wonder wheether the runner really did all he could to break up a double play. I wonder whether that degree of fraternization and collegiality can really coexist with the level of hostility needed to take a man out at second without regard to the possibility of injuring him.

You're a journalist, not a politician. And it is perhaps no problem for you to disagree with a friend, and vigorously advocate a contrary position in print. But I am suspicious when I see the people who are supposed to be on my side, particularly the politicians, enjoying extremely friendly relations with those on the other side. How can one, for example, fight tooth and nail to undermine the policies pursued by a friend, if one is at the same time thinking about the possibility that doing so may cost that friend his job, or leadership position, and cause grief to his spouse, mother and children?

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 23, 2004 5:15:39 PM

Honestly, I just think Broder and Cohen are upset that they've moved from big men about town to ageing cranks, and they need something to blame. Ah, it's not them, or their colleagues...nope! It's those pesky partisan politicians! Why can they just get along and pour me some more bourbon...mmmm...bourbon...

Posted by: Atrios | Dec 23, 2004 6:04:04 PM

Civility is overrated. Things should be as polite and professional as any negotiation, but I expect my representative to be more worried about protecting my interests than about hurting his opponent's feelings (or even his opponent's mother's feelings if his opponent happens to have one).

On the other hand, I think Cohen might be on to something with the bourbon comment. Could it be that the whole federal government, and not just Dubya, is suffering from Dry Drunk Syndrome?

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Dec 23, 2004 6:31:25 PM

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.
- Mahatma Gandhi

Posted by: jozef Imrich | Dec 23, 2004 10:11:42 PM

So Matt, you and Hitler and Mao and Stalin could have just had a grand old time at tea, huh? "Gee Adolph, your Jewish solution has me a lil' queasy, pass the sugar please. Ya know Mao, there's gotta be a better way than starving 30 million people, how about a movie Saturday? And Josef, how about a lil' thicker skin about the internal dissent, Siberia is a bitch in January! Hey, let's do lunch Tuesday, OK?" Yeah, political differences are nothing to ostracize potential over friends, right?

Posted by: steve duncan | Dec 23, 2004 10:41:11 PM

People are dying every day in Iraq. Gutting Social Security could throw many out onto the streets. Maybe if the stakes in Bush's many gambles weren't so fucking high a couple laughs over Pimms and watercress sandwiches would be a whole lot easier.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 23, 2004 11:19:34 PM

Maybe Cohen is just wound up because a lot of pissed-off bird watchers think he's the Anti-Christ.

Civility, indeed. Tell it to Pale Male!

Posted by: Serge | Dec 24, 2004 2:47:56 AM

Things were much more pleasent when Democrats had uncontested control of Congress. We were gracious in victory and the Republicans had to maintain minimal decency to get anything done.

The Republicans got control by creating a hate machine and things will continue to deteriorate until they are defeated, in part, because of their hate machine.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Dec 24, 2004 8:45:49 AM

"There are some people one should wish to offend." - John Cleese

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 24, 2004 10:25:38 AM

Matt, Washington, DC is where white papers start wars. Oxen are gored. People are accused of murder and worse in political discourse. Some participants have a hard time leaving this behind after work. Why should they?

Because our kindness and socializing do what our politics just talk of doing: increase happiness.

Posted by: epistemology | Dec 24, 2004 12:59:43 PM

Steve Duncan:

If I got my hands on Stalin, Mao, Hitler I would treat them as the enemies of peace they are. But I would be civil, not barbaric, while doing it, being guided by my own humanity, not their inhumanity.

Peace on earth.

Posted by: epistemology | Dec 24, 2004 1:10:06 PM

Alice Marshall nails it above:

"Things were much more pleasent when Democrats had uncontested control of Congress. We were gracious in victory and the Republicans had to maintain minimal decency to get anything done.

The Republicans got control by creating a hate machine and things will continue to deteriorate until they are defeated, in part, because of their hate machine."

I'll add that it's possible to have vigorous disagreements with people, yet continue to respect them (a necessary prerequisite for genuine friendship, IMHO), only if one's opponent debates with honesty, and doesn't try to win via character assassination. Today's GOP is 0-for-2 here. No amount of bourbon will fix this.

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