Practicing civility means never having to say you’re sorry. It mostly involves learning to speak in a civil manner, never using words that might cause anger or tears or indigestion. This takes time and effort and — the hard-to-learn part — an abiding belief that all ideas are equally meaningless. It’s tricky, but once mastered, the art of civil speech pre-empts the possibility of a rancorous response to one’s words. In fact, it is safe to say that civil speech is the next safest thing to no speech.
Last night Barack Obama again showed us why he’s the reigning champion of civil speech, the man who comes closest to saying nothing at all, but with great style, so that political writers are stirred to describe him as setting the stage for a clash of ideals.
Republicans at the State of the Union address, no doubt eager to scowl and sit on their hands, instead found themselves politely applauding, often rising to their feet to do so. How could anyone not clap for a man offering tribute to those wounded in the Tucson shooting spree? How could they be tempted to shout “You lie!” at a man invoking nostalgia for the space race, reminding them that “We do big things” and, of course, repeatedly urging them to applaud our brave men and women in uniform?
It’s a testament to Obama’s brilliance that he didn’t address the need for more effective gun control, or explain how the Afghanistan situation is improving, or why ever-growing corporate profits at the expense of American workers is a good thing. And I loved the way he skillfully avoided addressing the millions of Americans who’ve lost or are losing their jobs and benefits and houses during a recession that shows no real sign of going away. And ignored the question of whether a recovery made possible by the outsourcing of jobs to other countries is really a recovery.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The man is a genius. The only way he could top this next year would be to simply declare the state of the union peachy, include some special effects by the tech crew and proceed directly to glad-handing with the Republicans who, apparently, have intimidated him to the point where he can only tell fairy tales (with much help from the mainstream press). He’s like an extremely civil Wizard of Oz, but with an army of ushers to make sure the common folk don’t peek behind the curtain.