Rules of Civility

I was just a kid April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in my hometown. My family – mom, dad, my younger brother Robert, and my baby sister Monica – were in the dining room finishing dinner when I rushed in from the TV room to announce the news. Both my parents had grown up in the east, in Brooklyn, but they’d lived in the south long enough to know a thing or two about race relations, and were savvy enough about “the times” to understand King’s assassination would be a momentous event, that it might change everything.

Indeed, for a while, shit hit the fan. I remember National Guard troops and tanks in the streets of Memphis, saw news reports of neighborhoods aflame at home and across the nation, and recall trying to understand what it meant for a “curfew” to be in place: would I really be arrested if I went outside past sundown?

The next school year commenced in August of ’68, after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, in the immediate aftermath of the riots in Chicago related to the Democratic national convention there, and I was sent to a new elementary school.

PDS was private, an affiliate of the 2nd Presbyterian Church, and turned out to be way different from the Memphis City Public School I’d attended from 1st to 3rd grades. For one thing, PDS was all Boys. It was also very White. And very Christian. We had “Chapel” two days a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, where we heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ and learned to sing venerable hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The school mascot  was a Crusader. As a Jew, my coming home singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” created notable dissonance: mom and dad were pleased with my musicality but taken quite aback by the source material.

Never a dedicated follower of rules, from time to time in my PDS days I found myself  having to atone for some breach of protocol or another. Early on, before the swatting of hands with rulers and the paddling of butts with thick wooden paddles featured in the 6th grade experience, coloring outside the lines required the copying of George Washington’s Rules of Civility in longhand, sometimes on paper, sometimes on the chalkboard at the head of the classroom. Sometimes in multiples, if the offense was egregious enough.

I’ll say this about my private school education (about the college preparatory school I went to after PDS as well): it taught me anyone can be a king (or queen); anyone can be a leader; anyone can save the world. But a king or a leader or a savior must understand history, has to understand physics and logic and philosophy; art and science and religion; must understand the interconnectedness of all things and the immutable beauty of all life.

Sadly, we live in a moment when few so-called kings, leaders, and would-be saviors seem to grok that shit.

Last weekend, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, spokesperson and Press Secretary for the current President of the United States, went with a group to dine at a Washington D.C. area eatery, where she was informed by the restaurant’s owner that the staff felt “uncomfortable” serving her and her party. Sanders, in her own words, “politely left” without making a stink about the situation. The Internet, as is its wont, came unglued. For days now people on all sides of the political spectrum have opined on topics ranging from civility to legal and civil rights.

Many on the Left agree the restaurant owner was well within her rights to deny service to Sanders and her group; some, in fact, believe, as the owner herself stated, “there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions.”

Surprisingly, opinion on the Right hews largely to a view of the restaurant’s position as “despicable and outlandish,” rooted in “arrogance and hypocrisy.” I say surprisingly, of course, because many on the Right cheered deliriously when the Supreme Court recently ruled it’s just fine for a baker to refuse baking a wedding cake for a gay customer.

Young denizens of the nation’s capitol employed in the Drumpf administration have also recently been heard to complain about the difficulty of getting dates once the source of their paychecks becomes known. After all, a not-inconsiderable number of people out there believe the President is the second coming of Adolph Hitler, that his ascension to power portends a paranoid, xenophobic, racist intolerance in the body politic, and that, as one person in my Twitter feed put it, “the least you can do is refuse to fuck these people.”

It seems safe to say the U.S. today is a divided nation. The President won office despite having lost the popular vote by a count of some three million; the priorities and beliefs of urban citizens are often diametrically opposed to those of people who live in more rural areas. Polls indicate a strong majority favors stricter regulation of the sale and use of firearms and yet the National Rifle Association and advocates of the primacy of the 2nd Amendment’s “right to bear arms” clause perpetually convince legislators to do nothing. Many Americans believe the greatest existential threat to the country lies in “illegal” immigration, while others see the government’s efforts to meet that threat as immoral and inhumane.

Are things worse now than they’ve ever been? True, the head of the Executive branch routinely refers to the Free Press as “the enemy of the people;” he publicly belittles members of the Legislative branch as “extraordinarily low IQ,” “lyin’,” “low energy,” and “crooked.” A year ago, supporters of the President turned out for a demonstration in Charlottesville, VA with pitchforks and torches; the next day, at a counter-demonstration, a pissed-off dude drove his car into a crowd of people, killing an innocent young woman.

At the turn of the last century though, as American workers organized and protested against the worst excesses of the Industrialist class, people died at the hands of those opposed to organized labor. In the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, anti-war partisans bombed ROTC facilities; soldiers in the National Guard gunned down innocent students on a college campus. As has already been referenced, in 1968 alone, a civil rights leader and a candidate for President were both assassinated, and the mayor of Chicago unleashed his police force on a bloody quest to repel largely peaceful demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War.

On balance, as divided and oppositional as the so-called Left and the so-called Right appear to be today, things are far more civil than they have been at previous times of national division and unrest. Not that that is necessarily a good thing.




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