"… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind…"
-- Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence.
"Like the Founders, the Conservative also recognizes… rules of cooperation that have developed through generations of human experience and collective reasoning that promote the betterment of the individual and society. This is characterized as ordered liberty, the social contract, or the civil society…. The individual in the civil society strives, albeit imperfectly, to be virtuous -- that is, restrained, ethical, and honorable…. In the civil society, the individual has a duty to respect the unalienable rights of others and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next, that establish society's cultural identity."
-- Mark Levin, Liberty and Tyranny.
Item: When Henry Louis Gates had his conniption fit a few weeks ago, most conservatives rightly sided with the policeman. Granted, the policeman perhaps ought to have ignored Gates' rantings and walked away, but to take Gates into custody certainly was not entirely unwarranted and clearly wasn't stupid. It is not unreasonable to expect that there will be a price to be paid for disturbing the peace -- even if no neighbor's rights or expected privileges in a civil society were directly abridged.
Item: If a city council somewhere, or a school board, has a public comment period marred by repeated shouting interruptions so that the rest of the audience can't hear and the board or council can't conduct the meeting (I've seen this happen a fair amount of times), and the interrupter just won't calm down after repeated requests, most conservatives would applaud if security gently but firmly escorted the troublemaker out of the hall.
Item: Again and again, conservatives rightly complain when their speakers at college campuses are shouted down by rowdy radicals. So obnoxious are these rowdies that plenty of conservative organizations use instances such as these as fodder for their fundraising appeals. It is a profoundly unconservative thing to not just deprive the speaker the right to be heard, but to deny the other audience members the right to listen. It fails to abide by Jefferson's decent respect to the opinions of mankind, and fails to uphold Levin's civil society.
Item: At the town meeting Tuesday night held by Virginia's U.S. Rep. James Moran, D-PMA (Paul Mangliochetti and Associates) -- along with special guest Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and world-class crazy screamer -- the behavior of all sides was appalling. The left clearly was organized through some serious Astroturf work, and they obviously outnumbered conservatives in the gymnasium (perhaps 70-30). There is something obnoxious and robotic about the way they operate. They all clearly have marching orders. They get their pre-made signs from young women in absurdly tight-fitting tops, and most of them are in their pre-fab pro-Obamacare shirts, and they chant and applaud on cue. The one thing they don't do, at least not inside the hall, is try to drown out the speaker -- but then again, Messrs. Moran and Dean are their speakers. Their nationalizing, legislation-distorting, liberty-destroying speakers.
Even in a reliably liberal district, though, it was a poor reflection on conservative organizations, especially so close to D.C. where cable networks were sure to cover the event, that conservatives were so badly outnumbered and out-organized. Where were all the D.C.-headquartered national "grassroots" groups? What was the Republican Party of Virginia doing? Where were the area College Republicans? Conservatives need not be regimented into blue-shirt cadres for there to be some sort of phone-banking or e-mail efforts to get them out to such an important event.
On the other hand, what the conservatives lacked in numbers, many of them made up in sheer rudeness. I even heard one very thoughtful-sounding caller to Rush Limbaugh the next day boasting about how at one point they had effectively shouted down Howard Dean so he couldn't speak -- and she clearly was proud of herself. What she doesn't realize is that she wasn't merely infringing on speech rights of a wild-eyed former political candidate; she was infringing on the rights of everybody else who actually was at the event to listen and try to learn. And there were indeed a number of such people. They were turned off by the rudeness. The rudeness hurt, not helped, the conservatives' cause. I was there; I saw it; I saw the looks on the faces of people who clearly were not partisans or ideologues.
There is a time and place for venting. A town hall meeting is definitely one of those times. Nothing is wrong with loudly expressing displeasure. Nothing is wrong with giving a little hell to mendacious politicians. But a little hell can go a long way in rattling the pols enough that they make fools of themselves. Too much hell, on the other hand, makes the hellions look bad. More importantly: Just as conservatives did not abide Henry Louis Gates, and will not abide those who break up city council meetings, and will not countenance student radicals who shout down conservative speakers, so too should we not denigrate this great republic by failing (as per Mark Levin) to "respect the unalienable rights of others and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next, that establish society's cultural identity."
Item: At the same town hall meeting, Moran was an embarrassment. He didn't know what he was talking about. He read off Democratic Committee-sponsored slides like ones Obama supporters were emailed weeks ago. He disingenuously said, or read, for instance, that abortions would not be "mandated" by Obamacare, ignoring the entire point that the issue isn't mandates; the issue is whether government money (coerced from taxpayers or fee-payers) will be used to pay for abortions. Among many others, Factcheck.org and the Associated Press, neither of them a conservative organ by any means, both agree that Obamacare uses federal funds to pay for abortions. This is important. Pro-life or pro-choice, the broad middle of the American public consistently has agreed for three decades that allowing abortion is one thing, but using government's power to make people finance abortions for others is completely beyond the pale.
The abortion distortion was one of many examples of Moran just being dead wrong on substance. Worse than that, he hid behind Dean's skirts. Again and again, when his own constituents asked him questions, he let Dean answer for him. It was offensive. But it was par for the course: So many of our congressmen (of both parties) these days aren't really "legislators" in the sense that they don't see their main duty as crafting good legislation; instead, they are favor distributors, pork procurers, party automatons, and constant campaign fund-raisers. They don't read the bills they pass, and don't think it is important to give the public time to read them, because they don't really care if they get the bills right; that's what bureaucracies are for: to clean up their lawmaking messes by issuing regulations that make sense out of laws cobbled together hodgepodge by staffs working with language provided by outside interests.
This is not how republican government is supposed to operate.
The meeting's greatest moment came when Dean, again answering for Moran, responded to a question about lawsuit reform's absence from Obamacare by saying that "The reason that tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everybody else they were taking on, and that is the plain and simple truth." Then Moran emerged to pronounce both the question and the answer "very good."
In short, they both admitted that their plaintiffs' attorney masters kept them from including reforms that actually could keep costs down and expand access to care. It was eerily reminiscent of when Moran told a Washington Examiner editorial meeting that he couldn't really defend the "card check" bill (depriving workers the right to a secret ballot in union organizing elections) because he couldn't afford to anger the union bosses or Nancy Pelosi. Hey, at least the man is candid about his motives. But it is political hackery such as this that makes conservatives rightly so angry that they wrongly deny speech and listening rights to others. But if we behave like radical liberals, what exactly have we conserved?
Item: One of the only good things about Ted Kennedy is that he truly was a legislator in the right sense of the word, meaning that he actually learned and took time crafting the details of most legislation. Jim Moran is one of many who should learn from Kennedy's example in that one regard. On the other hand, Kennedy did more than probably any other human being to poison this nation's level of political discourse. It wasn't just his obscene attack on Robert Bork; it was vicious speech after nasty attack after character-assassinating interview -- about numerous judicial nominees, about President George W. Bush, even about Supreme Court nominee David Souter. Conservatives would not do well to sink to Kennedy's level of public maliciousness toward his adversaries.
Item: So much in American culture has become so crass. People walk through airports in sheer, pajama-like outfits. People casually throw around F-bombs in the course of ordinary conversations at work. Our children are sexualized outrageously, often with parental approval. Prime-time TV is so raunchy that the admirable Parents Television Council never lacks for material to complain about. And so on, ad infinitum. Yet conservatives seem to complain only when our own oxen are gored. If a show like South Park, with extremely offensive language and gratuitous sexual and anti-religious messages, can spark an entire faddish movement called "South Park Conservatives" that is applauded even by Cornerites at National Review, then conservatives are no longer conserving our culture or a society that is civil. If a conservative criticizes Henry Louis Gates but then acts even worse than Gates did, that conservative is turning people off rather than attracting them to our cause.
The nihilistic tactics of the student radicals, the Alinskyites, and the ACORN agitators are never ennobling.
Conservatives must not fall into the equivalent of the reputed old Army absurdity that one must "destroy the village in order to save it." We cannot destroy our culture, especially our political culture, in order to save it. We cannot save free speech by abusing it. And we cannot uphold civil society through incivility.