I want to say something about civility in American politics. First, though, what might seem like a detour.
A group of young people in Gaza recently posted a remarkable manifesto titled "Gaza Youth Break Out" ("GYBO"). (See also here for more recent developments.) The English translation of the document begins:
Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference.... [W]e are like lice between two nails living a nightmare inside a nightmare, no room for hope, no space for freedom.
What I find so compelling about this document has relatively little to do with whether I agree with some or all of it or "like" it, Facebook-style. Rather, the manifesto stands out amidst the cacophony of the web for two deeply related reasons.
First, it is (at least in its original text, which is the one that concerns me here) vehemently, passionately, aggressively, bravely, devoid of the usual rote party lines and ideological templates. The authors do condemn Israel, sometimes unfairly. But, more significantly and courageously, they also condemn the Hamas regime that oppresses them day to day:
...Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations. We are a generation of young people used to face missiles, carrying what seems to be a impossible mission of living a normal and healthy life, and only barely tolerated by a massive organization that has spread in our society as a malicious cancer disease, causing mayhem and effectively killing all living cells, thoughts and dreams on its way as well as paralyzing people with its terror regime.
These young people are not calling for one or another concocted ideal, but just for some fundamental decency in their lives.
We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, ... sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, ... [W]e are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world....
We do not want to hate, we do not want to feel all of this feelings, we do not want to be victims anymore. ENOUGH! Enough pain, enough tears, enough suffering, enough control, limitations, unjust justifications, terror, torture, excuses, bombings, sleepless nights, dead civilians, black memories, bleak future, heart aching present, disturbed politics, fanatic politicians, religious bullshit, enough incarceration! WE SAY STOP! This is not the future we want!
We want three things. We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask?...
This manifesto, in an odd way, reflects Emmanuel Levinas's call for an ethics grounded in the irreducible, primordial, face-to-face encounter with the Other. I say "reflects" because in this case it is the Other who is directly demanding to be encountered face-to-face, to be taken seriously, not merely as a holder of rights, but as a suffering fellow human being. (This same existential call seems, at least from my safe and uninformed distance, to be at work in the revolutionary movement now at work in Egypt.)
To be sure, actual solutions to these existential cries will require a turn back to politics, to ideological frameworks and theoretical positions and practical negotiations. Indeed, without such a turn, movements like this are downright dangerous, risking either hijacking by established political camps or explosive disintegration. But the implicit message of the manifesto is that the next step, to be legitimate, must remain grounded in a pre-theoretical and pre-pragmatic sense of decency and the fundamental instinct of face-to-face encounter.
The second remarkable feature of the GYBO manifesto is, surprisingly enough, its proportionality. The document is manifestly "uncivil," and not only because of its four-letter words. But the passion and invective is entirely proportionate to the situation it is denouncing. This is not manufactured anger, or semi-delusional frenzy. It is the real thing. And it enhances its credibility precisely because, as I just said, it does not merely parrot somebody else's reified ideological platform. These kids have earned the right to curse the world, and it would be silly in the extreme to complain about their vocabulary or their lack of rhetorical restraint.
Of course, existential rootedness and deep proportionality do not necessarily require anger or get expressed through curses. President Obama's Tucson speech, for example, was worlds removed in substance and tone from the GYBO document. But both get their power from the same existential instinct. When the President called for a "democracy ... as good as Christina imagined it," he was asking each of us to be answerable to that little girl's unspoiled humanity, and to the primordial child in others and in ourselves. Put another way: the kids in Gaza are demanding that the rest of us, in contemplating what to do with or to or in Gaza, look at them face to face. And Obama is asking each of us, before we go about our political machinations, to at least imagine looking at Christian face to face. This is not a rejection of ideology of party or politics or ideology as such, but a call to keep party and politics and ideology grounded in an ethics of encounter and responsibility.
All that brings me back, of course, to the question of incivility in American politics. Our political discourse needs to be more civil. But the fundamental problem, it seems to me, is not "incivility" as such, but the sense that much of the anger and bluster and extremism in our current American political climate is just not earned. It is neither rooted in genuine existential encounter nor proportionate. To the contrary, it is mostly (1) a tool manufactured to gain tactical (or financial) advantage, or (2) a sort of knee-jerk partisanship that treats politics, not so much like war (which would at least be serious stuff) as like blood-sport, or (3) an expression of often unacknowledged prejudices, or (4) at best, a manifestation of misplaced concreteness, in which every instance of an abstract concept is given the same weight regardless of what might actually be at stake. GYBO's incivility is bracing. It demands attention. Much of our American incivility is just ugly and exhausting.