If you agree with John Dewey (and Jürgen Habermas) that democracy depends on a series of institutional arrangements that enable the public to form its own values and judgments on a variety of questions–and I do–then you cannot ignore the importance of civility in allowing these institutions to function. Without a foundation in civil society, the kinds of democratic exchange that allow a public to test its prejudices and, potentially, transcend them are literally impossible.
But the mores and institutions of civility can be a double-edged sword. By insisting on “keeping things civil,” in polite society, repressive powers may suppress ugly truths about their conduct merely because raising them requires bad manners. I always thought it was a stroke of genius on the part of Robert McNamara to start crying at dinner parties in the late 1960s when someone raised the issue of Vietnam, as it pre-empted discussions of the deception and destruction for which he was responsible. Perhaps if McNamara had been confronted with some of the morally uncomfortable consequences of his policies, he might have worked harder to reverse them.
The pundit Robert Novak has never given the impression that he cared much for the values of civility. He regularly insults his political opponents and questions both their honesty and patriotism. The last time I appeared on television with Novak, he termed my politics to the “left of Khrushchev” and slandered my late journalistic mentor, I.F. Stone, as a Soviet spy. After I tried to call him on it, he refused to appear again with me and has not done so for the past twelve years.
Of course, these are relatively inconsequential matters compared with what Novak has done to former CIA agent Valerie Plame, as well as to his fellow journalists Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller. In the former case, Novak destroyed the career of a loyal public servant and potentially endangered US national security because–alone among six journalists contacted–he chose to play patsy for a Bush Administration scheme to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, by revealing her identity. (Wilson had investigated, and found wanting, Administration claims that the African nation of Niger had sold uranium to Iraq; he thereby undermined its case for war.)
Novak has also exposed two professional colleagues to possible jail sentences because he refuses to reveal the source of the Bush Administration leaker who played him so perfectly. Or perhaps he has testified about the leaker–or taken the Fifth Amendment; no one can be sure. Neither Novak nor the presiding judge in the case will say. While Novak has in the past deliberately burned a confidential source because he objected to the reason he was used–the Soviet spy Robert P. Hanssen, Novak said in 2001, “was merely using me to undermine [Attorney General Janet] Reno”–he will not do so in this case. Moreover, he explains, he does not really care about the fact that while he remains free to practice his trade, Miller and Cooper are looking at slammer time, pending a Supreme Court ruling. “I don’t know why they’re upset with me,” Novak told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb. “They ought to worry about themselves. I worry about myself.”