U.S. Representative Don Bacon, who represents the Omaha area, shared some words about Martin Luther King, Jr. today:
At a time of great unrest, [King] showed a calm and powerful restraint. While people on both sides of a battle hurled insults (and weapons) at each other, he remained civil and kind. I have long admired the content of Dr. King’s character.
He showed courage and character when defending the values he held dear, but he also taught America how to bring civility into political discourse – something we could use more of today.
Mr. Bacon believes the primary lesson to draw from King’s life and death is civility in politics. That’s right: not justice, righteousness or uplifting the oppressed and the poor–those “values he held dear” that Bacon does not even name. No, for Bacon, King’s lesson is civility–making sure everyone interacts politely and feels comfortable, as though Dr. King were an inspirational speaker you would book for your ladies’ luncheon and not a freedom fighter who discomfited the Don Bacons of his day.
Calls for civility have become a common refrain lately, especially among Republican politicians who are bothered by anger from those whose lives are imperiled by the GOP’s policies. Some so-called Trump resisters within the Republican Party have pushed back on the President–usually not on the content of his harmful policies, but rather on his language, which they acknowledge lacks civility. These people mistake the President’s use of the uncivil words “pussy” and “shithole” for the problem, when really his belief that he is entitled to sexual assault and that the U.S. ought to block black and brown people from nations plundered by colonialism are the problem.
Civility has its place, but its primary function is to make sure we all feel as good as possible around each other in specific social exchanges, that no one is made uncomfortable in a social interaction. It is a veneer that chiefly serves the status quo. Ensuring situational comfort and social nicety in the face of grave injustice aids the oppressor. It allows him to continue to push his pernicious policy—segregation, disenfranchisement, repeal of DACA, hyperpolicing—without ever being made to feel so much as icky while doing so. No wonder Mr. Bacon finds it so valuable.
Dr. King was a gracious man, and people like Don Bacon, who perpetuate public policies that oppress people of color and the poor, would have us believe that this is what made him one of the great human beings of history. But Dr. King was not a champion of civility. He was a champion of justice. In fact, he had something to say about exactly the kind of morally vapid feel-good pablum Mr. Bacon posted to Facebook today. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Reread that part in the middle. Yes, most of us, we hope, disdain the KKK, but King is most frustrated by the white moderate “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” A fetishizing of civility rather than a clear-eyed commitment to justice is the bigger threat.
Who better exemplifies this than Congressman Bacon, who thinks “civility” is what we should take from this man’s example and who so avoids addressing injustice that he merely poses questions about injustice without answering them: “Have we created a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? Are we giving back to our community and taking personal responsibility to help those in need?”
The answer to both those questions is no, and Bacon works to keep it that way. He opposes same-sex marriage, believes in the criminalization of marijuana that has led to the disproportionate destruction of so many black and brown lives in this country, opposes gun control while representing a state consistently ranked as one of the highest for murders of black people, supports a border wall, and supports a refugee ban. How very civil.