When George Washington was just a lad — a teenager in the days before people used that term — he is said to have copied a list of 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." These rules date back to 1595, and were first compiled by French Jesuits. Among them: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present;" "Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile;" and "Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice, ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexterously upon it ..."
Today, many observers mourn what they consider the lack of civility in contemporary American life. Just when civility started going down our collective drain is difficult to pinpoint, although I would say I started noticing a marked turn toward the coarsening of public discourse during the 1980s, when the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to grant talk radio blowhards like Rush Limbaugh a newfound permission to babble on about grudges and resentments dating back to the New Deal.
This commercially profitable trash talking presented itself as a truth-telling counter-weight to what its practitioners liked to call "political correctness." Voices on the left eventually answered in kind and today's polarized political scene is the result.
Under these circumstances, civility is easy to mourn. But, given this country's investment in its rebellious roots, it is just as easy to mock. Civility, after all, is a benign form of hypocrisy, a pulled punch more akin to aristocratic decorum than telling it like it is. What we might lose in terms of our ability to transcend differences, we gain in the ability to express our true selves, regardless of what others might do, or who might be hurt.
No public figure has inspired as far-reaching an assault on civility as the sitting president of the United States, Barack Obama. This is ironic in that Obama made bipartisan cooperation one of his administration's priorities. As Ryan Lizza wrote in The New Yorker, Obama went so far as to meet with conservative pundits shortly after his election, displaying what turned out to be a misplaced confidence in his opposition's commitment to a civil political process.
But that's not all. From promoting a health-care-reform package espoused by conservative think tanks and test-driven by Republican governor and Obama's presidential opponent Mitt Romney, to the bailing out of Wall Street bankers, the aggressive use of drone weaponry and the expansion of domestic oil drilling — not to mention an unsettling willingness to use Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as bargaining chips in budget negotiations — Obama, like the previous Democrat president, Bill Clinton, has demonstrated a penchant for appropriating positions and policies with Republican pedigrees before Republicans themselves were awake enough to fully claim them.
Obama, it can be argued, has driven Republicans farther to the right in their increasingly manic effort to differentiate themselves from his center-right agenda. When people knock Republicans for their failure to come up with ideas of their own, this is why: Obama has beaten them to most of the practical stuff on their to-do list.
Just as Republicans, in their vexation over Clinton's hijacking ideas like NAFTA and the dismantling of financial regulations, turned his presidency into a running battle having to do with his hedonistic, 1960s-derived character, launching fishing expeditions over old real estate deals and a seemingly endless string of bimbo eruptions — so have they tried to make Obama's identity the primary issue of his presidency.
But this is where things get complicated, even for the most civility-challenged among us. That's because Obama is our first African-American president.
Many of us, myself included, considered Obama's election in 2008 a watershed moment in American history. A country that, at its founding, had an economy greatly dependent on African slave labor, allowed and enforced Jim Crow laws into the 1960s, and continued to wrestle with racial inequality, could still elect Barack Hussein Obama its president seemed on the verge of a new era.
But while our society's remaining sense of civility has made openly hateful rhetoric about African-American people taboo in supposedly polite society, deep anxiety and suspicion about race remain. Nothing chills some white people like the news that, according to the U.S. Census bureau, black, Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race births made up 50.4 percent of American babies born in the year ending July 2011. America the beautiful can no longer be confused with America the white.
While the remaining shreds of our civility are still enough to keep many of Obama's foes from openly attacking his race, these vestiges have not prevented a disgruntled chorus from questioning his national origin, his religion, or even the validity of his Harvard education. Unwilling to speak directly to the demographic inevitability they cannot bring themselves to accept, they cloak their latent racism in conspiracy theories and accusations that Obama is somehow other than the rest of us.
From the tone of the more rambunctious of these attacks, it seems Obama's haters would squash him like a deer tick if they could. The rest of us are watching, though — so far civility prevails.