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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Thursday, July 08, 2004  

Millicent Fenwick, 1969

A recent biography of the late U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) is the first, remarkably, on the dowager congresswoman celebrated for her feisty independence and trademark pipe.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who lost to her in a GOP congressional primary, writes in a foreword:

She was an aristocrat of the kind Katharine Hepburn used to play in movies like The Philadelphia Story. Yet she had a particular affinity for the downtrodden, the poor, and the underprivileged. A liberal in her approach to most issues, she maintained a lifelong devotion to the Republican Party…

She was smart politically and not above a trick or two to achieve her ends. Once, when we were debating, she finished her comments and sat down. I rose to reply. About three minutes in, I had the sense nobody in the audience was paying attention. I looked over at Millicent. She had taken out her pipe and was slowly filling it with tobacco. The entire audience was watching, waiting to see if she was actually going to light it. They weren't paying attention to anything I was saying. Millicent won that debate.

She was the only really ambitious seventy-year-old I've ever met…

Above all things, she hated hypocrisy and those who abused the public trust. Stubborn to a fault, she never betrayed her ideals or paid much attention to the polls. In the end, that was probably why she lost her last election, but the example she set and the way she conducted her life continue to stand as a model for all those who might want to pursue public life.

Here she is sparking up her trademark.

* * *

Another independent-minded Republican woman of the Congress was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who was noted for her 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" speech against McCarthyism, and who delivered a second speech of that title 20 years later in reaction to campus disruptions and antiwar protests.

The website of the library dedicated to her in Skowhegan, Maine, carries this representative quote:

"My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought."

* * *

Random Penseur's posts on the Disappearing Political Moderate got me thinking about civility and compromise in public debate and the reasons for their seeming decline, which, in my opinion, include, in no particular order:

* The rise of identity politics, in which an attack on a person's argument is taken as an attack on that person himself;

* The attendant rise of P.C. on college campuses, where ideas are meant to be debated but too often aren't, lest anyone's feelings be hurt; where dissent from prevailing wisdom is too often quashed, and where grievance and entitlement are too often stressed over reason, logic or courtesy;

* The post-modernist dismissal of truth as a subjective construct, something therefore to be imposed, ultimately by force;

* The 24-7 media phenomenon, which relies on instant analyses and opinions and favors the sound-bite over the thoughtful deliberation;

* A popular culture geared less and less to the grownup;

* Judicial activism that has taken away the possibility of legislative compromise on vexing social questions: the Roe v Wade decision on abortion and the recent Massachusetts SJC ruling on same-sex marriage, for example, didn't settle the issues but consigned them to polarization, judicial fiat having denying elected legislators the ability to reach common ground amenable to the great middle;

* The domination of the presidential primary process by special interests and activist groups that force candidates Left or Right and away from the Center; the old "smoke-filled rooms" may have been less democratic, but actually may have done a better job producing party candidates attractive to the majority of rank-and-file voters.

Many of the problems I've listed might be seen as the wages of progress: The civil rights movement was a noble and good and necessary thing, but the Courts fighting "the good fight," as it were, can also lead to great mischief. Tolerance is to be commended, yet the professional "tolerance" crowd is intolerant as can be of dissent. Democracy is, as Churchill said, the worst form of government except for all the others. And the Internet and the cable-TV clicker, while indispensable, are not necessarily conducive to reflection. The world isn't perfect.

As the lone conservative in a large and very liberal family whose gatherings tend to be contentious and exhausting when the knives are out, I can say it's possible to love someone and disagree on politics. It's possible – or should be – to argue a point and remain friends.

A larger point: Civility requires a belief in standards, which rests on a belief in higher truths. After all, if right and wrong are subjective, if we make them up as we go along, we can treat others as we wish, and impose our will on others, and no one can say any different. Indeed, truth becomes a function of power. Who's to say we should treat others with respect? Without appeal to higher law outside of oneself, force – not moral suasion – becomes all.

Following one's conscience is paramount: Eileen McNamara, with whom I rarely agree these days, raises a very good point re Sen. Kerry on this front.

It has been noted that proposing is not the same as imposing: Arguments need to be made, cases need to be put, and allowed to rise and fall on their merits.

Fight hard, I say, but with civility, which means advancing your cause passionately without smearing your opponent, and treating your rival fairly and with respect even as you engage and defeat his argument.

Someone like Michael Moore represents the opposite. As Jonah Goldberg writes:

If the new Moore-standard says you can be a force for good even if you argue through half-truths, guilt-by-association and innuendo, then the case against Joe McCarthy evaporates entirely. He did, after all, have the larger truths on his side.


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