Tag Archives: civility

More than Civility

9 Aug

Duluth was in the national news again this past week, and this time in a much more flattering piece than the dreck that appeared in Rolling Stone last month. This time, Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal lauds the Civility Project, an effort to establish norms for polite public discourse that he claims has made Duluth politics a bit more pleasant. (I’m linking to a Tweet that has the link because that is the WSJ’s bizarre method of allowing people around their paywall.)

It’s not quite that easy. It’s true that, for much of the past decade, Duluth city-level politics did coalesce around a broad, quiet, and largely civil consensus. I think that probably had more to do with the good vibes of the Don Ness era and his unique talent for making politics boring than the norms listed on a poster, but they certainly didn’t hurt. While still largely following in that same vein, it’s not hard to sense a few more cracks  in the Duluth consensus these days as both regional and national political forces have activated more people to express strong opinions.

It’s also not a universal experience. Critics of the school board will argue that the norms of civility have been used as a bludgeon to silence opposition, as honest and well-meant critiques are called uncivil; that point has had real merit at times over the years. Duluth also is a relatively homogeneous city, and there is pretty good evidence from social science that this makes political debate much easier given the shared culture; I’m not sure how applicable its lessons can be to a nation more starkly riven by questions of racial and cultural identity. (This is not to downplay the divides that do exist in Duluth, but more of an empirical observation on their centrality to day-to-day discourse.) It’s easy to look good when a large majority of people share a common culture agree on many things.

Even with those caveats, the Rules of Civility seem almost quaint now, as if they were a throwback to a more innocent era. Still, they exert a certain power. I would like to think that a bunch of well-meaning people can get together at the local level and build a healthier culture by bringing people together to talk in rational ways. There are, and likely always will be, scenarios where that can happen, and when they happen, that is only a good thing.

One of the more fascinating aspects of our current political moment, however, is how it has made cynics of us all. I try to be wary of narratives that pretend as if the loss of civility or decency is something recent. (Remember: if you want to understand a person’s worldview, figure out what the world looked like when that person was 20, or some comparable early formative age. It’s easy to imagine the decline and fall of political discourse is a new thing, when instead it just stems from the point at which the people in question gained a new level of political or social consciousness.) But I do think there is something particular about the milieu from which those norms of civility emerged from, one that has left us behind for something more complicated.

The Rules of Civility emerged in a time and a place when it seemed like a broadly liberal consensus was destiny. They are the guiding principles of a culture confident that it can bring people together under a common cause and include everyone in the push toward a better tomorrow. They are the rules of a world ruled by a meritocracy, where careful arguments win out and rewards flow to the people who have earned them through reason in the public square. This culture has always had some place in American political culture, but it reached its zenith after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when this worldview came to seem completely triumphant. There is still no clear alternative, but it has undergone a steady erosion amid endless low-grade war, the late 00s financial crisis, and now a wave of political backlash to the whole notion.

As a child of the 90s, I was a product of this largely unquestioned culture. I thrived in its environment, climbed the ladder of test scores and college admissions exactly as I was supposed to. It was a source of anxiety at times, yes, but on the whole I rather enjoyed it. The path was clear, as were the rewards, and I grew up in a community where playing by those very civil rules earned respect. No one ever really questioned whether or not I’d earned what I got, and those of us caught up within it learned not to question the rules of the game.

Now, however, the critiques of the system have emerged in force. The first is the internal one, common among liberals: the idea is right, but in practice our meritocracy has been far too exclusionary. Many people of color (and a chunk of mostly rural white people, for that matter) face such large systemic barriers that they cannot break through; women thrive in certain areas of the ladder but often hit glass ceilings when it comes to leadership positions. The answer, then, is to level playing fields, perhaps through affirmative action if need be, and ensure that social mobility becomes a possibility. If we all just follow the code of civility to its fullest extent, we’ll get there in the end.

A second critique attacks whole logic that the meritocratic winners who have been groomed to rule actually deserve to do so. The best and brightest who went to Wall Street ran the economy into the ground in the late 00s, and even the scholars and pundits who saw warning signs have been unable to devise a humane economy that gives the losers of the macroeconomic shifts of the past decade any level of dignity. The foreign policy consensus bungled its Middle Eastern adventures that decade, leaving thousands dead and no discernable achievement of non-military goals. Over in Europe, the European Union, instead of being some enlightened post-nation-state government, is instead a creaking and unaccountable machine with an egregious mismatch of fiscal and monetary policy that should have been obvious to anyone who’d taken Econ 101, but somehow got pushed through anyway.

While in college at the tail end of this era of good feelings, I read and listened to a lot of triumphal bloviating about the march of democracy and rights and so on that in retrospect seems wishful, if not naïve. And yet there has been little to no reckoning for these failures, and critiques of the elite consensus have often been left outside the bounds of serious political debate. Anyone who suggests otherwise is uncivil. Why should we trust the people who gave us all of these things, or the institutions that produced them, if they can’t get anything right? Our supposedly meritorious ruling class has much to answer for, and precious few of its members have attempted anything resembling an examination of conscience for their failures. Instead, they just drift into cushy lobbying jobs when they get voted out of office. The swamp, according to this take, is very, very real.

Both of these critiques capture some of the truth, but are inadequate on their own. The liberal critique is dead accurate, but fails to step out of the cave and consider whether this way of doing things is the best we can do. The new critique, which can come from either the left or the Trumpist right, raises that issue, but largely fails to present an alternative that doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic or retrograde. Simply suggesting an alternative seems ridiculous: how does it make sense to run anything without a civil debate of the merits, or without the most qualified people? They may not know everything, or their expertise may come in unconventional ways, but there has to be a way to agree to a basis and sort and choose from there. We’re still a long way from mob rule or authoritarian whim becoming the law of the land.

Civility is great, but trying to cure the nation’s ills with a civility project goes nowhere near to the source of the malaise. Civil discourse can also only emerge at any scale from a common culture that agrees on at least some basic foundation of how to order a society. Without some underlying vision we are left only with critique for critique’s sake, an endless argument that aspires to nothing more than disruption, to use that useless, canned Silicon Valley word that dresses up chaos in the garb of progress.

On a national level, it’s easy to despair about the possibility of the common cause from which a civil governing consensus can emerge. Perhaps, then, the answer must be local. If Duluth’s history over the past ten-plus years is a model of anything, as I’ve argued (with much nuance) that it can be, it starts first with a common vision, and a common narrative that acknowledges but then breaks from a past. Civility is as much a product of such a vision as it is a precondition of it, moving in virtuous feedback loops as eclectic groups come together to advance some common goal. Building and sustaining such cultures won’t be easy; they all have flaws and require serious interrogation at every step, and even with the best of intentions, they will struggle to accommodate everyone in a community of any size.

We live in a world in which the underlying truths that sustain nations and foundations of faith have crumbled. In many, if not all, cases, there is good reason for the critiques. But the project of this century won’t come through continued disruption of already tattered truths, or context-free attempts to make politics nice again. It will come from a concerted effort to build a common future in spite of the myriad obstacles before us. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Advertisements

Art Johnston Under Siege: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/17/14

18 Jun

With a meeting that fell five minutes short of four hours, the ISD 709 School Board endured a grueling, painful marathon on Tuesday night. I’m only going to comment briefly on the meeting at the end of this post. Part of me is very frustrated that I have to do this, and that the circus surrounding one man overpowers the interest in the far more pressing affairs looming over the District. But it’s impossible to understand everything else that happened on Tuesday night without the overall context.

That looming bit of context, of course, was last week’s headline news: Member Art Johnston is under review for alleged improper conduct. I was unable to attend the special meeting due to the frustratingly short notice given to the public, and I have some reservations about saying too much, given that my only sources of information are hearsay and a paper of which I have a rather ambivalent opinion. Still, my initial reaction was much in line with the Duluth News Tribune’s editorial over the weekend: is this really necessary?

There were eight public speakers in Member Johnston’s defense, and in addition to a lot of other noise, they put forward one key criticism, best articulated by Ms. Denette Lynch: it seemed like a very poor use of the District’s resources to investigate something that seemed like a personal dispute between Member Johnston, Chair Miernicki, and Supt. Gronseth. The majority of the group came from the familiar crowd of Johnston supporters, that curious coalition of the sincere anti-Red Plan crowd and people who are affronted by any spending on education whatsoever. Member Welty had to talk one out of displaying his large “Fire Gronseth” sign, and the crowd of Johnston supporters, numbering perhaps twenty, whooped and laughed and cheered throughout the speeches. (Chair Miernicki made no effort to stop them, which would normally bother me no matter the topic, but given the delicacy of the power dynamic at play here, it was probably the right decision. Indeed, after five months of being rather unimpressed with Chair Miernicki’s leadership, I thought he started to come into his own on Tuesday night.)

Two speakers did stand out from the crowd. One, DFL activist Brad Clifford, put forth a broader defense of minority rights and the benefits of debate and dissention, quoting several prominent liberal politicians and saying the votes of the citizens of District Four (in favor of Johnston) ought to be respected. The other was Ms. Jane Bushey, Member Johnston’s partner, whose emotional speech jived with the general outline of the Reader account. She said “lies, accusations, and assumptions” from a Duluth East administrator had led to a request that she be moved elsewhere in the district, which HR had unquestioningly accepted. “I just want to do my job,” she said, condemning the “bullies” who were out to get her. Member Johnston’s conflict of interest in the affair and “abuse related to a staff member” constituted two of the charges against him, and are apparently the reason he sought out Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth for a scolding at the Duluth East graduation.

Another charge that got plenty of mention was the alleged assault, as people indignantly wondered where the police report was. The problem here, I gather, is the awful legalese used in the accusations. In my reading of the charges, no one is technically accusing Member Johnston assault. He’s being accused of something that falls under the umbrella of “alleged assault or otherwise improper conduct.” Ditto for the “racist” accusation: the complete claim is “alleged racist or otherwise improper comments.” These are horrifically worded categories that—I presume—make the accusations sound far worse than they actually are. Knowing what I do of the incident, Member Johnston is accused of the “otherwise improper” actions. Any other claim couldn’t stand on two legs, and I doubt Supt. Gronseth and Chair Miernicki are dumb enough to push that far. Instead, they thought highly charged comments and apparent conflict of interest were enough to cross the line and launch the inquest.

The “otherwise improper” categories are obviously a legal grey area. Without knowing more, I still stand by my initial assessment: this seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, drags out old fights in the negative PR, and works against the general trend of the past few months, in which Member Johnston had been more agreeable than in the past.

Still, two things struck me over the course of this meeting: the number of times that I agreed with the thrust of Member Johnston’s questions and comments (which was fairly often) and the fact that, in spite of that, he still had me cringing in exasperation every time he turned on his light. Before the meeting, I had some pre-written language ready that would have mounted a much more vigorous defense of his rights. But, after Tuesday’s display, I had to throw it out. I cannot use it in good conscience.

Part of this is a style problem. Brevity is not one of Member Johnston’s strong suits. He trails on and on, repeats himself unnecessarily, and when he doesn’t get answers he wants, he will continue to ask questions, knowing full well he won’t get the desired response. He seemed to relish every such opportunity on Tuesday, thus leading to the meeting’s absurd length. It’s his way of proving a point. It isn’t uncivil, per se, but it comes across as domineering and tiresome. It lacks all perspective, and it wears people down and makes them feel like they’re being scolded. Sure, he makes occasional overtures to finding common ground, but his comments are suffused with such a lack of trust of anyone else that it’s hard to find them wholly sincere. Again, this is not all his fault, but one wonders at what point the well becomes too poisoned to be of any use.

Moreover, he has an ally on the Board in Member Welty who, despite similar voting patterns, comes off entirely differently. He’s eloquent, and manages to maintain a sharp focus on the issues that most concern him (namely, the threat of standard operating debt) without belaboring the point. A well-honed opposition message has considerable potential, and based on Member Welty’s success, might even stand to do well in elections in places other than the most anti-establishment district in the city. It just isn’t correct for Member Johnston to act as if he is not part of his own problem.

Member Johnston’s failures don’t absolve the rest of the Board of its shortcomings. On Tuesday night, it came to light that he and Member Welty were having trouble getting things on the agenda, while majority Board members were not. While the Administration deserves some leeway in agenda creation if the items in question have already been beaten to death, the “minority rights” argument does pull significant weight. I voted for Harry Welty; I like good debate and serious questions. I do find it frustrating that the Administration can’t answer all of his questions, particularly the ones pertaining to the District’s long-term finances. He needs some people to work with him.

Sadly, the only one he has right now is someone whose personality has grown so large that it overwhelms everything else that happens. Despite the loss of an agreeable vote, I suspect Member Welty might actually be able to make more headway without the specter of Member Johnston’s outbursts looming over the Board. Member Johnston may think he’s shedding light in dark places, but in the end, his relentless questioning only serves to obscure the most pressing issues. He has got to learn how to choose his battles. His reaction is a microcosm of the whole anti-Red Plan movement that got him elected in the first place: it’s an eclectic group unified only by its opposition to something, and when it finds itself stonewalled by an imperious majority, we’re left with a lot of cathartic primal screaming that drowns out substance, leading to inevitable fracturing as everyone beats their own drums. The movement stays in the headlines, yet it achieves not a single one of its objectives. They’d rather go down kicking and screaming than be so audacious as to imagine a different paradigm. The few who hazard steps in that direction, like Member Welty, find themselves rather lonely.

In a rather fitting paradox, a discussion over The Civility Project’s nine tools of civility introduced for re-affirmation by the Board illustrated this problem best. Member Welty made a few reasonable critiques of the “subjectivity” of the whole thing, but concluded by saying he hoped it would help the District “find its better angels.” Member Johnston, after hitting a few similar notes, piled on from there, condemning left and right before attempting to haul Ms. Anita Stech, an advocate for the Civility Project, up to the podium for questioning, asking this poor woman to play judge and jury on past incidents in which he thought members of the Board had been uncivil to him. I agree that the project could be fairly empty in content if people are too locked into their views to take its points in good faith. But to expect a couple of community volunteers to wade into this mess is self-serving, and misses the point completely. (The parties in question would also be accused of partisanship the second they weighed in. Do we seriously want some self-appointed Civility Police roaming the city? Do people honestly think that would end well?) The whole special resolution was a reminder of a guideline, not a binding legal contract. (On the other end of the spectrum, Members Westholm and Seliga-Punyko raised some silly objections to Member Johnston’s ultimate attempt to include “honesty and care for other Board members” on the list, worrying about hijacking the civility people’s message. Thankfully, the majority of the Board saw that this was not worth fighting over, and passed the amendment 5-2 before the whole thing was approved unanimously.)

Perhaps this critique singles out Member Johnston when someone such as Member Seliga-Punyko is just as partisan, if not more so. She, however, has the luxury of being in the majority; she can bask in her victories without undue stress. To be an effective legislator, Member Johnston can’t just throw bombs; he needs to be able to work with his fellow Board members. To his credit, he’s tried at times. But he can’t revert to old form—not even when he gets accused of things on potentially trumped-up charges. That’s the burden of being the principled member of the minority: no matter how tempting it is to lash back, one must rise above the fray. If he can, excellent; let’s put this tiff behind us and build a better District. If not, I can’t say I’ll shed any tears if he gets the boot from the Board. He may not be the man who pulls the trigger, but he most definitely will have supplied the ammunition.

One last point: Member Johnston also seems to labor under the pretension that the incivility directed toward him is among the causes for the District’s enrollment struggles. Sure, the negative headlines don’t help, but on the list of reasons why people don’t enroll their kids in ISD 709, the plight of one cantankerous Board member is very, very far down the list. Another useful point to minority members who want to advance their cause: never over-inflate your own role in the drama. Your critics may want to make you (and not your platform) the story. Don’t let them. In doing so, you hand them the win. It’s not about you.

***

So, what did the Board do on Tuesday besides play out a drama over the representative of the Fourth District? It passed a budget, for one thing. Member Welty voted against it because of his lack of information on the long-term picture, and there was some aimless talk over whether it is better to use increased assets to rebuild the reserve fund (as Member Welty suggested) or simply injected straight back into the schools (Member Johnston). There was the aforementioned flap over how to get things on the agenda, with the majority voting down Johnston and Welty 5-2 in their effort to change things.

There was a constructive discussion in the Education Committee report on the evolving policies for students who have been bullied or sexually harassed, and Member Westholm was pleased to announce that staffing levels were the most stable he’d seen in all his years. (That’s a long time.) Member Johnston, upset with how an Administration re-shuffle had opened up the curriculum director position, voted against that particular item, which otherwise passed 6-1, and he got in his usual shtick about enrollment numbers. There was a repeat of the debate over the number of people needed to call a special meeting, with the same result as at the May meeting. Member Johnston also asked why a large number of Piedmont teachers had apparently applied to transfer schools, and Supt. Gronseth replied with a long list of reasons, from changes in leadership to opportunities in administration that had opened up. That wrapped up the meeting, a few minutes shy of 10:30. Why I do this to myself, I’m not entirely sure.