What Would Dewey Do?

Eric Alterman: “If you agree with John Dewey (and Jurgen 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 Nation)

Alterman’s focus in this piece is to castigate Robert Novak in preparation for their upcoming debate. However, the broader point bears repeating. The Bush dysadministration and the Rabid Right are conducting an unprecedented assault on the ability of the media to inform the public of their actions, and the media has largely caved to it. The unscrupulous always have those who still believe in respect and civility over a barrel. (So give it up?)