WASHINGTON -- What is so wrong about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declaring April to be Confederate History Month? Can't we respect Robert E. Lee's high-minded sense of honor? The average Confederate soldier's outnumbered stubbornness?
Americans can appreciate these things, and do. But when a public official celebrates Confederate history without mentioning slavery, there is a problem.
The historical context of secession was the defense of slavery -- what Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens called the "cornerstone" of the Southern cause. Downplaying this context, as McDonnell initially did before later amending, was a sin of omission. When a Virginia governor speaks of the Civil War, he has a positive duty to disavow the racist sentiments that find refuge in Confederate nostalgia. Context matters.
This principle of responsible leadership has broader application. We have entered a national debate on the role and size of government, intensified by the passage of health care reform legislation. It is not quite Antietam, but many Americans feel that their deepest beliefs about liberty and self-government are being undermined. Passions run high. Activists slip easily into reckless talk of tyranny and revolution.
In this context -- on the day health reform became law -- Sarah Palin wrote to her Twitter tribe: "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!'" In a moose-hunting culture, these words probably carry less menace. Palin was not trying to incite violence. But she was careless about the context of her words and ignored a positive duty to confront political extremism.
A few years ago, the historical context was different: Opposition to an unpopular war seemed to justify any rhetorical excess. At anti-war rallies, George W. Bush was routinely compared to Adolf Hitler. A film was made contemplating Bush's assassination. In his article, "The Case for Bush Hatred," The New Republic's Jonathan Chait stated, "I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it."
Some political leaders ignored this toxic context as well. Sen. Harry Reid called Bush a "loser," a "liar" and alleged that he had "betrayed the country." Al Gore termed Bush a "moral coward." Concerning the 9/11 attacks, Howard Dean speculated that Bush might have been "warned ahead of time by the Saudis."
It would indicate a total ideological blindness to locate such offense entirely on one side of the political spectrum. Which is precisely the problem. Everyone in American politics has plentiful fuel for their grievances -- complaints that are echoed by partisan cable and talk radio, intensified by Internet brutishness and wrapped in conspiracy theories until they overwhelm good sense and sympathy.
The most basic test of democracy is not what people do when they win; it is what people do when they lose. Citizens bring their deepest passions to a public debate -- convictions they regard as morally self-evident. Yet a war goes on. Abortion remains legal. A feared health reform law passes. Democracy means the possibility of failure. While no democratic judgment is final -- and citizens should continue to work to advance their ideals -- respecting the temporary outcome of a democratic process is the definition of political maturity.
The opposite -- questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome, abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one's opponents -- is a sign of democratic decline. From the late Roman republic to Weimar Germany, these attitudes have been the prelude to thuggery. Thugs can come with clubs, with bullhorns, with Internet access.
Admittedly, the call for civility can be a political ploy. It is not a coincidence that the party currently in power is invariably the defender of decorum, hoping to shield itself from criticism. And some people attempt to use the threat of radicalism as a weapon. The syllogism goes: Some who oppose health care reform seem prone to extremism. Therefore anyone who opposes health care reform is promoting extremism. It is enough to make a professor of logic weep. It is also the same reasoning that would accuse all who hold anti-war views of promoting anti-Americanism.
But though the idea of civility can be abused, it is a terrible thing when it is mistaken for weakness. When Sen. Tom Coburn, of unquestioned conservative credentials, recently called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a "nice lady," he was attacked by some on the right as a "chump" and "clueless" -- punished for practicing the Golden Rule.
So, for the record: I don't hate President Barack Obama. There, I said it.