Don't count on Congress in your neighborhood - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Don't count on Congress in your neighborhood

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Posted: Friday, January 21, 2011 3:38 pm

A loose consensus will probably form around a kind of "civility" resulting from the tragic shooting in Tucson. It will basically mean toning down false, exaggerated and needlessly accusatory rhetoric and acting out in public forums. Vile talking heads (you know who they are) will take a licking but will probably keep on ticking after a time.

When memories fade, the murders of six persons, the wounding of 13 including the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords will perhaps get a memorial as a kind of remembrance. But remember what?

We as a public have a problem when we use our 19th- and 20th-century civility standards for the life in the 21st century. "Civility" is one of those inexact standards. Some confuse it with manners, while it means public morals.

Take for example what Rep. Joe Wilson said after calling President Obama a liar during the State of the Union speech last year: "Civility is usually something I strongly support, but things have changed a bit since this scurvy crew of dedicated and devious leftists took over the White House."

No, Mr. Wilson, the rules have not changed. You have changed the rules.

In the age of inside-out wordsmithing, a mistaken assumption is that evolutionary change encourages the revolutionary overthrow of time-honored standards.

That was in part some of the content of a 2009 column I wrote calling for a national commission on hate crimes, which was recognized by the news organization New America Media. It came after a string of murders, violence, denigrations and public offenses acted out often against Hispanics, or for presumed sexual orientation or believed immigrant status. Crime statistics bore out the facts but public outrage was tepid.

Is it possible that the public forum has been suppressed by threats of violence?

Even a few years ago, there were signs that the civic structure had already changed into unrecognizable forms. In a city planning study in which I participated, older residents of a proud but dilapidating neighborhood were asked what they wanted from their city representation.

The focus group was quite clear. One person explained that earlier in the neighborhood's history, someone could go down to a local cafe and over coffee and a doughnut run into a councilman or talk to a businessperson with a little sway, or mouth a thought to a neighbor and get feedback. Direct democracy was not a cell phone survey where a person's idea became a digit encased inside a percent and called truth.

Congresswoman Giffords, who was shot in the head, the six murdered neighbors and the 13 wounded were engaging in a type of direct democracy she called "Congress on Your Corner." The assault was only the latest episode on personal, public contact. Tucson was an attempted democracide.

In the absence of those kinds of forums, or unresponsive government, neuroscientist Dr. Douglas Fields presents how a social virus attacks a host. In a Huffington Post essay, he writes: "A disrespectful, stressful social environment" emerges that is literally "a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche" whose "scars are permanent." The issue is no longer a matter of nonchalant opinion but one with weighty scientific evidence behind it.

The murders in Tucson are not just a message sent like poetry in the air. They are an electric shock to the system. They tell us our democracy is in trouble. Special-interest, delay-oriented, over-the-top rhetoric and political jockeying for leverage and unresponsive government are not necessarily the enemy but their dithering is not of much help for a public needing practical resolutions to festering issues. Going ignored makes public concerns bait for nuts.

One way to proceed is suggested by the recent national commission on the budget. It may not have provided the recommendations everyone liked but it was better than ignoring the train needs to get back on the tracks. In that case, what is so hard to understand about a similar broad-based commission on the future of our civic society?

Hate crimes were reason enough for a serious national gathering to come up with pragmatic measures and standards to take hot issues public, and to come up with sober standards for us all. Now the danger has gone one flight of stairs higher, and the hate crime is one potentially against us all.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at

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