[Head] Hazardous Civility | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Head] Hazardous Civility

In 2009, I spent 48 minutes on Paul Gallo's SuperTalk radio show. I wanted to persuade Gallo to help me expose the mainstream resurgence of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a segregationist group patterned after the 1960s-era white Citizen's Councils that had recently received public support from a state senator; Gallo, who had put in some time on Google, thought it would be more fun to ridicule my amusingly left-wing online bio.

After the first 15 minutes, as we paused for a commercial break, a friendly sounding young man piped in: "Have you had enough, or do you want to play some more?"

I told him I had all morning free; he chuckled and gave me the go-ahead. I don't remember most of what Gallo said (he did eventually acknowledge, on the air, that he found the organization's platform offensive), but the word "play" still sticks in my craw—and what it implies about the emotionally detached way the conservative white political establishment in Mississippi tends to assess policy issues that affect women, the poor and people of color.

I thought about this spirit of "playfulness" last week as the Mississippi Legislature debated SB 2179, conservative legislators' attempt to export Arizona's anti-immigration bill into our state. Lawmakers had obviously not written the bill with Mississippi's underfunded law-enforcement community in mind. They then patched up the bill with amendments that, in some cases, made it even less practical to implement. Some legislators, understandably, wanted to know what this increasingly messy and bizarre piece of legislation would do if enacted.

But the bill's principal sponsor, Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, wouldn't have any of that. "I don't buy this whole argument about needing more time," he told detractors. "You all know how you're going to vote."

The bill passed the Senate 34-15; a different version passed the House, and they're being debated in committee. For its supporters, the "game" continues—but the question of what the bill would actually accomplish, if enacted, is not one that its legislative supporters feel any apparent need to answer.

There are plenty of other examples of impractical laws in the 2011 session, and we will probably have the opportunity to vote on one in November. The proposed Personhood Amendment would establish that everyone becomes a human being at the moment of fertilization, which at first glance sounds like a fairly orthodox conservative position intended to restrict abortion.

The trouble is that most anti-abortion conservatives have historically taught that life begins at conception, not fertilization, and there's a difference: the uterus naturally rejects most fertilized eggs prior to conception. This means that, if the law were actually enforced, any woman who has unprotected sex could potentially be charged with manslaughter.

But the proponents of the Personhood Amendment, like the proponents of the equally nonsensical anti-immigration law, clearly aren't thinking about enforcement. They're thinking about the potential political benefits of publicly espousing opinions that they believe will be popular with their constituents, and they're having fun cornering more intellectually honest legislators who oppose these popular legislative "opinion pieces" for practical policy reasons. Meanwhile, they seem to have little concern for what effect their proposed laws, and the movements behind them, might have on the lives of women and Latinos.

In the wake of the Tucson massacre, I have heard the word "civility" ooze from every pore of our political establishment. But the danger is violence—actual harm to others—and not, strictly speaking, incivility. The civility of irresponsible lawmakers at play—locking themselves into votes on half-baked legislation in an environment of collegial backslapping so that they can be seen as friendly to their constituencies and each other—is a hazardous civility. In that sort of environment, legislators should be a little less civil toward those around them and a little more concerned about the well being of people who aren't in the room.

I'm not sure I'm emotionally prepared to care about civility in a country where 45,000 people die every year due to disparities in health-insurance coverage, but an effort to repeal federal health-care reform just passed the U.S. House by a landslide. I'm not sure I'm emotionally prepared to care about civility in a world where 1.6 million children die every year of preventable pneumonia, 3,000 die per day in Africa of preventable malaria, and lawmakers want to cut foreign aid. And the civility of Mississippi lawmakers who are willing to haphazardly criminalize women's natural reproductive processes and haphazardly pass Jim Crow-style legislation directed at Latino immigrants—just because these lawmakers are so darned friendly to each other that they don't feel the need to critically analyze the bills they support—is also a dubious civility.

We need to reject the prevailing white-conservative attitude that portrays politics as a sport, and we need to clearly establish that meeting worthwhile policy goals usually means hard work, not play; complex decision making, not marketable sound bites; damaged friendships, not collegiality. We need to acknowledge that making ourselves popular with peers at the expense of targeted communities indicates gross cowardice, not maturity.

Freelance writer Tom Head is a lifelong Jacksonian. He has authored or co-authored 24 nonfiction books on a wide range of topics, is a civil liberties writer for About.com, and volunteers as a grassroots progressive activist.

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