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When crass is called for

IT’S TIME TO TAKE a stand against civility, decency and appropriateness.

No, I’m not suggesting that you should stop saying “please” and “thank you.” But lately, the claims about civility that come from the political right seem to mask an unstated and troubling assertion: Never, ever, challenge anyone in power.

Take this week’s kerfuffle over the funeral of Coretta Scott King. After her death, politicians from both parties tripped over one another in their haste to offer tasteful, inoffensive eulogies. Speaking at King’s funeral, President Bush had the formula down pat. With just the right tone of fervent gravity, he informed mourners that “Coretta Scott King showed that a person of conviction and strength could also be a beautiful soul.”

But apparently not everyone at the funeral got the right script. Some of the eulogists -- including the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery and former President Carter -- had to go and “politicize” the funeral.

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Lowery -- a prominent civil rights leader himself -- boorishly insisted that King actually had opinions on matters other than desegregation (now relegated, by happy bipartisan consensus, to the quaint historical past). Lowery informed the audience that she “deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we knew, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here.... For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”

Then Carter crassly reminded the assembled mourners that -- back in the day -- Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. were “not appreciated even at the highest level of the government.” In fact, Carter observed pointedly, “the civil liberties of both husband and wife [were] violated as they became the target of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance and ... harassment from the FBI.”

Within hours, conservative pundits began to condemn Carter and Lowery for tactlessness, poor manners and a range of other sins. On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne denounced Lowery’s and Carter’s remarks as “completely inappropriate ... cheap shot[s] ... bad form.” On Fox, Sean Hannity inveighed against Lowery and Carter for “attacking” Bush while he was at a funeral “to honor this woman ... can you not see the lack of decency?”

Even liberals seemed to be having trouble holding their ground. On CNN, anchor Miles O’Brien suggested that Lowery’s and Carter’s remarks were “coarse,” and analyst Jeff Greenfield glumly agreed: “Maybe there’s a more appropriate way to talk at a funeral.”

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It’s this sort of idiocy that makes me feel like saying something genuinely coarse.

First, let’s keep in mind that King did not start out as a sweet, photogenic old lady with bipartisan appeal. She may have been committed to nonviolent methods, but she was a fighter nonetheless, a woman who, like my namesake Rosa Parks, never shrank from speaking truth to power.

When she marched beside her husband through the streets of Montgomery, Ala., King didn’t worry about being “appropriate.” Had she been a little more “appropriate,” she would have stayed “in her place,” content with the back of the bus and the inferior facilities reserved for “colored” people.

When her husband was assassinated in 1968, King kept right on being inappropriate. A day before his funeral, at a time when many conventionally “decent” women might have stayed home weeping, she took his place marching with striking Memphis sanitation workers and, soon after, spoke at an anti-Vietnam War rally.

King never did stop being “inappropriate” and “tactless.” She spoke out against homophobia, even when some of her own friends wanted to look the other way. “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people, and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” she said in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ ”

In his State of the Union address last week, the president assured us that “even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone.”

Fine with me, but personally, I saw nothing uncivil about the remarks made by Lowery and Carter.

At the funeral of a woman who spent her life speaking out about civil rights, injustice, poverty and war, how can it be inappropriate to allude to the terrible costs of the war in Iraq, the misinformation that led to that war, the neglect of this nation’s poor or this administration’s illegal secret surveillance?

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And if Bush was offended by Lowery’s and Carter’s remarks? Tough luck. If we have to choose between a civil tone and standing up for civil rights, I know which one I’ll take.


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