Rodriguez: A cultural civics lesson

Politics is making Americans dumb and mean. It’s turning a generous, forward-thinking people into glib, defensive, narrow-minded bores.

Pundits tell us that the answer to all this nastiness — from the disgusting comments on message boards to the smarmy lies of TV political hacks — is to get more people civically engaged. By their logic, the moderation of crowds will temper the zealotry of activists. But I don’t buy it.

The solution to the corrosive spirit of U.S. politics is not more politics. With 8 in 10 Americans saying the lack of civility is a serious problem, we should consider that the answer isn’t in the system but in ourselves.


Four weeks ago, I attended a daylong meeting at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hosted by former Clinton White House domestic policy advisor Eric Liu. A small group, including former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Bill Gates Sr., discussed how to “revive and reinvent civics” in the U.S. Our intentions were good, but, frankly, by midday, we had still failed to agree on the definition — or ultimate purpose — of civics.

For some, it was simply about the teaching of how government works. For others, it was mainly about civility. And for a third group, into which I fell, it was about something more meaningful and demanding. Kristen Cambell of the National Council on Citizenship, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering civic engagement, was also in that last group. “Successful civic engagement,” she told me, “is all about capturing and harnessing empathy. Ultimately, we’re talking about wanting people to care for their neighbors, communities, their country.”

At first glance, the word “empathy” evokes vaguely religious associations, something well beyond the reach of civic organizations. But strip away memories of Sunday school and you’ll find a concept that’s eminently useful in secular, public life.

In “The Science of Evil,” Cambridge University psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen defines empathy without a spiritual gloss. He calls it “double-mindedness,” an individual’s ability to take into account the feelings of another. Human cruelty, or simply unkindness, occurs when individuals are single-minded, too wrapped up in their own interests to identify with, let alone respond to, someone else’s thoughts or feelings. Translated to the public square, there can be no solutions without double-mindedness, only stalemate between competing goals. Good civics cannot exist without moral engagement, activities that foster understanding and empathy.

In order to change today’s gridlocked public dialogue, then, we need to find ways to encourage empathy — double-mindedness — on a broad scale. History has shown us that a democracy with sufficient moral engagement can thrive even when political engagement is low. (Think of Switzerland, which has lower voter turnout than its neighbors yet has enjoyed decade after decade of peaceful prosperity. But a democracy without sufficient moral engagement can easily dissolve even when political engagement is high. (Think of Venezuela, where high voter turnout — as much as 75% — has failed to halt a steady descent toward one-man rule.)

So what can we do to morally engage? To be sure, most moral lessons are learned at home, but any mature society also has the means to help us build what the poet Matthew Arnold called our “better selves.” Arnold lived in 19th century England, an era of similarly blustering political certainties, and he preached that, to survive the cacophony, his countrymen needed to engage with culture — art, the humanities, literature — “that does not try to win them for this or that sect.” He wanted people to play with ideas free from the persuasion of politics, “to be nourished and not bound by them.” He considered the pursuit of culture equal to the pursuit of that better self. Perhaps society was listening. Late-Victorian England, arguably the pinnacle of Pax Britannia, saw a profusion of museums, theaters, galleries and concert halls.

Today, the idea that the acquisition of culture builds moral character is viewed as quaint — even elitist. But as British philosopher John Armstrong writes in his new book “In Search of Civilization,” the real task of art is to “shape and direct our longings, to show us what is noble and important.” While the hoots and hollers of politics tend to pull us from side to side, great art and ideas can elevate us above pettiness and teach us empathy.

There’s certainly a crisis in civics today, but it’s the product of a profound disconnect between our political engagement and our moral engagement. Democracy is great, but citizens still need inspiration and empathy to make it flourish. If we really want to promote civics, maybe we should skip the town hall in favor of the concert hall. Matthew Arnold, at least, would approve. Gregory Rodriguez’s column appears monthly.