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Civility, Integrity, Moral Example, and Other Quaint Notions

The Sinema affair at Arizona State University was a minor kerfuffle that nonetheless illustrates Joe Biden's penchant for speaking off the cuff when more thoughtful remarks would be advisable, for which he has long been notorious. The tendency to rattle on before his mouth logs on with his brain is not likely to change at this late date. To Biden's credit, and some congenital pigheadedness notwithstanding, he will walk back, clarify, and recast boneheaded remarks, often with an assist from his capable press secretary Jen Psaki.

I want to stress that the Sinema incident was more annoyance than serious transgression. It nonetheless crossed the line and further highlights contemporary notions about protest and activism that your oft humbled scribe finds questionable in principle and on grounds of efficacy. There does not appear to have been an abundance of reflection about whether confronting Sinema while she met with students was an effective way to induce her to change her positions on a pathway to citizenship and the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. The action became an end in itself.

Norms relating to what is acceptable in the way of confrontation and violence have largely gone by the wayside. The now conventional delineation between property destruction and violence has the perverse effect of rationalizing property destruction. Even declared proponents of nonviolence speak of property destruction as, if not exactly okay, at any rate not all that bad, and understandable when committed by people who see themselves as powerless and hold grievances that strike us as legitimate.

All but lost is the principle that the effectiveness of nonviolent action derives from the moral example set by the protesters. This moral example is squandered the instant windows are smashed, cars overturned, and buildings burned even when this is not accompanied by violence to persons. Readiness to abandon the high ground, indeed, disdain for the high ground, is a mark of much activism on all sides of the political chasm that divides the country.

The honorable Kyrsten Sinema, senior senator from Arizona, supplements her full-time role as a burr under the saddle of Biden and the congressional progressive caucus by serving as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work and an adjunct business law professor at Arizona Business Law School, positions she has held since 2003.

Earlier this month a group of young immigration reform activists accosted Sinema in a campus building open only to ASU students and faculty and demanded that she support a pathway to citizenship and pass the $3.5 trillion social infrastructure package. The group recorded Sinema and her students, then pursued her down the hall to a restroom. One young woman followed her inside and continued to recite the group's demands while the senator engaged in what people do in such places. This being 2021, the activists captured it all on phone video, including students walking into and out of the restroom, an invasion of privacy that one might think would have liberals up in arms.

The activists were members of the group Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), "an organization led by changemakers fighting for social, racial, and economic transformation… committed to human dignity, inclusion, equity, and collective growth…[working] to reclaim our shared power alongside our families and community." Those in the video come across as earnest and idealistic. Their conduct was annoying in a way that is not exactly foreign to idealistic youth. I can see some of my younger self in them.

When questioned about the incident, President Biden said he did not think the tactics were appropriate "but it happens to everybody. The only people it doesn’t happen to are people who have Secret Service standing around them. So it’s part of the process" (Brett Samuels, Biden: 'Not appropriate' for protesters to follow Sinema into bathroom, The Hill, October 4, 2021). Jen Psaki attempted damage control while careful to affirm the president's support of people's fundamental right to speak up. She walked back his halfhearted criticism of the activists with the assertion that in Sinema’s case boundaries were crossed. "That’s inappropriate and unacceptable," Psaki said. (Arizona senator condemns activists pursuing her on campus, AP, October 4, 2021).

We need better from the president. Boundaries were crossed, as they routinely are when protest is carried to the homes of elected officials or confrontation in restaurants as they dine with family or friends. The LUCHA actions are in no way comparable to the intimidation and threats, including death threats, leveled against election officials and local school board members over election disputes, vaccine mandates, mask requirements, and teaching critical race theory. Even so, they are not okay and Biden should be taken to task for brushing off the incident as merely something that happens to everyone who does not have Secret Service protection. That this is now accepted as part of the process is a problem, in effect a new norm, that he should be speaking out against.

Some readers may find appeal to norms of civility and decency quaint and outdated. Others may agree that we are better served when we strive to go high, as Michelle Obama put it. This does not entail entertaining illusions about what we are up against. Republicans are fond of the trope about poisoning the well. Last week Mitch McConnell and company reared up in umbrage to accuse Chuck Schumer of poisoning the well with intemperate remarks after the debt ceiling was raised sufficiently to temporarily postpone a reckoning with the debt limit. In almost the same breath they lied that Democrats want to raise the debt limit to pay for the Build Back Better Act when in fact this is necessary to pay bills already incurred. A substantial chunk of the nation's is attributable to Trump tax cuts and boondoggle defense spending. These are the same statesmen who double down on the lie about a stolen election and obstruct investigation of the attempt to overthrow the government on January 6. This is the same McConnell who in 2016 denied Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee so much as a committee hearing, much less a vote. There is nothing in the well to poison. Republicans drained it dry long ago. Ah, but I digress.

I flash back to last summer when so many liberals and progressives could not bring themselves to denounce property destruction and violence at largely peaceful demonstrations following the death of George Floyd.* More than principle is at stake. Democrats paid a price at the ballot last November for their reluctance to speak out about property destruction and violence at BLM demonstrations. The continued reluctance to hold ostensible allies accountable will cost us again in 2022 and 2024. I fully expect the Trump Republican Party to employ whatever means are necessary to seize power in the House and Senate next year and the White House two years after. I fear they will not have to.

While political realities sometimes compel us to adopt uneasy alliances, this does not relieve us of responsibility to criticize allies who go off the rails, even when their actions are on behalf of a cause we support. How we comport ourselves counts. It is a matter of integrity, another quaint principle I am not willing to abandon.

*Axios reported on September 16, 2020, that protests that took place in 120 U.S. cities between May 26 and June 8 were mostly peaceful, "but the arson, vandalism and looting that did occur will result in at least $1 billion to $2 billion of paid insurance claims—eclipsing the record set in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers who brutalized Rodney King." In some places, my fair city of Portland infamous among them, the unrest continued throughout the summer pretty much until the city was blanketed by smoke from record-setting wildfires that had air quality off the charts unfit for human consumption(Jennifer A. Kingson, Exclusive: $1 billion-plus riot damage is most expensive in insurance history).

An August 28, 2020, fact check at USA Today debunked false claims making the rounds that Portland, New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago were in bankruptcy due to BLM protests. Nonetheless the demonstrations resulted in significant property damage.

In June, for example, city officials in Minneapolis estimated that at least 220 buildings had been damaged in protests, resulting in a minimum of $55 million in costs. And in July, authorities in Portland estimated that businesses had lost about $23 million in damages and business. (Camille Caldera, Fact check: Portland, New York, Minneapolis and Chicago are not bankrupt after protests).

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