Tag Archives: USA

How to Be Civil in an Uncivil World

Americans seem to be forever undergoing a “crisis” of civility. Year after year, we’re told that the norms dictating decent behavior are eroding; that we’ve lost sight of the basic regard we owe our fellow participants in public life; that the contentiousness of our culture threatens to undermine our democracy. Worrisome stuff, of course — but a little vague. If, as any historian will tell you, people in all times and places have been alarmed by this development (the ancient Romans called it pugna verborum, or “the battle of words”), you might wonder how urgent, or even actual, the trouble really is. Then there’s the problem of definition. One man’s civility is another man’s repression. Were the Act Up protesters in the 1980s so indecorous as to disqualify themselves from political conversation, as their critics charged? Or were they the ones demanding civility, in the form of simple recognition of the lives of people with AIDS? Is Donald Trump dangerously boorish? Or is he, too, resisting an ersatz decorum, one he and his supporters call “political correctness,” which they claim honors the feelings of everyone but the beleaguered white working-class male?

One response to these complexities is to abandon the quest for civility, deeming it a historically fanciful, hopelessly imprecise ideal. Another response, exemplified by the political scientist Keith J. Bybee’s slim and artful treatise HOW CIVILITY WORKS (Stanford Briefs/Stanford University, paper, $12.99), is to suggest we continue to fight for civility but learn to think of it less romantically. Given how nasty and intractable the conflicts in our society can be, Bybee argues, it is naïve to imagine we can somehow transcend our clashing sets of values and miraculously agree on what counts as acceptable behavior and tolerable opinion. After all, if we could find common ground on something as fundamental as that, we wouldn’t have the sort of nasty and intractable conflicts we call on civility to manage in the first place. For better or worse, we must accept that civility “does not exist outside of politics as an independent force,” Bybee writes, but rather is just as much the “subject of political struggle” as everything else.

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For the Public Good: The Shameful History of Forced Sterilization in the U.S.

The shocking history of forced sterilizations that occurred in the United States, and the story of victims in North Carolina.

One

Willis Lynch lives just outside Littleton, North Carolina, in a trailer set close to a quiet road that runs between tobacco and cotton fields. Retired from a career that included military service, farming, plumbing, handyman work, and auto repair, Lynch still does all the work himself on his 1982 Ford EXP, a car he modified to improve its gas mileage, adding Plexiglas panels to make the recessed headlights more aerodynamic and lowering the radiator to keep the engine cooler. It gets 40 miles to the gallon, according to Lynch, and has traveled more than 700,000 miles.

“People around here know me for being smart, for knowing how to fix a lot of things,” he tells me the first time I meet him, not long before he shows me the paperwork that suggested he was unfit to father children. In 1948, when he was 14 years old, Lynch was sterilized on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, a state-run organization that targeted thousands of men and women for vasectomies, hysterectomies, salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes), ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries),  and even castrations. He has lived most of his life with the knowledge that he would never have biological children.

I’d gotten in touch with Lynch after reading some of his frank public comments on North Carolina’s sterilization program, recounting, in just a few sentences, a life that turned out differently from the one he once imagined. My husband and I had been trying to conceive a child for four years when I first met Lynch, and I knew from experience already how involuntary childlessness made you an outsider in places others took for granted as welcoming, how difficult it could be to get through a day without dwelling on your invisible loss. I thought I understood something that the politicians who had been fighting over compensation for victims like Lynch did not: it is not possible to forget. But I wondered, is it possible to recover?

Sitting in his small kitchen, I tell him that I don’t have children either, that I know a little of what it’s like to miss people who don’t exist.

“You can’t have kids?” he asks gently.

“I don’t think so,” I say, sparing him the details.

“It stays on your mind,” he agrees.

Lynch is still in good health, able to walk a mile-and-a-quarter — his daily exercise — in 21 minutes. Most of his contemporaries are enjoying grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but every day he wonders: What would my kids be like? How many would I have had? Would they favor me? He wonders if a child of his might have inherited his talent for singing and playing guitar — he is an avid fan of country music, particularly Jim Reeves and Hank Williams tearjerkers, and every Friday, he performs a few of the 60 or 70 songs he knows by heart at the VFW hall in nearby Norlina.

“Some people think they have to wear boots, belt buckles, and britches like they’re in Nashville,” says Lynch, who prefers the same work pants and button-downs he wears any day of the week. “I go as I am.”

At the VFW, he’s friendly with the other musicians, the couples who come to dance, but he stands slightly apart from them, drinking bottled water alone in the kitchen and stepping outside during breaks. Things might have been different if Lynch had had children of his own. He might have had a lasting marriage, someone to take out on Friday nights. His child, too, might have been a part of things. He wonders if she’d have come hear to him sing, if he’d be someone Lynch could be proud of.

He shakes his head at the clumsily typed, tersely written documents he shows me, now decades old, which he keeps in a plain clasp envelope. An operation of sterilization will be for the best interest of the mental, moral, and physical well-being of the said patient, and/or for the public good, the Order for Sterilization or Asexualization reads. “I never figured out why they did that to me.”

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