By Scott Roberston
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives who now advises Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, is scheduled to speak at ETSU tomorrow on the topic of “Civility in Politics.” A photo of the event will be sent to Webster’s New American Dictionary to accompany the entry for “oxymoron.”
I’m not sure how this came to be. Perhaps attempts to have a Hillary Clinton advisor speak on the topic of “Ethics in the Era of Electronic Communication” were unsuccessful. Or maybe efforts failed to arrange a panel discussion featuring Kim Kardashian, Beyonce and Miley Cyrus addressing the topic of “Avoiding the Media Spotlight Through Tasteful Discretion.”
Kidding aside, Gingrich’s appearance is a very real part of ETSU’s “Civility Week.” Other featured events include DanceVersity: Fusion of Music, Cultures and Dance; Folksong in Social Reform; Corazon Latino; and The Fusion Multicultural Showcase.
Personally, I can’t wait to hear Newt Gingrich speak in the context of Civility Week. What’s he going to say? “Civility in politics: Good riddance! Now who has my check?”
Perhaps Gingrich will defend the Trump campaign’s use of the phrase “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” twice in the same press release as being dignified discourse. Perhaps he will take credit for writing Trump’s line, “If you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than 10 minutes straight you get a massive headache.” Perhaps Gingrich will explain how Trump’s statement that Rand Paul is reminiscent of “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain” demonstrates civility in politics.
Gingrich says he advises Trump, but does not explain their relationship further (to do so, he told thehill.com, “violates the whole point of private advice”). Fair enough, though it has been suggested Gingrich is angling to be President Trump’s White House chief of staff or is just hitching a ride on the Trump publicity machine because Gingrich has a paperback due out. It is also possible, naïve as it may sound to say, that Gingrich simply believes Trump is the best candidate for president. Regardless, it’s a curious choice to have Gingrich speak on civility in politics when flouting civility is the hallmark of the campaign Gingrich advises.
Donald Trump neither reserves his insults for his opponents nor necessarily imbues those insults with the virtue of truth. He said the “stupid” Virginia GOP has “lost statewide seven times in a row,” which would come as a shock to the recent governors Bob McDonnell and Jim Gilmore, both Republicans. Trump has insulted America’s allies, saying German Chancellor Angela Merkel, widely considered the strongest leader in Europe, is “ruining Germany.” He has insulted established conservatives like Karl Rove – “a clown with zero credibility” whom he said should “just get a life” – and George “broken down” Will. It’s to the point where Trump appears to be insulting people and things at random. Macy’s Department Store: “They ‘racial profile’ all over the place.” Major League Baseball: “So ridiculous.” The presidential lectern in the oval office: “Looks odd. Not good.”
Just so we’re clear here, a top advisor to a man who insulted a podium is speaking in Johnson City tomorrow on civility*.
Yet I hope for a meaningful address. I would dearly love for Speaker Gingrich to expound upon the complex duality of civility and diversity, for instance. Why? Well, to my eye, ETSU’s Civility Week (one hopes the title implies nothing about the other 51 weeks) appears from its agenda to be much more a Diversity Week. Civility is a necessary and desirable part of a diverse cultural discourse. But it is necessary in many other contexts as well. Just so, the commitment to truly appreciating the richness diversity can bring to a community requires more than mere civility. To conflate civility and diversity shows, at best, an incomplete appreciation of both.
It seems to me that by having Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump’s trusted advisor approaching from the right, and by having an abundance of diversity-related programming from the left, the university has surrounded the notion of civility without managing to capture it.
I think I’ve been rather civil in pointing all this out, but if you disagree, I’ll accept that criticism and take the irony that accompanies it. Because despite my critique of the effort, in the end I must praise ETSU for attempting to bring the idea of civility to the fore in this discourteous, undignified age. The left, the right and most of us in between could use the reminder.
*Technically, one stands on a podium behind a lectern, but the word “podium” has, through common usage, also become a synonym for lectern.