Writing about Ann Wroe, The Economist obituaries editor, the other day reminded me of two acts of civility which stood out – for me at least – during 2012.
One was an obituary of Eric Hobsbawm the Marxist historian and one was a tribute to him. The obit was in The Economist (4 October 2012) and the tribute was in the Financial Times (6 October 2012) by Weekly Standard writer Christopher Caldwell. Now neither the FT nor The Economist are left-wing rags, neither are even that keen on social democracy and Caldwell is not that keen on Barack Obama either, so how did they handle the death of a life-long British Communist Party member?
In fact both articles were judicious and sympathetic without being apologetic. Confronting the politics but also generous about the historian. A cynic might explain it away by the old saw about speaking no evil of the dead but neither paper has ever resiled from that. Rather it is more a belief that civility is an essential part of discourse.
The civility in both is in contrast to the never-ending hysteria and hyperbole in the Australian media, and the tone of most recent political campaigns in Australia and the US (of which more in a day or so), aided and abetted by the PR industry and its counterparts among political advisers. The lack of civility in Australia is apparent in two recent similar examples. The refusal to allow Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull leave from Parliament to attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley is not just political game playing – it represents a failure of civility in terms of respecting the achievements of a great Australian. The churlish comments from some Liberals (I can’t keep bagging that man every day so give a generic description in this case) when Margaret Whitlam died were another example of this failure.
Ultimately, of course, the difference in approaches is not just about civility – it’s about those who have a touch of class and those who don’t.