FORT WORTH, Texas, June 16, 2012 — HBO’s Game of Thrones impails George W. Bush’s head on a pike in and the explanation offered by the show’s producers, that the image was “laying around,” raises some interesting questions. Is a former president’s head on a pike a less violent image than congressional districts in crosshairs? Is it less hateful? Would the show’s creators have been as insouciant about putting President Obama’s head on a pike?
And what on earth was George W’s head doing lying around the studio in the first place?
Just 16 months ago, the airwaves and internet were cluttered with people agonizing and outraged about Sarah Palin’s fondness for crosshair imagery, and the shooting of Gabby Gifford. The incivility of political figures and the impact they might have on the public was the focus of media outrage.
That outrage over incivility hasn’t subsided. The White House Correspondents’ Association may expel from the White House press pool The Daily Caller, whose reporter, Neil Munro, shouted out a question during (not after) President Obama’s Rose Garden speech on Friday. Less concerned are most in the media about the Game of Thrones incident, and there’s been remarkably little interest in the death threats directed at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, both before and after his victory in Wisconsin’s recall election.
In fact, Bush’s severed head is probably not an attempt to incite violence against him. The episode ran a year ago and no one seems to have noticed the decapitated presidential visage until recently. Those responsible claim that it wasn’t political, but it almost certainly was. Not political in the vicious we-want-him-dead way, but certainly political in the stupid college-kid-making-a-childish-political-statement way. It wasn’t anything that should interest the police, but it was offensively disrespectful. To understand the level of offensive disrespect, simply imagine Obama’s head on that pike.
HBO recently aired a quite different program, “41,” a warmly generous documentary about President George H.W. Bush, who celebrated his 88th birthday on Tuesday. What comes through in the program (which to date I’ve seen only in excerpts) is a man who felt deeply honored to hold the presidency and who harbors a deep respect for the office. Despite his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, he never harbored resentment for him (Ross Perot is a different story), and the two have since become close friends.
Bush 41 represents a very different sort of civility than is preached by politicians today. It isn’t reserved for people one likes or respects, but is extended even to rivals. He, like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill before him, could be sharply critical of his opponents’ policies while maintaining feelings of warmth and admiration for the men who held them. That kind of civility rests on a degree of humility, the recognition that political rivals might be decent human beings in spite of their views, and that their views might rest on virtuous motives and desires.
Politics today is religious. It’s about good versus evil, where the other side is necessarily not just wrong, but corrupt. At the very least it’s stupid and in the service of evil. If Scott Walker isn’t personally evil, he serves evil masters (the Koch brothers). Satan’s minions don’t deserve civility.
For all the sanctimonious mewling that followed the shootings in Arizona, civility is absent from most of politics and the media. The hatred that has been hurled at Walker (and at Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who one ill-wisher hopes will get colon cancer) reached hysterical, armchair-murderous levels last week. It seems not to have bothered people who consider Sarah Palin a much deadlier threat than anonymous tweeters.
Has President Obama been treated uncivilly by conservatives? Absolutely. Bush 43, whose first inaugural wasn’t nearly the love-fest of Obama’s, could tell him a thing or two about uncivil treatment. Politics is politics is religion. Conservatives in Congress pray at Grover Norquist’s shrine of “No Tax Increases, Forever,” and Ron Paul’s supporters make mere conservatives look as inflexible as a tower of jello. (Talk about religious passion - just say Mitt Romney’s name at a Ron Paul gathering and see blood spray out of some ears; and that’s before we get to his actual religion.) There’s no intermediate ground between abortion and life (even though many Americans occupy that non-existent territory), and it’s impossible for people to believe that a policy on provision of contraceptives by insurers can be motivated by anything but hatred of women or anti-religious bigotry.
Anti-religious bigots and woman haters deserve to have their heads on pikes. Anyone who’d serve the Koch brothers or George Soros deserves every crosshair pasted over his or her picture that goes on the internet. Every woman deserves to be treated with respect, unless she deserves to be treated like a bitch, and called one in public. That’s our new, religious civility.
It’s time to make our politics secular. It’s important but easy to treat with manners and respect the people we like and admire. It’s more important and much harder to show manners and respect to people we don’t like, just as it’s more difficult and tremendously important to treat their speech rights as sacred under the Constitution. Rights exist to protect those who oppose the majority, and civility allows us to live in societies with people we don’t like, not just in cliques with people we do. Rights and manners are just two different faces of the same thing, and if we don’t extend them to all, they have no meaning to any.
It would still be interesting to know why George W. Bush’s head was lying around the studio where they film Game of Thrones.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He owns The Game of Thrones on blu-ray, but hasn’t made it past episode 2. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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