Whatever Happened to Civility?

Years ago I saw a Villanova student get treated like a dog. These days with President Obama, it's deja vu all over again

I went to school at Villanova, which at the time was known for beer and basketball and track and engineering and for being as Caucasian as a line dance at a Brigham Young mixer.

I did mention beer, right?

I hear Villanova might be different now. That would surprise me a bit, but I can’t say I really know. Beyond a passing wistfulness for a stroll through campus when things turn leafy bout this time of year, I feel no real emotional attachment. Some people hang tight with their college alma mater their whole life—Hello Penn State!—but most, like me, just move on. [SIGNUP]

But I’ve been thinking about Villanova the last few weeks because of what’s happening to us as a country. Specifically, I’ve been remembering a party I went to as an undergraduate, which is fitting, since Villanova takes a backseat to few higher institutions when it comes to enjoying a big whoop.

The party I keep thinking about was set up pretty much in typical VU fashion: girls were trucked in from neighboring schools and there was plenty to smoke and drink; the lights were kept way low and the music was kept way loud. I don’t want to put a year to this party because it might identify the main player in this story, but if you think Stevie Wonder on the turntable, circa “Signed, Sealed and Delivered”—yes, that far back—you’d be more or less in the right era.

Being a party boy was hardly the epoch of cool at most schools back then. But Villanova wasn’t most schools. To be a big man on campus all you had to do was be seen rolling a couple of kegs into your apartment on a late Saturday afternoon and your popularity would skyrocket.

Parties at Villanova would start off reasonable enough, social skills relatively intact and all, but once it got to be midnight or so all bets were off. Furniture was slung aside, music was cranked, cups of beer became cups of tequila and the bump and grind on the dance floor began in earnest.

The special guest at this particular party was a much-heralded new recruit on the basketball team. He was easy to spot, not just because he was the only person of color at the party, but because he stood at least three heads above everybody else. His presence at the party was a coup, big stuff, and not just with the guys, who kept pounding him on the back between chugs of beer to show he was one of them, but the girls liked him being there too.

One girl liked him more than most, a tall All-American looking type who at some point earlier in the night had passed from a slightly buzzed state into—how best to describe it?—smashed-beyond-belief ought to do it.

As the night wore on, the tall All-American type just didn’t seem capable of keeping her hands off the star basketball player, who wore a bemused smile throughout and seemed to enjoy the dance floor attention. But —and this is important to the story—he was very careful not to reciprocate in the touching fun.

The party rolled on passionately, as alcohol-fueled parties generally do, until somebody drunkenly stumbled into the turntable, which caused the needle to sail across the record and make a nasty buzz kill screeching sound, which then caused someone to turn on the overhead lights, which then—with the bright lights shining in her face—caused the All-American girl to scream in distress as though being assaulted by the star basketball recruit.

What then followed was so deeply unpleasant that all these years later I still see it unfolding in slow motion. The “clearly distressed” All-American co-ed was quickly “rescued” by several male partygoers and taken out to the front porch, where she could be heard sobbing loudly. The star basketball player, meanwhile, was left standing in the middle of the room, alone, rescued by nobody, with nobody slapping him on the back anymore.

You could see the slow but certain dawning of what had just happened unfolding on the basketball player’s visage. The desolation that stretched across his face is what I can’t forget.

What got me to thinking about this story—and this is not a perfect parallel here, few are, so bear with me—is the treatment President Obama has been enduring over the last six months or so.

It was best summarized at a Labor Day rally a few days back by Obama himself when he departed from his prepared text, looked out at the crowd, and said of his critics, “They talk about me like a dog.”

In recent months, President Obama has been accused of not being born here, of being a Muslim; he is often described as a socialist, as “not one of us,” as the kind of Christian (when he’s not being called a Muslim) “that most people don’t recognize”; his wife gets criticized for where she goes on vacation and what she wears, and both have been criticized in recent days for their (taxpayer free) redecoration of the Oval Office.

Like a dog.

Obama came into office as a change agent who was going to transform Washington, the guy who was going to be our shining light, who was going to end the bickering once and for all and put this country back on the right track.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion as to why that hasn’t happened as planned.

Some may believe Obama’s aloof, a big spender; that he can’t relate to the middle class and that he put health care too high up on his agenda.

Others might think gridlock is hardly his fault, and the economy—devastated by his predecessor—is simply too crushing for anyone to solve quickly.

Feel free. Pick your side. Fire away.

But what has to stop are the lies, the cruelty, the walk to the edge of racism that creeps into the rhetoric—and not because we’re in danger of seeing the same look of desolation on Obama’s face that I saw on the face of the star basketball player at Villanova all those years ago.

Obama’s tough, he knows the deal. He’s hardly a naive college kid.

But if we don’t insist that kindness and civility be part of the American dialogue, the desolation we see when the lights get turned on will be on all our faces.

Tim Whitaker (twhitaker@mightywriters.org), a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.