The Civilian Conservation Corps put many citizens to work during the Depression. (photo: Forest History Society on Flickr)

In his remarkable speech Wednesday night at the “Together We Thrive” gathering in Tucson, President Obama offered up words of hope that in responding to the tragedy in Tucson, we should strive to improve our civil discourse and to live up to the example that young Christina Green expected in how our democracy should function. The word “civil” has many shades of meaning in the context of Obama’s speech and in our society. Considering these meanings brings to mind some suggestions for how our country can move forward.

From the official White House transcript of the President’s remarks, as delivered:

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. (Applause.)

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations. (Applause.)

They believed — they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here –- they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. (Applause.)

And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us. (Applause.)

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. (Applause.)

Imagine — imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. (Applause.) I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. (Applause.) All of us -– we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations. (Applause.)

Obama is doing a tremendous service to our country in these remarks, and it is vital that we carry through with his recommendation to usher in more civil discourse. By looking at our nation through the eyes of a nine year old girl who was just discovering the wonders of democracy and service to society, he is asking us to restore the civility that has been sorely lacking from our national debate for far too long.

Since the President has issued this call to civility, it is valuable to look at the many shades of meaning for the root word “civil”. Here is the full list of meanings from

1. of, pertaining to, or consisting of citizens: civil life; civil society.

2. of the commonwealth or state: civil affairs.

3. of citizens in their ordinary capacity, or of the ordinary life and affairs of citizens, as distinguished from military and ecclesiastical life and affairs.

4. of the citizen as an individual: civil liberty.

5. befitting a citizen: a civil duty.

6. of, or in a condition of, social order or organized government; civilized: civil peoples.

7. adhering to the norms of polite social intercourse; not deficient in common courtesy: After their disagreement, their relations were civil though not cordial.

8. marked by benevolence: He was a very civil sort, and we liked him immediately.

9. (of divisions of time) legally recognized in the ordinary affairs of life: the civil year.

10. of or pertaining to civil law.

Note that the first listed definition relates to citizens. While most would agree that Obama was likely referring to meanings more like numbers seven or eight in the list (polite social intercourse or benevolence), if the public discourse in response to the Tucson tragedy turns toward the citizens themselves, the country will benefit greatly, and I believe that it would actually be our best route to restoring our country to where it could come closer to meeting the high expectations of an idealistic nine year old.

When Obama took office, our country was in the grips of horrendous economic strife. Quick action prevented the collapse of the financial core of our economy. Much of that core has recovered if one looks only at the stock market, but if we look at the citizens, we see that unemployment remains more or less as high as it was at the worst of the crisis. Here is a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the beginning to 2008 to now:

Dow Jones Industrial Average, 2008 to present.

The Dow Jones average peaked at about 13,000 in early 2008, dropped nearly half its value to around 6500 at the worst of the crisis, but now has returned to almost 12,000, or more than ninety percent of its highest value in 2008. Using the Dow Jones as the only measure of recovery, one would say that the recovery has been complete. Individuals (or civilians), by contrast, have not recovered at all, compared to the complete recovery by the corporations tracked in the Dow Jones Average. Here is a plot of unemployment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Unemployment rates, 2008 to present from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The official unemployment rate sat at around five percent at the beginning of 2008, quickly doubled to ten percent at the height of the crisis, but still hovers around nine and a half percent. Unlike corporations, civilians have not recovered at all from the economic crisis. In terms of unemployment, conditions remain nearly twice as bad as they were before the crisis.

During the Great Depression, programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps put many people back to work. Now that we are restoring civil discourse to our national discussion, it would seem a good time to consider such programs for dealing with citizens looking for work today.

While there is not space to continue down the list of meanings of “civil”, I do want to mention one more, definition number three on the list : “of citizens in their ordinary capacity, or of the ordinary life and affairs of citizens, as distinguished from military and ecclesiastical life and affairs”. Our country remains embroiled in two very unpopular wars, and yet discourse in Washington prevents a full discussion of options for ending these wars or discussion of how the wars affect the financial affairs of the nation. With civil discourse, perhaps civilians can be viewed with the same reverence as the military so that these previously taboo subjects can be discussed. Similarly, restoring Washington discussion to a truly civil level that does not venture into the ecclesiastical would be a welcome change.

Here’s to the new civility.  Long may it flourish.