02/07/2011 04:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time for a Return to Civility

I'll start with a clean-up. In my earlier column on the Tucson shootings I had a number of my facts wrong and several readers pointed this out.. The weapon used was not an automatic, it was a standard hand gun, and the ammunition was not special ammo - it was a normal load. The only thing unusual about the weapon was that it had a clip that held 30 rounds rather than 8 or 9. In my reaction to the shooting I relied on early reports which are hardly ever accurate and I did not further check the facts. I appreciate the readers pointing this out, and apologize - as I've said, I try to keep as close to the facts in these columns as I can, and in this case fell far short.

What did bother me about some of the responses was that the writers seemed to think that the incorrect facts somehow negated or nullified my argument. A 30-round clip is only necessary for self-defense if you are holding off numbers of attackers - it's as aberrant in my opinion as an automatic weapon or special loads. Loughner in Tucson was able to do far more damage with 30 rounds than if he had to stop after 8 or 9 and reload, and a 9-year old girl is dead.

I have no problem with advocacy for any position. The beauty of a free society is that anyone is free to advocate for any cause no matter how outlandish. In the heat of argument it's likely that things will be taken as fact that turn out not to be so - in that case, I believe it is incumbent on the advocate to clear up the discrepancy and to say how the actual facts affect the validity of his or her argument. In this case I think they don't, but I've given you the facts and you can judge for yourself.

I do have a problem when facts are willfully distorted with no accountability on the speaker's part - when Michelle Bachman says that the Founding Fathers abolished slavery and it's not in the Constitution or when Sarah Palin says that the USSR's space program led to the demise of their economic system decades later, that's an attempt to rewrite history and it's both disingenuous and wrong.

I have an even bigger problem when NO facts are presented and demeaning, insulting rhetoric is used to advocate a position. I think most Americans have issues with the government of China and its economic and social policies. Nevertheless, China is a major actor on the world stage. They have one fourth of the world's population, a fast-growing economy, and they hold a great deal of America's debt. For these reasons it makes sense to try to keep the relationship and the lines of communication between our two countries open. That noted liberal Richard Nixon knew that and opened the relationship during his administration and through thick and thin US Presidents since Nixon have done the same. It was in that spirit that President Obama hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao as he would any visiting head of state.

Rush Limbaugh who, whatever you think of him, has a large listening audience, derided the meeting and Hu Jintao personally and then launched into a long string of fake Chinese. Making fun of how another language sounds and using that to imply that the speaker is spouting gibberish is about as boorish and racist as it gets, and a California State Senator of Chinese descent, Leland Yee, demanded an apology. Limbaugh was unrepentant and truculent in his response and within hours Senator Yee's office began receiving death threats.

Responsible advocacy is the right, some would say the duty, of citizens of a free country. Responsible advocacy includes having one's facts straight, cleaning it up when one gets facts wrong, and respecting the dignity and humanity of others, even those with whom we disagree strongly. Ad hominem attacks, racial slurs, demeaning humor have no place in civilized discourse. We can manage the national polity without the input of Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk, and the American public is smarter than Bachman and Palin seem to think. It's time to put civility back into the debate; if the merits of your argument aren't sufficient to sway your listeners it demeans you, your argument, and your cause to resort to willful distortion, demeaning attacks, and appeals to racism.