By Ken StoneOn the season opener of “Saturday Night Live,” Alec Baldwin reprised his Donald Trump. But given the president’s battle with COVID-19, many asked whether the commander-in-chief was fair game.
On reflection, even Baldwin had doubts.
“If there was ever the suggestion that Trump was truly, gravely ill … I bet you everything I have that we wouldn’t even get near that in terms of the content of the show,” he said Sunday on Instagram.
It was society’s latest test of civility — after an even more dramatic event: last week’s norm-crushing presidential debate.
And it comes just in time for the annual San Diego conference on the subject.
Carl Luna, who in 2014 became the first director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement, is helping moderate its ninth annual Conference on Restoring Civility to Civic Dialogue, a webinar set Wednesday and featuring Arizona’s Cindy McCain, widow of Sen. John McCain.
Luna, a San Diego Mesa College political science professor, on Monday noted the Greek drama masks of Comedy and Tragedy and how close they are.
“We want to get back to the point where we can make light of these situations” like the pandemic, he said in a phone interview. “But because we didn’t pay attention, now bad things are (turning to) tragedy really quickly. So once this becomes tragedy, you can’t make jokes about it.”
Cindy McCain, 66, will take part in a 45-minute virtual interview about her and the McCain Institute’s #ActsofCivility initiative, launched last year in memory of her ex-White House hopeful husband.
Luna said he contacted McCain after hearing about her efforts, and she agreed to appear in April — the original date. Given the pandemic, the event was delayed. But she’s good to go for a 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. slot Wednesday.
Trump’s behavior in the debate — including frequent interruptions of Joe Biden and disregarding moderator Chris Wallace — brings focus to civility, Luna said.
“That’s a key issue because the partisanship we see now affects everything from president down to local school board races,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s not partisan today in America.”
He said it’s good to have healthy partisan debate, “but if you think the other side is bad and evil and has to be destroyed, there’s no basis for dialog.”
Luna said that hasn’t been seen so much in San Diego, “but it’s disturbingly on the rise.”
Of course, social media are turbocharging the culture of incivility.
“If lead in the water pipes led to the destruction of the Roman republic, social media — if we’re not careful — will do it to our republic,” Luna said. “There’s no longer a common basis of facts. Everybody can retreat into their own little silo of information. And then really pernicious stuff takes off.”
He noted that his conference includes an afternoon panel on how conspiracy theories and misinformation distort democracy.
Moderated by Caroline Klibanoff of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, that panel (from 2 to 3:15 p.m.) includes national and local experts — several with Civil War history credits.
Said Luna: “It’s a rising problem that falsehoods can easily crowd out reality. … until it reaches up and bites you on the butt like we saw with the president having to go into the hospital.”
But about that debate last Tuesday.
Luna says he doesn’t blame moderator Wallace of Fox News.
“From the beginning, I think I would have canceled the debate immediately when it turned out that one of the parties did not get the mandatory COVID tests,” Luna said. “And their supporters were showing up and taking their masks off.”
The presidential debate commission was responsible for making sure its rules were obeyed and health standards enforced, he said. “And they could have pulled the plug on it.”
Wednesday’s webinar via Zoom has a 500-person limit, and was “sold out” Monday. But it’s expected to be live-streamed on a University of San Diego website.
Among those watching will be social studies students in the San Diego Unified School District (with Superintendent Cindy Marten delivering remarks) and USD and San Diego Community College District students (ditto Chancellor Constance Carroll).
Luna says the conference is like a daily dose of vitamins E and C.
“It helps to keep the body healthy, but it takes constant effort. … It’s not just a one-day event, but how do you live acts of civility in institutional and personal life?” He said. “We all have to make it front and center of what we do.”
He fully appreciated how SNL makes “cheap jokes and laughs about” the president having COVID.
“But at the end of the day, does that really bring us together?” Luna asked. “We have to get the guilty pleasures out of our mind as quick as we can and start thinking about how we rebuild…. We need to make it a lot better moving forward if we’re going to stay together as a country.”
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