Institutions and Values Part II: The Pyrite Rule


“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”
Bible, (Matt. 7:12)

It was taught to my siblings and me by my mother back in the 1950s, but the Golden Rule or versions of it have been a lantern for life’s journey for 2000 years or more, a version of which was propounded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, according to an Internet search. I am not sure if my mother read Aristotle. She was probably introduced to the Rule by Catholic nuns who schooled generations of us back in South Dakota, but who often let it lapse in their own behavior in the classroom where weapons-grade yardsticks were always close at hand.

The psychologist Izzy Kalman, an expert in bullying, said of the Rule in 2010:

“Jesus says it’s about being nice to people even when they are mean to us, and he gives us many examples. He says, love your enemy; turn the other cheek; if someone asks you to carry something for a mile, carry it for two miles; if someone wants your coat, give them your jacket, too. He says, don’t get angry. This means, of course, don’t get angry at people when they are mean to us. (We don’t get angry at people when they are nice to us.) Jesus understood this perfectly, but very few others do.”

The Golden Rule has been at the core of values on which we depend to guide our behavior and stimulate the national conscience–honesty, morality, humility, a basic sense of fairness, civil behavior, mutual respect, a strong work ethic, and some sense of spirituality and/or religious belief.

And those values are central to the quality of the American institutions that have traditionally shaped the American character—public and private education, government, politics, the news and entertainment media, free enterprise, organized religion, community, family, and marriage. Our values and a number of those institutions are in varying stages of either reconstruction or deconstruction. Most are being challenged by historic and profound changes going on all around us, from driverless cars and artificial intelligence to international barbarism that knows no boundaries.

There is now a newer guidepost in politics and society.

Think of it as the Pyrite Rule, a reverse of the Golden Rule. Pyrite is the metal known as fool’s gold. It looks like gold and feels like gold, but it assuredly is not. It’s deceiving and mostly valueless.

The Pyrite Rule is: ‘Do to others what they do to you.’ When they get mean, you get meaner. When they go low, you go lower.

Our values haven’t been challenged to this degree for 50 years, since the tumultuous upheaval spanning the 1960’s and 70’s, when society and politics were turned upside down and then righted again after considerable and historic change, much of which was lasting and not all of which was beneficial.

It is difficult to tell whether our values are being abandoned, rewritten for a new age, or expediently tweaked to accommodate behavior and attitudes that would normally be in violation of them. What is troubling is that change is taking place in a vacuum of leadership and direction, whether you look for it in the corridors of power, the laboratories of academia, or the solitude of the nave. There are more questions than answers, more information and opinion than enlightenment, more dark than light. What is left is anger and anxiety.

The lynchpin of those values is civility, our treatment of one another, and our willingness to engage in civil discourse.

Incivility’s ugliness is all around us, and has been mutating for decades, from coast to coast, from party to party, from conservative to liberal, from generation to generation, obliterating the bounds of decency, and, regrettably, being embraced and excused more than it is condemned. It ranges from nuisance to incitement of violence.

Too often the predominant context for it is President Donald Trump and that is probably to his liking and instigation. He is a master manipulator and uses incivility like the nuns used the yardstick, as a weapon to dictate behavior. He has raised incivility to dizzying new heights or more appropriately new lows. And that leads to another dangerous misconception, that if only he is deposed, everything will right itself. Wrong. He is given far too much credit—or blame—for a pattern of behavior he did not invent, or define, or introduce to our politics and social behavior. He’s merely the latest practitioner, who has broken old barriers and gone to new extremes. It is more pervasive and getting uglier, fully consistent with the Pyrite Rule.

The list of incidents is distressingly long and tiresome. Here are some mostly from left field, many of which have not been covered well; practitioners out in right field are just as active.

  • Just recently, a young intern, granted privileged and precious access to the nation’s Capitol by New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, yelled a profanity at President Donald Trump, who was entering the Capitol for talks with Speaker Paul Ryan. In these times such an act was not only uncivil but triggered security concerns.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was harassed and threatened by protesters in a Louisville restaurant, a favorite haunt of the uncivil. “We know where you live,” they warned.
  • A couple of weeks ago protesters harassed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a Washington restaurant.
  • White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was kicked out of a restaurant in Virginia.
  • Presidential aides Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller were harassed, one in a grocery store, the other a carryout. Conway, was the punch line of an ugly sexist “joke” told by Congressman Cedric Richmond last year at a Press Foundation dinner.
  • Protesters also demonstrated at Nielsen’s home, as well as the homes of presidential adviser Steven Cohen and National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Cox, where fake blood was thrown at his house and his wife and children frightened.
  • Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was recently harassed in a Richmond VA bookstore.

Hollywood is living up to its reputation for intellectual light-headedness and crude behavior as well.

  • Rosanne Barr got fired for a racially-charged remark aimed at Obama aide Valerie Jarrett.
  • Within days, comedian Samantha Bee made vulgar and scripted remarks on her talk show about Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who was projected on a screen behind Bee holding her new infant.
  • Actor Robert De Niro dishonored the Medal of Freedom bestowed upon him by President Barack Obama by using the Tony Awards to hurl two F-bombs at President Trump.
  • Actor Sasha Cohen, tricked Sarah Palin and her daughter into traveling across country for an interview on American veterans. Cohen heavily disguised himself as a disabled American veteran, conducting the interview from a wheelchair, according to the press. He apparently pulled the same sick, prank on a number of other prominent Americans.
  • Aging actor Peter Fonda called for President Trump’s 12-year-old son to be “thrown into a cage with pedophiles.”
  • Actor Seth Rogan bragged about refusing to have his photo taken with Speaker Paul Ryan and his son.
  • Michele Wolfe gave new meaning to the terms rude and crude at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, shaming Ms. Sanders, who had the decency to even show up at the event.
  • And author Michael Wolfe, a hustler who puts Cool Hand Luke Jackson to shame actually implied that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Trump were having an affair.

California Congresswoman Maxine Waters told a crowd in Los Angeles that “if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, a department store, at a gas station you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them…” The non-profit Judicial Watch believes the statement was an incitement to violence that warrants an investigation by the House ethics committee.

Society has been rewarding incivility for years.

The Hill intern was not dismissed, but given a slap on the wrist. DeNiro got a standing ovation. Bee’s show is still on the air. Just recently 200 black activist women, according to Politico, excoriated Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for criticizing what Waters said. No doubt, Cohen will make millions off of his cable special. Wolfe’s book is making him a fortune.

The new waves of destructive behavior follow a pattern reminiscent of the early days of the Tea Party movement, so they should not be dismissed as unorganized and of no consequence as was the Tea Party. Most of it is all part of the anti-Trump “resistance” movement that erupted about a minute after Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 election, among vows from every corner of the opposition, including the media, to never let the Trump presidency be normalized.

The anti-Trump resisters may be making a mistake, however. They assume they can be nastier, ruder and more provocative than he and they assume that their bad behavior will somehow penalize Trump politically. The Trump camp, on the other hand, seems to be following the counsel of Napoleon Bonaparte, who I sometimes credited with the axiom that when your adversary is making a mistake, don’t interrupt him.

Trump’s antics are more creative and have much broader reach. They will prevail. It is his policies and the lies that discredit them that may ultimately bring him down.

The irony of course is that the vast majority of Americans detest incivility and the resultant governmental gridlock. “Despite a daily barrage of partisan conflict, Americans from both political parties are generally united in the belief that uncivil behavior is rampant and having profound and negative effects on our democracy,” concluded the Civility in American survey by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research, earlier this year.

“Ninety-three percent of the public agrees that the nation has a civility problem with Democrats (69 percent) and Republicans (73 percent) acknowledging that it’s a “major” problem. Nearly three quarters of the public – and equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans – agree the problem has gotten worse in recent years. “…Incivility is a major societal problem that is getting worse, promoting political gridlock, causing people to disengage from politics and leading to intolerance of free speech.”

Still, while Americans deplore incivility, they remain drawn to it. Campaign professionals use it brutally but effectively, and often. For the media, incivility and division is a profit center widely exploited and rarely discouraged. For politicians, it is a headline grabber, in front of the cameras and on social media. It reinforces and toughens the base for some.

But incivility is a bad habit that only leads to other bad habits and bad judgments that ultimately lead to more radicalism and isolation, which lead to physical violence. That is not what we want because it is not who we are.

Okay, so whadya gonna do about it, you bums?

This is part II of a two-part series that began last month with Trump Time Out To Restore Values, Institutions.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.