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This "Conversation" Is a Set-Up

Political rhetoric is not the problem.

David Harsanyi
January 12, 2011

No doubt some of you are upset by the hysterical politicization of the murders in Tucson, Ariz. Be heartened that a new CBS poll found that 57 percent of respondents believed the political tone in the nation had nothing to do with this particular madman's rampage.

Regrettably, though, there is another, seemingly innocuous "national conversation" we're about to engage in that's also based on canards meant to chill speech.

It starts with incessant hand-wringing about an imagined lack of civility in society—flaring up, as luck would have it, whenever the most recent person you voted for happens to be elected. The conversation will soon turn into a growing and phony anxiety about looming political violence and unrest that happens to be solely, as it turns out, a byproduct of a certain nutty belief system.

"Does the collective climate matter?" a longtime e-mail pen pal recently asked me. "Are you reflecting on your own style and contribution to the climate? For the record, I have never read a single word from you even close to being violent or anything close to all the stuff we heard over the last few years, but you make a living attacking and criticizing government. I do not recall ever reading a positive word about our government from you. Every time I read an article from you I feel like it is one more log on the anti-government fire, offering one more reason for your average dude to dislike and distrust their government."

Jeez, if I've never written anything that could be construed as violent or hateful, even metaphorically (though I'm sure belligerent and offensive vocabulary crept into columns as needed), what could I possibly have to reflect on? My only contribution to the crumbling discourse, it seems, is believing in the tenets of classical liberalism. That, in and of itself, is a sin.

This leaves the person with two choices: Revise your viewpoint, or shut up. Which, of course, is the point.

The always-civil Jacob Weisberg of Slate was more forceful in this regard, claiming that "at the core of the far right's culpability is its ongoing attack on the legitimacy of U.S. government."

Which, as you know, should not be confused with those heady times liberals claimed that George W. Bush was "not my president" or that we needed a "regime change at home." That kind of talk strengthened the legitimacy of government. Just as the "far right"—and I will assume this consists of anyone not named David Frum—could probably make the case that demanding government honor its constitutional limits is a demand for legitimacy.

We can argue about those things, I know. We can cobble together stupid remarks by radio talk show hosts or union activists or members of Congress and smear half the country. We can play tit for tat with tea party banners and anti-war bumper stickers and dig up some figurative rhetoric that sounds over-the-top retroactively and blow it out of proportion.

But this impending conversation about civility and our climate of hate is not only a useless one but also meant to discourage dissent. It is a rigged talk because not only do we—by any standard and context available—reside in a highly civil and peaceful political system but also violence is almost nonexistent. The tea partiers didn't pick up pitchforks and storm the White House; they knocked off Republicans in primaries.

Now, we may want to have a conversation about our policies regarding the mentally ill or the need for more gun control (though I might disagree with the outcome), because, after all, they are relevant to the horrible events of the past week. But conservatives should be wary of any national dialogue about civility or any beer summit about the specter of political violence.

It is nothing more than a setup.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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