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Liberals’ Civility Test

A week after President Obama’s stirring remarks at the Tucson memorial service comes an important Civility Test for liberals.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports that Democratic Representative Steve Cohen went to the well of the House and compared what Republicans are saying on health care to the work of the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

“They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels,” Cohen said. “You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like ‘blood libel.’ That’s the same kind of thing. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust. You tell a lie over and over again. We heard on this floor, government takeover of health care.”

In our post-Tucson world, I’m eager to see people like E.J. Dionne Jr., Dana Milbank, and Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post; George Packer of the New Yorker; James Fallows of the Atlantic; Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and the editorial page of the New York Times; Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Ed Schultz of MSNBC, and scores of other commentators and reporters all across America both publicize and condemn Representative Cohen’s slander.

Each of them will have plenty of opportunities to do so. I hope they take advantage of it. I hope, too, that reporters ask White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs what his reaction is. And I trust President Obama, who spoke so eloquently last week about the importance of civility in our national life, has something to say about this ugly episode as well. If the president were to repudiate Mr. Cohen quickly and publicly, it would be good for him, good for politics, and good for the nation.

But if the president and his liberal allies remain silent or criticize Cohen in the gentlest way possible, it’s only reasonable to conclude that their expressions of concern about incivility in public discourse are partisan rather than genuine, that what they care about isn’t public discourse but gamesmanship, not restoring civility but gaining power.

I’m sure conservatives will face similar tests in the months ahead — and they should be held to the same standard.

For now, though — in light of the libel by Representative Cohen — it is liberals who have the opportunity to take a stand on the matter of civility in public discourse, and in the process, to clarify their intentions and demonstrate the seriousness of their commitments.



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