The day after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, George Packer of the New Yorker complained that “relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right.” James Fallows of the Atlantic lamented our “extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery.” And Paul Krugman of the New York Times argued, “it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence.”

The fact that conservative rhetoric had nothing to do with the assassination attempt against Giffords didn’t matter; liberals were determined to use her shooting to conduct a nationwide seminar on civility and public discourse.

Fast forward five weeks to Madison, Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker is asking the state’s public employees to start contributing to their own pension and health-care benefits and limit their collective bargaining rights to negotiations over pay rather than benefits. His plan is sparking furious protests, with demonstrators holding up signs saying “Heil Walker! Stop the Maniac,” accusing the Wisconsin governor of “exterminating union members,” and calling him a “Fascist Union Community Killer.” Governor Walker is referred to as “Governor Mubarak,” a “Midwest Mussolini,” “al Qaeda Scott,” with some  slogans reading, “Scott Walker = Adolph Hitler.” (h/t: Ed Morrissey.) 

As Jonathan and Alana have noted, this is pretty ugly stuff. So just where is the Liberal Civility Patrol when we really need them? Have Krugman, Packer, and Fallows condemned what we’re seeing in Madison? Where is the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who has claimed, “the violent political rhetoric and the threat of political violence in this country comes almost exclusively from the right”? And what of E.J. Dionne, Jr., who has written, “The most surprising and disappointing aspect of our politics is how little pushback there has been against the vile, extremist rhetoric that has characterized such a large part of the anti-Obama movement”? Where are the earnest political commentators and news stories lamenting the inflammatory language that has become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture?

The game that’s being played is obvious. Civility has no intrinsic worth for these individuals; it is merely another weapon in an endless political battle.

All of us in politics are susceptible to double standards. We tend to overlook serrated comments by those who share our ideological views and quickly cry foul when those on the other side of the political divide say incendiary things. If you’re a conservative you tend to point your finger at Keith Olbermann; if you’re a liberal you are more likely to focus your fire on Glenn Beck. That’s why it’s important to locate figures in both camps who possess some independence of thought and mind, who are capable of making relatively disinterested judgments about events, and who believe people should be held to roughly equal standards when it comes to rhetoric and actions. It was said of George MacDonald that he shied away from debate because he was always afraid that the justifying of one’s opinions in argument might outrun the desire to find the truth at the bottom of whatever question was under consideration.

People like MacDonald are hard to find, as the unsightly events in Madison are proving.