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National View: Civility, free speech endangered by inciteful language

"If I were a cartoonist ..." I would often say that to my friend Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who died 11 years ago. He'd listen patiently as I described my vision for his work; whereupon, he'd occasionally, sometimes, say, "Not bad."

Kathleen ParkerAn image in my head now is of pugilists Donald Trump and Maxine Waters facing off in a boxer's ring.

"Too on the nose," Marlette would surely say. That is, too obvious to be clever. It would need something else to work.

Marlette had a knack for bringing together all the dangling parts of a news cycle. This seamless cohesion of the otherwise disconnected is what makes an editorial cartoon great rather than merely serviceable. Cartooning, he often said, isn't about drawing. It's about writing, and, as in most good writing, less is better. Distilling an idea to its essence, after all, requires more thinking than doodling. The wordless cartoon was always his goal.

Marlette intruded upon my thoughts today because a cartoon seemed the only way to properly treat today's news. If many Americans wonder what Jesus would do, I wonder what Marlette would draw. A leading story today is the so-called culture war of incivility. More aptly put, we're engaged in an acultural war of non-civility.

A war is, indeed, on. But this one surpasses the usual political partisanship and concerns the very idea of America. Who and what are we. What do we stand for? How should we live? And for what would we be willing to die? Will we unite in decency or tear ourselves asunder in a replica of Stephen King's "The Stand"?

The contemporaneous equivalent of the shot fired on Fort Sumter was President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy, now ended, of separating children from their migrating parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a twist of ironical symmetry, the second shot came in Lexington, Va., the small, southern town where two Confederate generals — Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson — happen to be interred. There, the owner of The Red Hen restaurant, a boutique, farm-to-table eatery, asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because of her defense of Trump's policies. Of course, given that Sanders' job is to represent the president's policies, we may infer that no Trump administration employee would be welcome at the Red Hen.

Other administration officials and Republicans have recently been met with similar, public disapproval. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen left a Mexican restaurant after being harassed by members of a socialist organization. In Tampa, Florida state Attorney General Pam Bondi was approached by protesters at a film screening. And White House adviser Stephen Miller was also heckled while eating at a Mexican restaurant. (Note to Trump officials: French.)

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, never one to shy from a fray, leapt to the microphone weekend and urged Democrats to confront "anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station — you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere."

Trump responded characteristically, firing volleys from his Twitter bunker to defend Sanders, critique The Red Hen, and taunt Waters, all while the White House, get ready, lamented the decline of civility in public discourse. (Sorry, we're all out of air-sickness bags.) Such hypocrisy may not make you want to throw a punch, but it might make you go insane. Remember, people who go to shrinks aren't crazy; they live with crazy people. The president's overall strategy may well be to simply drive the resistance insane.

As Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said on CNN Monday, "Maybe I was raised different from some of these folks." It was rude to throw Sanders out of a restaurant; it was unseemly to harass Nielsen; and, we shouldn't succumb to the dangerous impulses endorsed by Waters.

And, yet. The stakes are not small. At times, protest is essential, isn't it? Absolutely. So is free speech. But condemning language that is inciteful is also essential — not to abridge anyone's freedom but to protect everyone's.

Once the rhetoric finds expression through action — as last year when some hothead decided to shoot at Republican congressmen playing baseball, seriously wounding Majority Whip Steve Scalise — then enhanced greater security and crackdowns follow.

The next steps are familiar to anyone with a sense of history. The last stand isn't between Trump and Waters. It is between us. I see the editorial cartoon perfectly: Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty embrace each other, weeping. No words.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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