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American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks sums up the partisan climate this way:

“We don’t have an anger problem in American politics,” he said earlier this year. “We have a contempt problem in American politics. If we want to solve the problem of polarization today, we have to solve the contempt problem.”

Think about the definition of the word contempt: “The feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.”

The country has suffered several incidents in the last few weeks that have brought our divides to the forefront. Political views alone can’t explain acts of violence. But contempt is showing itself in insidious ways that are threatening basic rights, including free speech.

In the tragic shooting Wednesday that critically wounded Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and injured four others when they were practicing for a charity baseball game, the shooter had been very vocal about his hatred of President Trump and conservatives.

My home state of Oregon was also subject to a senseless attack. Late last month in Portland, a man yelling racial and religious slurs at two young women (one of whom was wearing a hijab) on the city’s MAX light rail train murdered two men who tried to intervene. Another was injured.

The attacker, Jeremy Christian, made bizarre claims of standing for free speech and patriotism. He certainly wasn’t upholding those principles and shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish them.

Yet the response of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to the murders was to try to cancel a “Trump Free Speech Rally” — an event that had been planned before the incident. Christian had reportedly attended a similar rally, even though the event’s organizers condemned his actions. The media were also quick to make the association between the protest and the murders.

Wheeler called on the organizers to cancel, but he also asked the U.S. government to revoke the permit it issued.

The ACLU of Oregon stepped in and defended the rally. On Twitter, it said: “If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we all will pay the price down the line.”

Hundreds of people showed up for the rally June 4, and hundreds of counter-protesters showed up, too, ready to yell at the Trump crowd, which seemed to behave itself.

I don’t know much about the organizers of the rally or who attended, but it was wrong to act as if they were somehow implicit in the tragedy, just as it is wrong to blame Democrats for the attacks carried out by the lunatic in Virginia.

That’s a symptom of political contempt, in this case for those on the right, which has reached a fevered pitch following Trump’s election.

Don’t like a speaker invited to address your college? Just scream and fuss until the event is canceled or the speaker can’t be heard. Violent protests at Berkeley twice canceled speeches just this year.

The consequence is a clear erosion of free speech.

Where to go from here? Brooks, who has asked the Dalai Lama about America’s contempt problem, says treating one another with basic kindness is the best way to combat the trend.

It’s worth a try.

ijacques@detroitnews.com

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