The Washington Post has a piece today asking for a respite from the seemingly ubiquitious cry for a "national conversation." I hardly agree with everything the piece says, but I agree for sure with its principal idea, to wit, that the demand for a "national conversation" about X is never really an entreaty for an exchange of ideas -- which is what one would ordinarily take "conversation" to mean -- but a demand for immediate surrender to whatever agenda the "conversation" is supposed to be about.
What makes this relevant here is that the demand for a "national conversation" has cropped up in the last year about two prominent criminal law issues: the death penalty and drug legalization.
When Washington and Colorado passed referenda three months ago legalizing some forms of recreational marijuana, pro-pot organizations far and wide proclaimed that the door had been opened to a "national conversation" about
how nifty it is to get stoned the Founders' vision of individual freedom. Similarly, when Connecticut prospectively abolished the death penalty, it was time for a "national conversation" about how the justice system is suffused with racism, sexism, barbarism and the other ususal suspects (and thus that it's time for national abolition).
The call for a "national conversation" on these things is dishonest in two particularly galling ways. First, it's not about a "conversation" at all. It's the opposite: It's a demand that the rest of us shut up and listen to a monologue by the chattering class concerning how rancid the criminal justice system is. Second, the inevitable tag line to the demand for a "conversation" -- that it's "long overdue" -- is an unintended but hilarious burlesque of liberal blathering. The "conversation" -- nay, flaming debate -- about both drug legalization and the death penalty has been going on for decades. What the chattering class really thinks is "overdue" is heads-bowed surrender to its dictates.