Friday, September 30, 2005

Should the left stick up for Bill Bennett?

Great week, eh? It's been one 'winger implosion after another. Now that Morality Czar William Bennett has helpfully explained that he doesn't actually want all black babies to be aborted, left wing blogs and radio talkers are falling over themselves to defend him and accept his very kind explanation. And kudos to them, others say, for seeing beyond partisanship blah blah blah.

I suppose it will surprise no one that I favor what others call blind partisanship. But hear me out; my reasons go well beyond "what hurts my enemy helps me."

The definition--my definition, I should say--of a political "gaffe" is a statement that allows a public figure to be easily caricatured: a statement that seems to expose the worst tendencies of the speaker. Howard Dean's scream = unhinged madman, John Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it" = unprincipled flip-flopper, and on and on. Neither of these examples were anything like the genesis of the candidate's caricature, but by taking an abstract notion and giving it a concrete embodiment, it was the gaffe that served to cement the notion in voters' minds.

Here is what Bennett said:
I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.
To be sure, this statement was proceeded by a disavowal of the morality of such an endeavor. This disavowal is exactly as relevant as the argument that, for legal purposes in the Lewinsky case, it really did matter what the definition of "is" was.

Bennett explicitly suggested that blacks are responsible for crime, but more importantly, he did so from an on-high aerial view ("every black baby") that befits a phony hypocritical blowhard. So explain to me again why the left shouldn't use this statement to portray him as a phony hypocritical blowhard? Political battles are fought on political terrain, and anyone who makes a living in the political arena knows exactly the career risks posed by gaffes and soundbites. This is how the business operates.

Given that Bennett doesn't actually want all black babies to be aborted (phew!), I'd say that his remarks shouldn't disqualify him from operating a Shakey's Pizza or manufacturing ceramic ducks for a living. But advising America on morality? Avoiding the appearance of racism is a non-negotiable part of that job description.

There is such a thing as overreaching, and after a handful of political wins (some of them merely symbolic) Dems should be wary of it. Demanding an apology from Bill Bennett isn't it.


Saxdrop said...

This whole flap reminds me of the argument made in Freakonomics. Economist Steven Leavitt empirically shows (although others have supposedly found flaws in his methodology) that an increase in abortions around the decision of Roe v. Wade has lead to a decrease in crime two decades later.

For an economist, this is not controversial for any moral reason, only if his data does not support his conclusion. If he were a moralist, he would then conclude "to reduce crime, increase abortions." But he simply is an empiricist, publishing his findings. His black co-author would probably be the first to point out that certain socioeconomic strata have general defining characteristics associated with them. It's not a value judgement, just an empirical one. Or as a statistician might say, "stereotypes are Bayesian updates of verifiable samples."

My point being, what Bennett said is not inaccurate. And so, there's little debate that he's a blowhard, it just sucks when it takes accurate but insensitive "gaffes" to make people realize it. It just further boxes in what's socially acceptable. It's like Larry Summers, suggesting, *gasp*, that there might be inherent differences between men and women.

Macky Olé said...

Empirical or not, Bennett could have said something like "You could abort half of all babies and the crime rate would go down." He didn't have to go racial with it to get his point across.

In my opinion, Mr. Bennett has decided he's going to employ the Ann Coulter method of career advancement... the sound byte.

Rob said...

No quibbles with the empirical accuracy of Bennett's statement. Were he a statistician, it would have been no big deal.

Maybe it boxes in socially acceptable discourse; at least, I certainly agree that's a valid concern. But I doubt that a different sort of radio talker (Howard Stern, say, or hate-monger Michael Savage) would have run into a problem with this exchange. They're crazy, they'll say anything! Whereas it's right and appropriate to hold Bennett to a higher standard: not because "that's politics" or because "the right distorts the left all the time" but because Bennett's specific public image is built on his ability to make broad moral judgments for the rest of us.