October 1, 2005
No one in his or her right mind could possibly think that Bill Bennett believes that "abort[ing] every black baby in this country" would be a good way to fight crime. He has a long, solid record on civil rights, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that he is racist. Nevertheless, the usual critics jumped all over the remark he made on his radio program earlier this week, taking pains to misconstrue the point that he was, rather clumsily, trying to make. Media Matters is a good example, gleefully "exposing" the broadcast remarks as though they were a secret. Much like Trent Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond nearly three years ago, a Republican leader once again makes a gaffe that gives ammunition to political opponents. Bennett explained it all on his Web site. He was citing a point made by Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the popular new book Freakonomics, that the national crime rate has declined in part because there are fewer unwanted babies than in the past, thanks to easy-access abortion. (See Phil Faranda's comments on that book as it relates to real estate.) Bennett clearly meant to minimize the validity of that line of argument, but many people chose to interpret his words as if he were lending support to it. Those people are either too lazy to make an effort to understand what Bennett was saying, or just plain dishonest. There is a huge irony in the fact that Bennett made explicit what many abortion advocates would rather not admit: terminated pregnancies are disproportionately high among women of color. Suffice it to say that, when it comes to making excuses for racial genocide, abortion advocates have a lot to answer for. On Sean Hannity's show on Friday, James Carville agreed that Bennett is not racist, but said that Bennett should have known better than to risk offending someone. Even White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that President Bush felt the comments were "not appropriate." (The President has been on the defensive lately, and therefore must abide by the sensibilities of the mainstream media.) Generally speaking, I would agree, but I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of pious condemnation in a case where erring too far on the side of sensitivity comes at the expense of candid and honest discourse.
So what was the point Bennett was trying to make? Simply that there are certain unconditional moral imperatives that make certain public policy measures which are rationalized on the basis of purely utilitarian, rational arguments (such as the putative correlation between abortions and crime reduction) unacceptable. It is a familiar theme in conservative philosophy, as a rebuttal to the "progressive" agendas that rely heavily on expert-driven statist intervention into society. To make his case, Bennett used the rhetorical technique of outlandish counterfactual made famous in Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" -- suggesting that surplus babies be slaughtered to feed the poor, as a means of calling attention to the severity of poverty in 18th-Century Ireland. It is supposed to grab people's attention in a way that dreadfully earnest arguments (such as mine) simply cannot do. There is a place for such hyperbole, but it depends on who is engaging in the discourse. In a conversation among people who share some broad premises, there is a degree of trust that prevents the kind of egregious misinterpretation to which Bennett was subjected. Though he has certain vices that have become public knowledge, Bill Bennett is a decent, morally sound, intellectually honest public figure who deserves respect and the benefit of the doubt. Personally, I would not have bothered to rebut the "far-reaching, extensive extrapolations" (as he described the abortion-effect hypothesis), but in exposing himself to being misconstrued, Bennett unintentionally baited his critics into revealing their own closed-mindedness and propensity to indulge in race baiting. For a thoughtful interpretation of all this, see proteinwisdom.com
In sum, this episode tells us much less about Bennett's sense of discretion than it does about the jaded perception of leftist critics, and the poor overall state of political discourse in our country right now. To me, there are few things more important than maintaining high, dignified standards of public discourse, and if I thought that Bennett was guilty of something truly serious, I would not hesitate to say so. This hubbub is a mere matter of rhetorical style: "to each his own." If you don't like it, change the channel. (I happen to like gruff, no-nonsense conservatives like Bennett, Dick Cheney, Bob Dole, or Phil Gramm, but that's just me.) In the end, this is much ado about nothing, but at least it provides good fodder for blogospheric pontification.