None of this, given our partisan culture, is unexpected. But what gives these calculated and malicious rhetorical and performative ploys their political force is twofold: first, the willingness (in this case on the part of Democrats and the press, and now, the White House) to consider Bennett’s remarks outside of their argumentative context; and second, the idea that Bennett’s words are still his beyond his intent to use them in a certain way—which simply echoes the old Judith Butler axiom that “actions continue to act after the intentional subject has announced its completion,” which, while true, is nevertheless incidental, and becomes dangerous as an assertion when interpretation is released from the ground of appealing back to the speaker’s intent. That is, what is at stake here is the role the subject plays in the “meaning” of the act vs. the role played by contingency in giving that act its (subsequent) meaning(s)—or, to put it more specifically, what William Bennett meant vs. what his words can be made to look like they might mean by those in whose interests it is to damage him. In short, they are taking ownership of his words, resignifying them, then using that resignification to taint Bennett with the charge of racism.I may be wrong, but doesn't this resignification stem from post-modernism? Or is that an oversimplification? If whatever we say can be turned and reapplied in ways we, the original speaker, never intended, what are the consequences if such a practice becomes widespread? Heck, what if we historians with a political "taint" unconsciously do this all the time. In fact, we may....?
Friday, September 30, 2005
On "Getting" Bill Bennett
Plenty has been said about Bill Bennett's out-of-context and supposedly "racist" statement, but I find the analysis offered by Jeff Goldstein to be particularly insightful. As he surmises:
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For the sake of argument;if a person like mister Bennett believes abortion to be a crime, wouldn't aborting a whole group of beings to prevent crime be a little contradictory?
I'm really struggling to find any context in which Bennett's remarks could be anything but offensive. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt that the abortion solution was rhetorical in nature, he still has a problem in that he starts with the basic assumption that high crime rates are the fault of Blacks. His basic statement seems to be that the vast majority of blacks are criminals. That was the part of the statement that had my jaw hitting the floor.
I'm not going to even attempt to justify anything Bennett had to say. The comment in any context was both hateful and offensive.
As Brad DeLong, no conservative apologist, has explained:
Bennett did not "concede" that "aborting all African-American babies 'would be... morally reprehensible.'" That was his point. His caller said: "Abortion is bad because it has worsened the financing of Social Security." Bennett says: "Stay focused. We're anti-abortion not because we think that abortion is a means that leads to bad ends like a higher Social Security deficit; we're anti-abortion because abortion is bad; make arguments like 'abortion is bad because it increases the Social Security deficit' and other people will make arguments like 'abortion is good because it lowers the crime rate' and we'll lose sight of the main point."
Bennett is attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument.
Never attempt a reductio ad absurdum argument on talk radio. You can't keep exact control over your phrasing in real time, and so somebody is bound to think you are endorsing the horrible absurdity that you are rejecting.
As for the substance of the Bennett debate, I'll leave it at that. What I'm more interested in is the degree of responsibility we historians have for making sure that we provide the proper context when we quote our "subjects," be they more contemporary or historical. We have to be sure, especially when treading in controversial waters, that we don't pull quotes out of context to serve an agenda or particular narrative we are constructing. An idealistic proposition for sure, but one that bears remembering.
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