Big Bad Bill Bennett is at it again. The virtuemeister demonstrates once more that he walks on feet of clay (unlike the rest of us). We expect a former secretary of education to show his smarts with clarity of language. Alas, for a talk show host, sometimes there's too much information rattling around in his head for his own good.
Talk show hosts are like the pamphleteers of yesteryear, who sometimes overstate their case to make a polemical point. They argue dramatically with anecdote, analogy, comparison and irony. At their best, the comparisons are signs of provocative intelligence, but at worst, they're fodder for distortion and misinterpretation. Enemies are always ready to exploit loopy loopholes.
If Bill Bennett were to read Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" aloud on his talk show, his critics could have a jolly time of stringing him up for proposing to kill babies and sell them for delicious, nourishing and wholesome food. To make his argument believable, Swift, an 18th-century satirist and pamphleteer, solemnly wrote that he had learned from "a knowing American" that his countrymen had produced wonderful recipes for turning fattened babies into a fine stews, roasts, fricassees and ragouts. Turning Irish babies into a saleable commodity had the added advantage of preventing "those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas, too frequent among us. . . . "
When as an English literature professor I taught "A Modest Proposal," there was always a student or two who didn't quite get the satire, and, genuinely troubled, would suggest ever so hesitantly that "Mr. Swift might have gone a little too far." Eating people is bad, after all. Swift, of course, was taking aim at several targets, foremost among them the absentee English landlords who cared not a whit for their poor Irish tenants, Irish politicians who were ignorant and venal, and benevolent "humanitarians" who wrote oh-so-serious but baseless social and economic nostrums to cure poverty. These pompous intellectual theorists had no recognition of their own impotence, and felt no personal responsibility for curing poverty.
The brilliance of "A Modest Proposal" is its consistent and understated tone of parody. Satire, as every satirist knows, has to be close to reality to be effective, which makes writing satire a dangerous business.
Bill Bennett pretends to be no Jonathan Swift, but if he had put his words to paper rather than spreading them with broadcast talk-talk he would have edited his argument into a sharper weapon. His books testify to a cogent and persuasive writer. But talk shows, like most television commentary, illustrate vividly Marshall McLuhan's point that "the medium is the message." The throbbing musical leads to get your attention, the spontaneous reactions without notes, the aggressive callers who demand a pound of gray matter, the producer who demands that guests "get mad, show anger," all conspire to get it mostly wrong. Every writer or thinker who has ever been put before a television camera or radio microphone knows the hazards. The hazards multiply with the passage of the minutes, no matter how experienced the speaker. Few of us can read the transcripts without blushing.
A careful reading of the transcript of Mr. Bennett's "offensive" argument shows clearly that, like Jonathan Swift, he was arguing against the idea that human life can be measured in cost-effective terms. He was, in fact, taking sharp issue with an economic theory. A caller wanted him to add to his list of objections to abortion the idea that the babies who would never grow up to be workers were a loss to the Social Security trust fund. Mr. Bennett disagreed: "I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this . . ." He recalled that the notion sprang from a best-selling book called "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything." In it, the author suggests "that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up." That led to his remark, meant to show the absurdity of an economic theory, "that if all black babies were aborted, crime would go down . . . an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do."
"Freakonomics" was written by Steven D. Levitt, an economist, and Stephen J. Dubner. The economist has been profiled in The New York Times, and his theories about the relationship of abortion and crime, though controversial, are respectable enough in debate. James Q. Wilson, writing in Commentary magazine, says that the book has much to recommend it, but questions the research methodology. Readers, he says, should go to the economist's original studies and examine them carefully. That would be far closer to the point than blaming Bill Bennett for something he did not say.