TCS Daily


Democrat Duplicity

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - September 2, 2003 12:00 AM

How many times have you heard a Democrat object to abstinence-only sex-education programs? The objection goes like this: "Teenagers are going to have sex, whether we like it or not, so if we give them only one message -- 'Don't have sex' -- we are shirking our responsibility to them. We should be realistic, flexible, and pragmatic, not idealistic, rigid, and dogmatic, for there is a great deal at stake. What we should tell teenagers is that they should abstain from sex -- but quickly add (as they roll their eyes) that if they have sex, they should use a condom."

 

Democrats think this advice is both coherent (i.e., noncontradictory) and comprehensible. Republicans complain that it conveys a mixed message. On the one hand, it discourages teenage sex; but on the other, it seems to encourage it (wink, wink), or at least express resignation that it will occur (sigh). Impressionable teenagers are likely to be confused. Logically, of course, there is no contradiction in saying "Don't do A; but if you do A, do it carefully." The debate is not about logical entailment but about what philosopher Paul Grice called conversational implicature. Republicans claim that the Democrat message conversationally implies that teenage sex is acceptable and understandable, thus undercutting the first part of the advice, however sternly expressed. Democrats claim that Republicans put moral purity or religious dogma ahead of teenage life, health, and well-being.

 

I was reminded of this perennial (and frustrating) debate the other day when I heard United States Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) say that she would vote "No" on the recall of California Governor Gray Davis but not cast a ballot for any of the 135 replacement candidates, including California Lieutenant Governor (and fellow Democrat) Cruz Bustamante. As she put it, "I am not going to vote on the second part of the ballot. I'm going to vote on the first part of the ballot, and my vote is going to be to vote no."

 

As my fellow political junkies know, Feinstein's position is not shared by all Democrats. Many of them, including California's thirty-three member congressional delegation, Feinstein's senatorial colleague Barbara Boxer, and Bustamante himself, have taken the "abstain, but use a condom if you don't" approach by calling for both a "No" vote on the recall and a vote for Bustamante as Davis's replacement. They believe that this advice, like the sex-education advice they advocate, is coherent and comprehensible.

 

Feinstein, who expressed her view while appearing in Los Angeles with Davis, has been critical of Bustamante for placing his name on the ballot. She even went so far as to call him "hypocritical." As Gary Delsohn of The Sacramento Bee reports, Feinstein explained her position as follows: "It's somewhat difficult to go out there and say, 'Vote no on [the] recall, but in case you don't, vote for me.' That's a bit of hypocrisy as far as I'm concerned."

 

This is interesting. Hypocrisy is the saying of one thing but the doing of another. For this to be the case, Bustamante would have to (1) tell people to oppose the recall but (2) prepare to vote for the recall himself (or at least want it to succeed). Nobody except Bustamante knows what he intends or wants or how he will vote, so all we can do is ask whether his taking the position he does on the recall makes him a hypocrite. I don't believe it does. His position is logically consistent, for all he and many other Democrats are saying is, "Vote against the recall; and then, having done that, vote for me." For all we know, Bustamante will follow his advice to the letter. If he does, he is no hypocrite. He will be practicing what he preaches.

 

Perhaps Feinstein is alluding to a statement made by Bustamante this past June, to wit: "I will not participate in any way other than to urge voters to reject this expensive perversion of the recall process. I will not attempt to advance my career at the expense of the people I was elected to serve. I do not intend to put my name on that ballot."

 

Bustamante appears to be doing precisely what he said he would not do, namely, put his name on the ballot. But doing what one said one would not do is not hypocrisy; it is duplicity. Of course, things change, and our views and values should, rationally, reflect relevant changes. Perhaps Bustamante meant what he said in June, which absolves him of the charge that he made a lying promise (a promise he did not intend to keep). But if so, he owes California voters either an explanation of what changed in the interim or a justification for breaking his promise. (A lying promise is not a broken promise.) If no explanation or justification is forthcoming, he will look like, and stand accused of being, an opportunist. Perhaps that is the charge Feinstein meant to level.

 

The person who comes off looking worst in all this is Feinstein. According to the Feminist Daily News Wire (16 May 2003), she tried unsuccessfully to amend a $15 billion HIV/AIDS bill for Africa and the Caribbean "to strike a requirement that one-third of the money be spent on abstinence programs." Feinstein is apparently not opposed in principle to abstinence programs, but she believes that they should be only part of an AIDS-prevention package. In other words, she sees no hypocrisy in advising people to use a condom if they will not abstain from having sex, but does see hypocrisy in advising people to vote for Bustamante after having voted "No" on the recall of Davis. One prophylactic is acceptable, apparently; the other is not.

 

Feinstein's position is curious. She must think that voting for Bustamante (which she vows not to do) implies that one didn't really mean "No" on the recall -- that one's vote against the recall was disingenuous. Does she think, then, that the typical Democrat strategy of telling teenagers (or Africans, or Caribbeans) not to have sex, but to use a condom if they do, implies that one didn't really mean "No" about the sex -- that one's recommendation of abstinence was disingenuous? Why is there an implication in the one case but not in the other? Then again, perhaps it is unfair of me to expect a politician to speak clearly, honestly, and consistently. It is not by accident that Ambrose Bierce (in The Devil's Dictionary, c. 1911) defined "politics" as "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles."

 

(Note: Some Democrats object to the adjectival use of "Democrat," as in "Democrat party." They think it is a devious Republican attempt [probably instigated by the archsemanticist and antichrist Newt Gingrich] to disparage the party. [Lexicographer Bryan A. Garner calls such behavior "semantic jockeying." See A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 196.] This is absurd. There are ample linguistic grounds for using "Democrat" rather than "Democratic" as the adjective. We say that Chris is a Democrat and Leslie a Republican. From these we get "Democrat party" and "Republican party." We don't refer to the "Republicanist" or "Republicanite" party, so why should we refer to the "Democratic" party? That Republicans attend to this matter doesn't show that they're devious; it shows that they're responsible users of the language and don't want their opponents to have unearned advantages. If anything, it's the Democrats who are devious. By insisting on "Democratic," they appear to be exploiting the favorable connotations of "democratic," which stands opposed to "aristocratic," "autocratic," and "plutocratic," none of which, these days, anyone wants to be. If Democrats are democratic, after all, then Republicans must be -- gasp! -- aristocratic, autocratic, or plutocratic. This case of Democrat word play is despicable -- and arguably, by virtue of its subliminality, undemocratic.)

 

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington. Burgess-Jackson, a delegate to the 1980 Republican State Convention in Michigan, is a longtime political junkie. Early in life, having read biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, he wanted to be president, even going so far as to memorize the presidential oath (which he proceeded to inflict on family members). Later, under the baleful influence of his political-science professors, he wanted to be a legislator. (This was his social-engineering stage.) Still later, having come to appreciate the awesome (and fearsome) power of the judiciary, he wanted to be a judge -- preferably one with lifetime tenure. Now, having grown wiser and humbler with the years, he wants only to be a, or rather the, philosopher-king.
Categories:
|

TCS Daily Archives