Monday, March 24, 2008

Stanley Fish: Denouncing and Renouncing

A good editorial from Stanley Fish, in the New York Times, dealing with the Reverend Wright / Barack Obama situation. I agree with Fish's views on this.

Denouncing and Renouncing

Some years ago when a high ranking official of the Nation of Islam was being interviewed on TV, he was challenged to denounce another prominent member of the Nation who had called Jews “bagel-eating vermin who had escaped from the caves of Europe to pollute the world.” He replied, “I’m not in the denouncing business.” He did not elaborate further, but I understood him to be saying, It is not my job either to defend or repudiate every statement made by someone I know. Neither my integrity nor my life’s work depend on my clearing myself of suspicions provoked by the words of others.

At least I hope that’s what he was saying, because it is definitely what I want to say.

In politics, and in much of the rest of life, being held responsible for your own words comes with the territory. Once you’ve opened your big mouth, others have a perfect right to ask, “Do you really mean that?” or “What did you mean by that?” or “If you say that, would you also say…?” (a question that usually has you frantically disassociating yourself from Hitler). But why should you be held responsible for words spoken by someone else, even if that someone else is a person you work with or share a bed with? I frequently say things that make my wife cringe, but whatever blame attaches to my utterances certainly should not be extended to her, and it would be entirely inappropriate to ask her to denounce me or to fault her if she didn’t.

Yet this is the position we routinely place our public figures in. The demand that Barack Obama denounce and renounce his pastor, who delivered himself of sentiments a million miles from anything Obama has ever said, is only the latest and most publicized example. In previous little dust-ups Obama has had to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan (after Hillary Clinton demanded that he both denounce and renounce) and from his own middle name. Clinton, in her turn, has been called on the journalistic carpet because of remarks made by Robert Johnson, Geraldine Ferraro, a campaign manager and her husband. John McCain has had to repudiate a talk show host who introduced him and a minister who embraced him. And it’s only March. What do we have to look forward to? Denunciations of grade-school friends who grew up to become neo-Nazis or sub-prime lenders?

This denouncing and renouncing game is simply not serious. It is a media-staged theater, produced not in response to genuine concerns – no one thinks that Obama is unpatriotic or that Clinton is a racist or that McCain is a right-wing bigot – but in response to the needs of a news cycle.

Read the rest.

No comments: