Whatever happened to “I can’t believe he said that”?
By Kathryn Jean Lopez
Monday, October 19, 2009
On a conference call with liberal religious leaders and activists this summer, President Obama said, “I know there’s been a lot of misinformation in this debate, and there are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness, but I want everyone to know what health-insurance reform is all about.” He uses words like “ludicrous” and “fabrications” to dismiss criticisms of his health-care plan — which are still, in fact, a work in progress, making a lot of people’s legitimate worries about the uncertainty of it all very relevant.
But here he wasn’t just getting into a political catfight with Sarah Palin — a prominent, lightning-rod critic of the reform — nor was he dismissing Republicans in the House and Senate. He was dismissing concerned citizens who, at the time, were showing up to town-hall meetings in their congressional districts. He was dismissing bishops of the Catholic Church, who have been raising concerns about abortion, first and foremost, but about Obamacare’s whole approach as well.
At a campaign rally in October 2004, John Edwards, then a senator and the Democratic nominee for vice president, said at a rally in Newton, Iowa: “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” It was snake-oil salesmanship, plain and simple. Stem cells or Nobel aspirations, it was shameful.
In 1979, in a profanity-laced interview with the novelist Martin Amis in Tatler, a British magazine, Roman Polanski said: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But . . . [having sex], you see, and the young girls. Judges want to [have sex with] young girls. Juries want to [have sex with] young girls. Everyone wants to [have sex with] young girls!” And this is the man that titans of Hollywood rushed to align themselves with?
Here’s what all of these instances have in common: Political and cultural differences had me predisposed to disagree with these men, and yet, to each statement, I reacted with a reflex of disbelief. As in: Initially, I couldn’t believe that they had said the things they were reported to have said. I wanted to think the best of these men whom I disagreed with.
I don’t think that was an extraordinary attitude on my part. It’s only natural to anyone reared on Biblical messages about charity and compassion. The reflex is the fruit of the kind of moral grounding that’s always been in the American bloodstream.
So why is it that when comments like “Slavery built the South. I’m not saying we should bring it back; I’m just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark . . .” are erroneously attributed to Rush Limbaugh, the instinct, not just from the fringes of society but from the very mainstream of our political and cultural and sports worlds, is to believe? And not just to believe, but to be driven mad by falsehood? Chris Matthews on MSNBC fulminated: “Rush Limbaugh is looking more and more like [James Bond villain] Mr. Big, and at some point somebody’s going to jam a CO2 pellet into his head and he’s going to explode like a giant blimp.”
It’s not a wild assumption that Rush Limbaugh was eliminated as a potential partial owner of the St. Louis Rams because Al Sharpton insisted it be so. The self-appointed representative of moral victories declared another triumph when Limbaugh was shut out of the NFL. The major leagues shouldn’t have owners who are “divisive and incendiary,” he said.
This would be the same Al Sharpton who never apologized for the Tawana Brawley hoax, which ended a police officer’s career; the same divisive and incendiary Sharpton whose rhetoric incited murder at Freddie’s Fashion Mart in Harlem.
We seem to have a high degree of moral cluelessness when it comes to charity and, to use what has now become a Supreme word, empathy. We extend it when prudence would direct us to be on guard. And we have no room for it when it comes to a man who certain top-of-the-world types tell us is no good. Outside of the 20 million or so people who listen to Limbaugh three hours a day, five days a week, maybe we’re too busy to check it out ourselves, so we listen to what they tell us about him — without any healthy skepticism. We’re too busy for charity.
Sounding like a head-over-heels congressional page, Republican-turned-Democratic Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter wrote on his Twitter feed shortly after President Obama appeared at a fundraiser for him on September 16: “I predict he will accomplish the toughest job of all — to bring civility to Washington.” I suppose the Nobel Prize for the “new climate” Obama has created in the world is supposed to be the exclamation point on that tweet. But the actual climatological outlook is: morally cloudy, with a hyper-political chance of poor discernment. And so we buy lies and let facts fall by the wayside. That’s not charity, that’s willful ignorance, and it pollutes our politics, as well as our very souls.