Jewish World Review Oct 6, 2005/ 3 Tishrei,
The danger of talking too much
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. . . . "
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
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."
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on JWR contributor Suzanne Fields' column by clicking here.