Monday, June 14, 2010

Motives Matter

Compare and contrast. Congressman Etheridge (D-NC)'s statement in the wake of his unfortunate encounter with a presumed student reporter:
“I have seen the video posted on several blogs. I deeply and profoundly regret my reaction and I apologize to all involved. Throughout my many years of service to the people of North Carolina, I have always tried to treat people from all viewpoints with respect. No matter how intrusive and partisan our politics can become, this does not justify a poor response. I have and I will always work to promote a civil public discourse.”
It takes some level of personal responsibility and acknowledges the importance of having a "civil public discourse." Etheridge's apology admits that a wrong was done.

Now look at some of the talking points that national Democrats are putting around:
2. Why would any legitimate student doing a project or a journalist shagging a story not identify themselves. Motives matter — what was the motivation here? To incite this very type of reaction?

3. This is clearly the work of the Republican Party and the “interviewer” is clearly a low level staffer or intern. That’s what explains blurring the face of the “interviewer” and refusing to identify the entity this was done for. The Republicans know if they were caught engaging in this type of gotcha tactic it would undermine their own credibility — yet if it was an individual acting on his own there is no reason that person would have blurred themselves out of the video — and if it was the work of a right wing blog they would have their logo on the video and be shouting their involvement from the roof top.

4. This was a purposefully partisan hit job designed to incite a reaction for political reasons — but it is a tactic so low — the parties involved are remaining anonymous.

But how is this a "hit job"? Assuming nothing significant has been cut from this footage (perhaps a big assumption), all the interviewer did was ask Etheridge whether he supported the "Obama agenda." Is asking a member of Congress whether he supports the agenda of his president now considered fighting words? The congressman's reaction speaks more to Democratic anxiety about the popularity of President Obama's agenda than to the social vulgarity of his interviewer.

Embedded within these talking points is a kind of red herring that has become such a prevalent rhetorical tactic among the "progressive" left and Obama partisans:
Motives matter — what was the motivation here? To incite this very type of reaction?
Yes, motives matter, but the motivation of the speaker here is far less significant than the rancor of the congressman's reaction. So what if this interviewer is a partisan hack? So what if he is an eager non-partisan student journalist? Etheridge knew nothing about the motivations of the interviewer of the time of this encounter. And whatever the interviewer's motivations, how is it appropriate for a sitting member of Congress to grab another person by the wrist, then reach for his neck, and refuse to let him go---all in broad daylight?

These sorts of excuses put out by national Democrats are just attempts to void Etheridge of any personal responsibility. According to the thinking of this use of "motives matter," we should judge people and not actions: because this interviewer is a Republican apparatchik (according to the myth of these talking points), he is not worthy of basic courtesy.

Over the past year or so, we have witnessed "progressive" partisans attempt to distract from discussions of facts (about health-care, spending, cap-and-trade, and so forth) by impugning the motives of their opponents. The Tea Partiers are racist wingnuts, Republicans are nihilistic fanatics, etc. etc. etc. This relatively small incident shows how pervasive this tactic is. Even a congressman striking out at an interviewer on the street is rendered right and fit by the (assumed) motives of this interviewer.

Maybe Etheridge was having a bad day. Maybe he had come from a terrible meeting and his nerves were frayed. In any case, his reaction seems out of line, and Etheridge admits that. A member of Congress, he is a powerful man and has a duty to comport himself responsibly. And admitting a mistake is itself a sign of responsibility.

It should be a cause for concern when a congressman responds to an anodyne political question with physical intimidation. But it should be an even greater cause for concern---on behalf of our ethical and civil sanity---when some would excuse this intimidation because it happens to a member of a certain political party.

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