I try not to consider political punditry unethical, except when the opinion rendered is unusually dishonest, misleading, uncivil, or unfair. Unfortunately, the current ideological blood sport fostered and nurtured by such outlets as Fox New, MSNBC, the Daily Kos and Breitbart, and carried on by such commentators as Ann Coulter and Frank Rich, make it increasing difficult to follow my own guideline. Occasionally there pieces so outrageously unfair that they make me angry, and those are ethically perilous: emotion is not conducive to balanced analysis. Usually I pass. The recent screed of Dana Goldstein on The Daily Beast, however, has to be condemned.
I just hope I can get through the process of explaining what without becoming furious.
It is entitled “Is Jan Brewer Anti-Immigrant Because She Didn’t Go to College?,” earning an ethics red flag right off the bat for intentionally equating Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law with being “anti-immigrant,” which it is not. Goldstein’s thesis is that Arizona’s governor is cognitively handicapped by the fact that she did not graduate from a four-year college, and thus is incapable of seeing that her support for a law that seeks to enforce federal immigration laws against those who are in her state illegally is just wrong.
Attacking the abilities, intelligence and knowledge of someone who holds a position you disagree with rather than attempting to rebut the position is an inherently unethical tactic. It is unfair, it is disrespectful, and it is cowardly. Goldstein begins with the presumption that the Arizona anti-illegal immigration statute is a mistake, and then tries to puzzle out what mental flaw could lead someone like Brewer to support it. This accomplished several devious and unfair objectives: it suggests to readers that if they support the law, they must be defective too; it allows Goldstein to call all her ideological adversaries ignorant without having to go on the record as saying so, and it denigrates Gov. Brewer personally.
Goldstein actually defeats her own argument before she begins it, which gives further credence to my conclusion that she was motivated by the objectives I just mentioned rather than by a genuine belief that not graduating from college has anything to do with how one stands on the Arizona law. First she quotes obviously unfair and mean-spirited attacks on Brewer by others, who use her failure to graduate from college as proof of bias or incompetence. Then Goldstein writes:
“And, of course, lots of successful Americans, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Woody Allen and Frank Lloyd Wright, dropped out of college. Nor is Brewer the only state executive without a four-year degree; another female governor of her generation, Connecticut’s M. Jodi Rell, dropped out of college, as did Utah’s male governor, Gary Herbert. Half of all American governors are attorneys, but plenty have less illustrious academic credentials. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, majored in animal science. West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin, was recruited to West Virginia University as a football star and graduated five years later with a degree in “information management.”
She also could have mentioned that effective and iconic leaders like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill never graduated from college, and that brilliant innovators like Henry Ford, Buckminster Fuller and Thomas Edison, writers like Edward Albee, Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens, and influential thinkers like George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw and Patrick Henry never got diplomas either. Meanwhile, the number of prominent and infamous bigots, crooks, vagabonds, bunglers and fools with not only gaudy college degrees but advanced degrees is too large ( and depressing) to contemplate. Not only is the premise of Goldstein’s attack on Brewer factually, historically and logically wrong, she knows it’s wrong, and yet pursues it anyway. This places the exercise squarely in the realm of malice.
It is also openly elitist, arrogant and pompous. Her bio states that she graduated from Brown University with a degree in European intellectual and cultural history, with an emphasis on gender. I graduated from Harvard College with a degree in American government. Her hit piece on Brewer is as unfair as my writing a critique entitled, “Does Dana Brewer Support Illegal Immigrations Because She Attended a Second-Tier Ivy League College and Majored in Non-American Culture?”
More unfair, actually.
The substantive part of Goldstein’s argument is this:
“Yet the jobs of governor, senator, or president are not like most other jobs, despite the claims—ubiquitous on the right, especially—that the best qualification for politics is being a “regular” guy or gal, a small-town type, a (hockey) mom or dad just struggling to get by. It’s a cliché, but with great power comes great responsibility—responsibility for solving big policy problems like illegal immigration and astronomical health-care costs. These problems deal with tough—and yes, philosophical—questions, like whether it is just to punish the child of illegal immigrants by denying that child citizenship rights, whether decent health care is a human right or a luxury good, and how the heck we’ll pay for it if we offer it to everybody. Furthermore, putting these problems in context requires more than just a passing familiarity with American history: It requires an appreciation of how our Constitution has evolved as a living document, amended to reflect changing conceptions of fairness. It requires a sense of humility about our nation’s failures—slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans—alongside a sense of pride in our accomplishments, from walking on the moon to winning World War II. So there is something to be said, I think, about the value of a serious liberal arts education in preparing one for political leadership.”
Let’s enumerate the dishonesty, unfairness, and random nonsense:
- The Right is most addicted to the “regular guy” qualification for candidates? Author bias foul! What utter nonsense from the follower of a party that demonizes the Republican party as the voice of the rich, powerful and disconnected from the real problems of the “typical American,” and that champions the worker while passing off the likes of Jimmy Carter as a simple farmer seeking power as an “outsider”, and William Jefferson Clinton as “Bubba.” The Common Man/ Common Woman ideal for American leadership goes back to Davy Crockett, and no political party has abandoned it, or resorted to it more than the other.
- Everybody who remembers reading or studying scholarly material that was especially germane to the issues of “…whether it is just to punish the child of illegal immigrants by denying that child citizenship rights, whether decent health care is a human right or a luxury good, and how the heck we’ll pay for it if we offer it to everybody,” raise your hand. Nobody? I studied philosophy and government policy, and absolutely nothing I covered in college prepared me to think about these questions. Goldstein is apparently making a “why it’s crucial to attend college” argument that depends on its audience having never attended college. If they did, they would know that her assertion is based on pure fantasy.
- Okay, so putting national issues in context requires “more than a passing familiarity with American history.” I am wrestling myself to the ground to avoid asking where a European culture major gets the cheek to make that statement. Just as I don’t know how familiar Goldstein is with American history, she has no way of knowing, based purely on her lack of a college degree, what Brewer’s historical knowledge is. All those dolts who can’t tell Jay Leno who those guys on Mount Rushmore are have college degrees, you know. I’ve been studying American history as a personal passion since the fifth grade, and you know how much of it I would know if I never went to college? All of it. Maybe more, since studying biology and drama criticism took away from my history reading time. Goldstein is demonstrating that she has no respect for Brewer or her opinion, and is simply expressing that disrespect in a roundabout and cowardly way, saying, in effect, “Her policy position is dumb and racist, and nobody who knows American history could have such a position.” That sounds too narrow-minded, doctrinaire and shallow, however (because it is), so she cloaks her contempt in fake diagnostics. I happen to agree with the intent of the Arizona law, and I come to that conclusion with the perspective of a knowledge of American history, quite possibly a knowledge superior to Goldstein’s. What’s my excuse for this obviously wrong attitude? It is clear what Goldstein believes: if I’m not ignorant, then I’m just stupid or evil.
- “So there is something to be said, I think, about the value of a serious liberal arts education in preparing one for political leadership.” Translation: “The faculties at American colleges are so far skewed to the political Left that nobody can graduate from a liberal arts college without being thoroughly indoctrinated into American liberal cant, as I was.”
At the end of her below-the-belt excercise in passive-aggressive character assassination, Goldstein lets her guard down and reveals what the article really is: a personal attack on Brewer’s legitimacy, ability and character.
“And you almost have to pity Brewer,” she writes. “She’s an unelected, accidental governor, caught in the eye of the national immigration storm in large part because Arizona’s agenda is defined by the extreme conservatism of legislators like state Sen. Russell Pearce. She doesn’t seem to have the spine to stand up to the bullies.”
Wait…you mean that there are supporters of the Arizona law that actually graduated from college? Sen. Pearce’s bio says that he graduated from the University of Phoenix; I guess they don’t teach American history there, or cover issues relevant to Arizona, where Pearce was born and raised. ( Goldstein was born and raised in New York, though she has lived in Paris. This, of course, gives her superior perspective on United States culture and Arizona. Arrrgh! I’m trying, really I am… ) Wait a minute…it says that Pearce “attended Harvard”! Maybe that’s the problem…people who didn’t get a degree or who attended Harvard have an inherent misunderstanding of history and are too ignorant to hold office in Arizona!
All right..I’m getting angry again. There…it passed.
If Dana Goldstein disagrees with the Arizona law, she should articulate her reasons why, and not seek to avoid legitimate debate by using name-calling, elitist credential-waving, and coded accusations of ignorance and stupidity masquerading as analysis. Her article is punditry at its craven worst. There are fair, honest and respectful arguments to be made against the Arizona anti-illegal immigration law. Goldstein’s approach just makes compromise and reasoned consensus more difficult.