Joe Scarborough, Sarah Palin, and “No Labels”

Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman and as host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, the token conservative on MSNBC, is a participant in the launching of “No Labels” on December 13 at Columbia University in New York. He will be joined by such political glitterati as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Sen. Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.), former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn), Los Angeles’s Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sen. Deb Stabenow (D-Mich.) and others.
“No Labels” is a primarily centrist-Democrat call for civility in politics, that according to its “Declaration,” written by Mark McKinnon (a former media advisor to George W. Bush in 2000 and Sen. John McCain in 2008, who appears to be a paid consultant rather than a participant), is dedicated to countering partisan deadlock with reason and cooperation.

“We are not labels, we are people,” the screed says.”We believe hyper-partisanship is destroying our politics and paralyzing our ability to govern… We may disagree on issues, but we do so with civility and mutual respect….We have a crisis of governance – a crisis that compels us to work together to move America forward… We must put our labels aside, and put the issues and what’s best for the nation first.”

In preparation for the “No Labels” debut, Scarborough wrote a column for Politico, in which he warned Republicans to stop Sarah Palin before it was too late. In it, he variously described Palin as “anti-intellectual,” “maniacal,” “a reality star,” and “ignorant.” Would it be fair to label  “Morning Joe” as “a hypocrite”?

Oh, Scarborough can claim that most of these aren’t technically “labels.” He used “maniacal” rather than calling Palin a maniac: one is a description, the other a “label.” She is the star of a reality show, though calling her a reality star is intentionally denigrating, like calling President Obama an amateur basketball player. And Scarborough only quotes another commentator who calls Palin “ignorant,” though he does so approvingly. His defense of “anti-intellectual” would be, I am quite certain, that she is anti-intellectual.

Is this what you mean by “No Labels,” Joe? “No Labels” is either a cynical and disingenuous exercise or an inept one. How do we distinguish between unfair and disrespectful name calling, the “politics of personal destruction,” and telling the truth—or what one sincerely believes to be the truth—to the American people? Was Huey Long a demagogue?  Were Bill Clinton, or Richard Blumenthal, or Dick Cheney, liars? Is Carl Paladino a homophobic bigot? Is Charlie Rangel unethical? Labels are often essential in political debate, discussion, and reporting. The civil use them judiciously and fairly; the uncivil use them recklessly and dishonestly  to stir up extreme emotions and diminish an opponents credibility. But whether the use of a label is civil or uncivil often depends on what you think about the attacker and the target.

“No Labels” is a cynical exercise by a mostly Democratic group attempting to suppress the use of unflattering descriptors of members of their party when the heat got to be uncomfortable. After all, the group didn’t decide labels were destructive when George Bush was being called a liar, a moron, a fascist, a warmonger, and a drunk…or before the election, when  Tea Party supporters were being regularly derided as racists.  Barack Obama being called a socialist, however—well, we just can’t have that. With some hesitation, however, I will give the “No Labels” organizers the benefit of the doubt and declare the effort merely inept. Civility is worth fighting for, but the emphasis on labels is dumb and self-defeating. Labels are tools, and like any tools, they can be used appropriately or badly. Declaring them inherently wrong because they can be used to excess or to mislead is foolish, and banning them from political discourse is futile, as Scarborough’s column shows.

For the record, I’d say that Scarborough’s use of the label “anti-intellectual” is fair, “maniacal” is permissible literary license, “reality star” is a low blow, and “ignorant” is on the line, though using Peggy Noonan’s quote to make the pronouncement is weaselly. Over all, not bad as civil political discourse….a B, maybe a B+. Nonetheless, the column was hardly an exercise in “no labels,” nor should it have been.

Joe’s target, Sarah Palin, needs labels, and accurate ones, because failing to point out key character components  in the complex Palin mix will lead her political opponents to underestimate her (as they did both Reagan and Bush), and supporters to believe she is more capable, trustworthy and responsible than she really is.

I resent having to write about Palin as often as I do, so I won’t dwell on her long. From an ethics point of view, my major objection to Sarah Palin is her integrity deficit;  she does not have proper respect for the truth, and often uses her popularity and status to misinform and confuse the public. A typical example appears in her latest book, America By Heart: Reflections On Faith, Family and Flag. noticed by law professor Jonathan Turley. In the book, Palin states as fact that George Washington added the phrase “So help me God” to the oath of office when he was sworn in as the first President. It is, as minimal research reveals, a long-standing myth originated by story-teller Washington Irving. Palin, as a national figure that many people, rightly or not, regard as an authority, a leader, someone they trust, has an obligation not to abuse her status by spreading disinformation and falsehoods. She clearly believes, however, like far too many politicians, that accuracy is less important than persuasion.

Stating a Washington myth as fact in a book about America will support many possible labels: lazy, careless, manipulative, dishonest (if she knew it was false), careless, reckless and lazy (if she didn’t), manipulative and anti-intellectual (if she didn’t care whether it was true or not). Some labels it doesn’t deserve are responsible, respectful, and careful.

By all means, label Sarah Palin, Joe; we need truth in labeling for our leaders. Just don’t pretend you’re doing something else.

12 thoughts on “Joe Scarborough, Sarah Palin, and “No Labels”

  1. Let’s also keep in mind that labels are attached to those who are not in positions of high power. One label that is casually tossed about that disturbs me is “illegal(s).” It is a verb that has been twisted it into a noun/label that permanently tags a human being. It’s easy-to-remember and reference and is, in most cases that I see, a tool of dog-whistle politics. No matter what your views on immigration policy, it is beyond simplistic: it’s a hateful, dehumanizing allusion.

    When a person does something once, twice, a thousand times, does that transform that person into an “expert” in that area? If so, we are all “illegals.”

    • Are you disturbed when someone who breaks the law is called a criminal? Or someone on the run from the law a fugitive? I think you’re playing euphemism games here. An individual who is in the U.S. illegally is not a citizen, does not have the rights of citizens, and every day engages in deception and dishonesty. From the standpoint of the country’s whose laws are being violated, “Illegal” is both descriptive and accurate….there’s nothing hateful about it. The efforts by open-border advocates and apologists for illegal immigration to blur the distinction between immigration and illegal immigration, allowing them to unfairly misrepresent those who believe that cheaters should not be admired, respected or assisted no matter how much motivation they have to cheat, are indefensible—argument by distortion. Illegal aliens are a national problem because they are indeed illegal, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with labeling them as such. If they find that dehumanizing, it is within their power to address the issue. They just don’t like the options. I’m sympathetic, to a point. But they are still illegal.

  2. I said calling someone “an illegal” is inhumane to me. Nobody is “an illegal.” Here’s a mild example: if I forget to put on my deodorant before I go to work one morning, I may be “stinky” to my coworkers that day but I’m not “a stinky.” Having a status or doing something, temporary or permanent, is not the same as “being” something. Call me a hairsplitter, but they broke the law and are here illegally; to use “illegal” as a noun is what bothers me, however petty that may seem.

    Labeling of a person’s identity rather than their action is harmful. You did some bad things as a boy. Were you ever or are you now a bad person? Perhaps you broke the speed limit on the way to court today because you were nervous about being late. That is considered speeding but are you a speeder?

    It sounds to me like this is just a debate about word choices.

    • By this logic, the progressives preferred term of “undocumented worker” would be inhumane as well. When discussing immigration policy or virtually any other matter, however, labels and generalizations are necessary building blocks for intelligent debate. Using your example, saying “people should be entitled to in-state tuition if they reside in the state” is too broad in its application of the use of the term “people” if my point was that illegal aliens should be entitled to in-state tuition. The label in this case is transitory but essential for the purposes of the discussion. We can argue about what the appropriate label for a particular situation should be, but without labels, and the ability to generalize, categorize , etc., we would live in a world of meaningless sensory overload.

  3. To some degree, I understand and accept Brian Mac Ian’s point. Just because there’s a point to be made and you have to continually use a phrase should not give the lazy person free will to deteriorate the conversation by shortening the necessary labels into buzzword associations. Bill O’Reilly learned this, ironically enough, from Whoopi and Joy on The View. (Everything comes full circle.)

    Illegal is the description of the Immigrant
    Muslim is the description of the Terrorist

    If we are going to have intelligent debate, let’s not shorten our phrases and lets be explicit with our discussion. When we degrade our phrases, we introduce distractions into our debates.

    If you focus on “Illegal”, your opposition gets confused and compares other crimes. “If you give in-state tuition to a convicted rapist, why won’t you give it to an immigration violator?”

    If you focus on “Muslim”, your opposition can quickly point out that not all Muslims are terrorists, that there are other breeds of terrorists and that is why we shouldn’t profile Muslims.

    I don’t agree with “No Labels” but I do agree with “Responsible Labels”.

    • Ditto, though I don’t think either example is apt. O’Reilly said that Muslims attacked us, and suggested that this was reason enough to have some qualms about Muslims. These were not generic terrorists, they were Islamic terrorists, and the two aspect are not coincidental. Whoopie et al. chose to misunderstand his point in order to discredit him—nobody could reasonably believe that O’Reilly was saying that all Muslims are terrorists. Similarly, nobody misunderstands what is meant be “illegals” in the immigration context. It is a lot more accurate and descriptive to refer to illegal Mexican immigrants as “Illegals” than “Mexicans” or “immigrants.” Why? Because we don’t have any objection to Mexicans or immigrants if they aren’t illegally in our country. “Illegal” accurately designates what the issue is.

      • You know I agree. But consider a quote from “Men in Black” in an exchange between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones:

        Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.

        Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

        I use this and I also use the following:

        Monkey see, monkey do

        Just because Bill O’Reilly is a reasonable person and he knows what he means and the individuals he is talking to directly knows what he means, he is still a public personality on a massive distribution network. While he’s cutting corners and saving time in his reasoning and logic, the dumb, panicky, dangerous monkeys watching him and imitating him on their own without reason. It’s a great example of a slippery slope and the end result would be that the next textbook writer cuts the same corners and in 600 years after the next nuclear war, when the only thing left is that textbook, archaeologists will have no evidence to suggest that Muslim Extremists and not the entire Islamic religion attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

  4. To rise above. The world has evolved very quickly in multiple ways in such obvious ways. When that happens, it is very easy to forget what life was like before the evolution occurred. What is more, we forget that just because something has evolved doesn’t mean it’s been perfected. I know there is a great barrier to entry for media outlets, but there is much to be improved and the new entrant or existing competitor that realizes the opportunities available will have great success.

    I doubt George Washington had his list perfectly memorized on day one. I bet he slipped a couple times and reviewed his short comings and improved. Perhaps Bill O’Reilly will improve and in 20 years when he’s at the twilight of his career, people will look back on his last 20 years with optimism because he improved and was better than the rest who failed to improve.

    We may have rapid-fire, instant analysis media now, but it may not be what the people want. Once the networks realize what we want, we might end up with something else.

    Or not. If this is what we want, we should recognize that the faces providing the analysis are actually quite young still. As they mature, we may have a vastly improved culture. They’re getting their experience now and the public needs to keep the pressure on them to grow as individuals and improve their word choices. They can still be rapid-fire and include an extra word.

    One thing is for sure, the audience will never change.

  5. It’s funny that I’ve ended up so opinionated on this article. I didn’t want to read it for several days just because it had “Sarah Palin” in the title. I thoroughly dislike that woman.

  6. That’s it? That’s all you have to complain about in the Palin book? That she repeats an historical claim held to be fact by many–including, it appears, the people behind the 2009 inauguration:
    This tradition was taught to Americans for generations. It has only been “contemporary” historians that have chosen to re-write those histories to their own purposes. Whatever the current fashion may be in presidential (or media) scholarship concerning inaugural utterances seems rather irrelevant. There is no definitive proof that Washington Irving’s version is NOT true–nor could there be. So why not only choose to take from traditionalist Americans this nugget of lore, but also trash Sarah Palin for repeating it? Why notice this at all? I guess because there is nothing more relevant for critics to attack in the entire Palin book.
    I guess that’s a pretty good review, actually. Had she said anything as silly as that there are 57 states, or referred to “army corpsmen,” or misquoted the motto of the United States of America, I’m sure the media would have jumped right on it. Unless she was an Obama.

    • Whether it’s held to be a fact “by many” proves nothing, you know; it’s not. Irving was about 6 when Washington was inaugurated, and he wrote fiction. The cherry tree story was also taught as “fact”—it isn’t true either. I expect my elected officials and political leaders to eschew making the public more ignorant than it already is. She either knows what she’s talking about or not; what she doesn’t know, she shouldn’t put in books.

      A published book is different from a verbal gaffe. I talked about the unfair attacks on Palin when she mixed up the two Koreas…don’t use my own argument on me when you haven’t bothered to read it, thanks. (You can find it at

      This isn’t a book review site, in case you didn’t notice. I was writing about one matter: a misrepresentation of history by someone who likes to cite the Founding Fathers a lot, and should be more responsible. Back off.

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