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.