Unethical Quote of the Week AND Unethical Apology of the Month: Rep. Steve Cohen

First, the quote:

“I said Goebbels lied about the Jews, and that led to the Holocaust. Not in any way whatsoever was I comparing Republicans to Nazis. I was saying lies are wrong…I don’t know who got everybody’s panties in a wad over this statement.”

—–Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), in his initial dismissal of criticism over his rant on the House floor regarding Republican characterizations of the health care bill.

This quote is really remarkable, for it is hard to pack so many kinds of dishonesty into so few words.It’s hard to know where to begin.

1. Cohen said,

“They [Republicans] say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels.”

Cohen said, therefore, that the Republicans were “just like” Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s head of Nazi propaganda, and then says he “in no way” compared them to Nazis. “Like” is word denoting comparison. Goebbels was a Nazi. His denial that he compared the two is an outright lie.

2. Cohen says he was saying “lies are wrong,” a gross misrepresentation of his remarks. Furthermore, since he was lying in this very same statement, he his pronouncing lies wrong while lying (see 1., above.)

3. “Who got everybody’s panties in a wad” over his calling political opponents Nazis on the House floor? Has Rep. Cohen has heard of the leader of his party and his country, Pres. Barack Obama, who just a few days ago called for respectful political discourse? He knows damn well why such inflammatory comments, made by a member of the President’s own party so shortly after his speech at the Tuscon memorial event, would cause controversy.

Next, the Unethical Apology of the Month, also from Cohen (Thanks to Ethics Bob for the tip):

“Taken out of context, I can understand the confusion and concern. In speaking about the Republican message of “government takeover of health care” that has been drummed into the heads of Americans and the media for more than a year, I referenced the non-partisan, Pulitzer prize-winning Politfact.com judgment that named the Republican message as the “2010 Lie of the Year.”

“While I regret that anything I said has created an opportunity to distract from the debate about health care for 32 million Americans, I want to be clear that I never called Republicans Nazis. Instead, the reference I made was to the greatest propaganda master of all time. Propaganda, which is called “messaging” today, can be true or false. In this case, the message is false.

“I would certainly never do anything to diminish the horror of the Nazi Holocaust as I revere and respect the history of my people. I sponsored legislation which created one of the first state Holocaust Commissions in America and actively served as a Commission member for over 20 years. I regret that anyone in the Jewish Community, my Republican colleagues or anyone else was offended by the portrayal of my comments. My comments were not directed toward any group or people but at the false message and, specifically, the method by which is has been delivered.

“It is disappointing that my comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate. It is my hope that we can return our focus to the matter at hand-health care for 32 million Americans.”

As Bob Stone correctly points out in the post linked above, this is a classic non-apology apology, as it does communicate genuine contrition for his statement but only expresses regret “that anyone in the Jewish Community, my Republican colleagues or anyone else was offended by the portrayal” of his remarks. In other words, he’s sorry everyone misunderstood his meaning because someone else misrepresented them—he absolves himself of any accountability whatsoever. But as Cohen well knows, his words weren’t misrepresented, they were transcribed, videoed, posted, heard and read, and they offended people because they were objectively offensive, especially following a presidential call for civility.

Cohen said he “would certainly never do anything to diminish the horror of the Nazi Holocaust as I revere and respect the history of my people,” but in fact he did do this, by trivializing Nazi acts in a comparison with partisan debate over health care policy. He said his remarks “were not directed at any group,” but that is also a lie, as he specifically directed the remarks at Republicans in the House, and did so explicitly. In contrast to his previous misrepresentation of his remarks, Cohen now says he didn’t “call” Republicans Nazis (rather than denying that he “compared” them to Nazis), but this is Clintonian: he said the Republicans were “like” a particularly despicable Nazi. Bill, the parsing grandmaster, would argue, no doubt, that Cohen is technically right: he compared the Republicans to a Nazi, perhaps, and anyway, saying someone is like something isn’t the same as saying they are something, now is it?

Yes, Steve, we agree that you didn’t say that Republicans were literally members of the Nazi Party. Good for you.

Cohen then, as he did in his original slander, cites as gospel the highly dubious claim by PolitiFact.com that the common Republican characterization of Obamacare as a government take-over is a lie. I posted about this when PolitFact called it “the lie of the year.” PolitiFact is non-partisan in the sense that it is unaffiliated with any political party; its is, however, consistently left-leaning and in this case, obviously biased. The new law is not literally a take-over, but the characterization of it as a virtual take-over is defensible and certainly not a lie, if for no other reason that the fact that the law’s opponents believe it.

Any time the government enacts massive, wide-ranging new controls and regulations of any sector, mandating conduct by private companies, professionals and consumers of a product or service, affecting costs, prices, services provided and personal choices, the description of “take-over” is not unreasonable, even if it is not 100% accurate or fair. Indeed, just one provision of the law, the controversial personal insurance mandate, could justify that description. When the government demands that its citizens interact with a system in a particular way, saying it has “taken over” the system may be hyperbole, but it his hardly evocative of “blood libel.”

Finally, Cohen’s faux apology, in the grand tradition of non-apologizing apologists throughout history, implicitly blames the critics of his uncivil statement, disingenuously saying that it is “disappointing” that his comments “have been used” by others to distract from the issue at hand. Golly! Cohen is just amazed that comparing Republicans to Joseph Goebbels in a House speech should stir up controversy following a week in which “venomous rhetoric” was widely (if absurdly) blamed for Jared Loughner’s shooting spree, and President Obama issued a call for respect and civility.

Rep. Cohen has made a fool of himself, and with an outrageously uncivil speech, a dishonest characterization of it, and a defiant and equally dishonest “apology,” he has lapped the competition in the race to take former Congressman Alan Grayson’s mantle as the least civil member of Congress.


2 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week AND Unethical Apology of the Month: Rep. Steve Cohen

  1. Dear Jack: This incident is demonstrative of two prevalent means by which unethical politicians seek to extricate themselves from being caught at bomb throwing. The first is, as you point out, well-crafted wordsmithing that’s been called, in recent times, the non-apology apology. The other is a ploy that is equally ancient. It’s called “deny, deny, deny”.

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