When I wrote about Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who disgracefully circulated Psalm 109 to all Republican House members that he said was a perfect prayer for Obama—a Psalm that calls for the death of a despot—my colleague Bob “Ethics Bob” Stone disputed my prediction that his GOP party leaders would force him to step down.
Bob was right; I was naive. A national petition is circulating to demand O’Neal’s ouster, but it is being pushed by Democrats, which conveniently gives Republicans, and O’Neal, the chance to argue that the effort is “partisan.”
It isn’t partisan. It’s necessary, rational and reasonable. The fact that Republicans don’t have the integrity to take the lead in purging their ranks of this irresponsible, uncivil and vile official–that’s partisan.
Bob wins. I ignored a key rule that controls in such situations: Never overestimate a political party’s capacity for courage, decency, or common sense.
10 thoughts on “Ethics Bob: You Were Right; the Kansas Republicans Are Dunces”
Way to go, Bob!
I didn’t realize ethicists were so competitive! You’d think he beat you to a trophy or something. 😉
Oh, ethics are vicious
It’s a special kind of competition: we try to outdo each other in proving the other right. Jack won this one.
The link to EthicsBob doesn’t work. It has www, instead of www.
Oh. That was COMPLETELY unintentional.
I feel compelled to challenge what seems to have become a feeding frenzy of unjustified outrage over Mike O’Neal’s e-mail which cited one verse of Psalm 109 in relation to praying for President Obama. “This is not a drill.” This is not a mere exercise in contrarianism.
Jack, I specifically disagree with:
“[The petition drive] isn’t partisan. It’s necessary, rational and reasonable. The fact that Republicans don’t have the integrity to take the lead in purging their ranks of this irresponsible, uncivil and vile official–that’s partisan.”
First, I’m quoting the Bible passage that is at issue – Psalm 109, verse 8 (using words from Jack’s first post about O’Neal’s e-mail): “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.”
Next: I’m quoting Jack, from his Gotcha Nation post of yesterday:
“Not every mistake is a smoking gun; in fact, very few are.”
Next, from what I researched, unless I’m mistaken, O’Neal evidently meant to emphasize ONLY verse 8 of Psalm 109. Verses before and after verse 8 obviously go beyond simply a sentiment about “let[ting] [Obama’s (presumably)] days be[ing] few, and let[ting] another take his office,” conveying what appears impossible to interpret as anything but cruel, malicious sentiment. But, do we know beyond all doubt that O’Neal meant for all those verses to be remembered and invoked in prayer for the President? I have researched, and cannot find enough to begin removing doubt.
Where is the unimpeachable source (besides, perhaps, in the White House [that was sarcasm]) that makes it unmistakable that O’Neal intended to cite more? How are those who are outraged able to justify concluding that, because Psalm 109 contains all that malicious stuff and O’Neal referred only to one relatively non-malicious part of it, O’Neal therefore unquestionably intended for the prayers of those he was exhorting to hope for ALL the wished-for horrors the Psalm contains? Why isn’t there equally fair suspicion that O’Neal was being judicious, selective?
Proceeding from the knowledge of how speculators in certain realms make big money, I am allowing myself to speculate in pursuit of my own preferred profit. That is, I would like to attain greater peace of mind, based on eliminating doubt about whether my (and others’) outrage (pending and already expended) over O’Neal’s e-mail and Psalm citation is justified – or not.
1) Did O’Neal really find that Psalm, and that verse 8, all by himself?
2) Did particular clergy help him to find what he cited?
3) Did anyone else help him compose his e-mail?
4) Did he only accidentally cite verse 8 while leaving out “what he really thinks?”
5) Did he accidentally and carelessly cite “Psalm 109:8” while meaning to refer to more?
6) Did he intentionally, slyly and/or smugly cite only verse 8 – reveling in advance of the possibility that an answered prayer could fulfill all sentiment in adjacent verses, and gleefully anticipating similarly malicious sympathizers’ “violent agreement” with him on that basis, for the advancement of his renown – while thinking himself clever and covering himself in imagined innocence by claiming to pray using only the relatively benign, vague and civil sentiment of verse 8?
7) Did he deliberately mean to refer to only verse 8 with the good intention, true to his own heart, of not meaning in any way to make any other part of the Psalm relevant to his or any other person’s prayer for the President? (I did see one article citing his apology along these lines.)
I’m sure I could think of more questions, but those are my earliest ones. All of them appear relevant but all but #7 seem unanswered, at least publicly, even at this late date.
So far, I have only been able to find many expressions of outrage. But I have not yet seen a rational argument, even Jack’s, that makes clear that a smoking gun exists which justifies such outrage. Thus far all I can conclude is that O’Neal only pushed on the edge of the ethical envelope, while exercising judgment that is fair game for questioning. Whether he did so calculatedly, knowing that he would become a focus of controversy (perhaps, with a motive to rally voters, sort-of a la Oprah Winfrey’s rallying of Nielsen ratings for her OWN), is unclear. To me, the fact that he is a prominent political office holder is sufficient to justify suspicions.
I posted one comment in Jack’s blog on January 29. I do think the Psalm, and O’Neal’s citation of a part of it, are now simply being exploited for partisan gotcha points. One can cite ethics as necessitating concerted, passionate objection to possible unethical motives in O’Neal’s actions; people do have a right to jump to conclusions, and can be right in spite of doing so.
But O’Neal’s action (sending an e-mail, citing that one verse of that Psalm) was not inherently unethical. And certainly, no one can ascribe ethical purity (or immunity from being unethical) to the leaders of the forces who have mounted the petition drive against O’Neal; no one can remove the stink from their crap; they are partisans; those are facts. Those facts stand and are relevant, regardless of any similar facts being relevant about O’Neal, and about anyone who defends O’Neal’s actions (including his staying in office) without qualification. I have defended O’Neal here to an extent, but with qualification and determination to avoid partisanship.
Finally, Jack, I’m not accusing you, just admonishing: in your “should-ing” comments about O’Neal’s fellow Kansas Republicans, you are too close for comfort to Wahlberging them.
In sum, it is uncomfortable and troubling to me to admit to my cognitive dissonance concerning the O’Neal situation, because I hate owning any blind spot, diverted (or otherwise disengaged) sensitivity, gullibility or confirmation bias. Of course I especially hate missing the obvious, but sometimes that happens. But I must call things as I see them, because I also hate belatedly feeling as if I have allowed myself to be herded into any minority, majority or plurality that I am not (or may not be) part of, despite sometimes allowing so (as I’m sure most of us do from time to time), despite myself. If that isn’t one frustrated voter’s confession of his dilemma in deciding which presidential candidate to vote for in 2012, nothing is.
What O’Neal wrote was “At last — I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!” “Word for word’? As I understand it, he didn’t cite a verse, just the Psalm itself. OK. I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. I think you are right that this was unfair…based on other things I’ve read about O’Neal, he’s a dolt, and maybe he is stupid enough to send colleagues to a Psalm without reading the whole thing. Maybe he is really so ignorant that he doesn’t know that “days are numbered” in the Bible always means days ALIVE, not “days in office.” It doesn’t matter. High level officials who make statements that cross certain lines have always had to resign—James Watt stepped down from the Reagan cabinet because he used the term “cripple” instead of “handicapped.” Trent Lott had to step down as Senate Leader because he gave an excessive compliment to a 100 year old racist Senator,and was called a racist himself as a result. You can’t do something, as a high ranking state official, that credibly translates into calling for a President’s death….mistake or not. It’s strict liability, Proam.
I’ll accept your premise: he didn’t mean to call for Obama’s death, but did so by accident, because he’s a reckless, incompetent fool.
Should the GOP make a reckless, incompetent fool whom many, many people across the country think asked GOP legislators to pray for Obama’s death resign? Isn’t the answer obvious?
I also don’t think it makes any difference who he consulted or who gave him the quote: he’s a leader, and he’s responsible.
I think the “code” analogy is over-used, but this piece of the Psalm is on posters and bumper stickers, and the part is subordinate to the whole. If Barack Obama used a quote from “The Communist Manefesto” or “Mein Kampf” no matter how benign, you can bet the and media would be howling bloody murder, and correctly so.
McNeal is a leader, and he’s accountable.
Thanks Jack for your patient help. You touched on points that by now I should have expected you to touch on (and maybe I did expect you to, at a subliminal level) – much appreciated.
That malleability (that’s the only term I can think of for it) of Bible verses was one aspect of O’Neal’s action that immediately caused me to give him benefit of doubt. I think LBJ used a verse in one of his speeches – can’t remember which speech – something like “Come, let us reason together.” I agree: Lifting from original context and applying in new context is always tricky, and doing so with portions of faith groups’ sacred scriptures especially risks mis-application (and others’ misunderstanding and jumping to conclusions). It was easy for me to allow that O’Neal meant “days in office” be numbered, based on the last part of verse 8, and not “days left to live,” based on the whole of Psalm 109. If I hadn’t read the Bible as much or not understood “Christianese” better, I might have reacted to what O’Neal did the same way as I have seen a few react (“RACIST!”).
The “strict liability” concept applied to speech, especially political speech, continues to trouble me. I’m not arguing that it doesn’t exist, just that it’s censorious and should not be applied to that kind of speech. Your examples of James Watt and Trent Lott were appropriate illustrations of the unfairness that perpetuates the ugly, backfire-prone, “perception-is-reality” dynamic of politics. In my opinion, the same unfairness has been applied to Michelle Obama for example, when she said something a few years back about being proud of her country for the first time in her life. There is a literal way to take what she said, and isolate it, and conclude incorrectly about her patriotism. But there is also a way to reason and conclude correctly that what she meant was that she was proud of her country in a way that she never had been before. Therefore, “the answer,” i.e., what should be done in the wake of O’Neal’s action, is not obvious to me.
Further, it is not obvious to me that we would hear cries of bloody murder if another politician, however prominent, was to quote from literature produced by a leader whom “history” has discredited. (I’ll get to my use of quotes there shortly.) I’m saying that the ethical value, prudence, is lacking such that it is possible – as illustrated by what I am again calling a feeding frenzy of outrage over what O’Neal did – to cry bloody murder when it is not called for, and to fail to cry bloody murder when it is called for.
The O’Neal e-mail and the ensuing outrage perhaps trouble me beyond the related malleability of religious text and strict liability for political speech. To me, the O’Neal case illustrates that the newer media (and the older media’s newer uses) are increasingly tools of suppression and oppression, instead of tools to facilitate liberty (and ethics) and to promote reasoned and ethical maximization of liberty. “History” is becoming something worthy of distrust in whatever manner it is presented. In my brief lifetime, “history” has shown itself to me as merely an art of forgetting and a science of facilitating forgetfulness as means to ends of tyrannical exploitation.
I agree with your points on O’Neal’s responsibility and accountability. But the same goes for his critics, and especially for leaders of any “charge” against him. (There I go again, with “provocative,” even “militant” speech! Perhaps “history” will vindicate me…)