17 May 2012

ad religionem arguments and character assassination

For probably obvious reasons, Mitt Romney is reportedly "distancing" himself from a pro-Republican "super-PAC's" plan to buy time for advertisements damning President Obama by association with the infamous Reverend Wright. Speaking for the presumptive GOP nominee, his campaign manager manages (thus earning his keep) to turn a very circuitous repudiation of the super-PAC into a direct denunciation of the Obama re-election campaign. Declaring it self-evident that Obama's side "is running a campaign of character assassination," Romney's spokesman then says that his candidate and his campaign "repudiate any efforts on our side to do so." The distinction is probably lost on most observers, not because Romney's people are lying but because most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between criticism and character assassination. Republicans and Democrats alike ascribe opposing beliefs to bad character and assume each other to do so. Romney himself has sometimes attempted to avoid ad hominem arguments, preferring to portray Obama as incompetent rather than malevolent. But few will make a real distinction between Romney and all those who speak for him or in his favor. For that reason, few will take his pre-emptive repudiation of the anti-Wright ads seriously. Some will even question the premise of his stooge's statement. As I implied at the start, it can be assumed, fairly or not, that Romney wants religion taken off the agenda to prevent his own faith from becoming a campaign issue. It can also be asked whether religion, particularly when politically charged, really is as irrelevant as Romney's people now want to say it is.

Like it or not, there is no compelling reason to consider the Rev. Wright scandal a closed issue. Senator Obama issued a persuasive repudiation of Wright's extremist rhetoric (e.g. "God damn America!") back in 2008, but you wouldn't exactly expect a defense of the fiery preacher from a presidential candidate. I thought Obama's repudiation of Wright, who continues spitefully to stir the pot by accusing Obama's allies of trying to bribe him into silence, was thoughtfully sincere, but people have a right not to be persuaded. None of us can look into Obama or Romney's mind or heart. There's always room for doubt, though actions should leave less room over time. Evenhandedness requires respect for some people's lingering doubt, even if you don't respect those people's beliefs in general. If anyone is willing to consider the possibility that Mitt Romney's Mormonism will influence his politics, that he will be guided by Mormon preachers or teachers in any unseemly way, they have to concede a like possibility that Barack Obama was somehow shaped by Rev. Wright's occasional rantings on politicized subjects. In neither case does the speculation amount to character assassination. Religions are value systems. They are subject to judgments in ways that skin color and other biological components of identity are not. Freedom of religion does not confer immunity from public opinion; it only prevents public opinion from suppressing unpopular faiths.

If the Romney campaign meant to claim some moral high ground today, few will concede the claim. It's one thing to "repudiate" a prospective ad buy and another to show moral leadership, if you want to call it that, by saying that the Wright ads should not run. In our current political market, of course, Romney has no power to make any of his self-described allies stop obnoxious advertising as long as they finance themselves. He could, however, have been more forceful in denouncing the Super-PAC, instead of having his lackey append the denunciation to an attack on the Obama campaign. If anything, this presumably principled gesture will only hurt Romney with the Republican base, stuck with him though they are now, since many in the hard core remain convinced that it was Sen. McCain's reticence at invoking Rev. Wright, Bill Ayers and all the other mass-murderers and devil worshipers behind Obama that cost Gov. Palin's running mate the 2008 election. The base will most likely see this as weakness, if not wimpiness, on Romney's part, and they'll probably share the suspicion of cynics on the other side that the candidate is only out to protect his own flank. It'd be better for both major-party candidates to confront the religion issue directly and make clear whether faith influences their politics in any way. Then those who trust religion and those who distrust it can draw their own conclusions.

Update: Now the businessman who was supposed to have paid for the Wright ad campaign has repudiated the idea. A representative claims that the ad program reported on was nothing more than a proposal commissioned by the businessman and subsequently rejected by him. This statement will win him no fans with the base, which must be wondering why everyone is so chicken on the subject of Wright. The most obvious reason, of course, is that any discussion of religious influences brings Mormonism into play, but there may also be a feeling that there is no way to criticize Wright without some sort of racism being inferred. Even at this late date, I don't know if any Republican or right-winger wants to be drawn into debating whether black people have cause for calling down divine judgment upon the United States.

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