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One of the most odious reviews I have ever read was penned by one of my favorite critics, Carlin Romano. Back in November 1993, he reviewed Catharine MacKinnon’s book Only Words in The Nation, opening with his infamous line, “Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book.” It got worse. “Because I’m uncertain whether she understands the difference between being raped and being exposed to pornography, I consider it required research for my critique of her manifesto that pornography equals rape and should be banned.” The Romano character in this little thought experiment eventually “chickens out” (I never thought that lack of bravery would be the issue in deciding not to rape someone!) but decides instead to imagine the rape:

I’m caught off guard by her fury, her indefatigable effort to talk me out of it, her insistence that exposing her to pornography would be just as effective, the wrenching final expression of disgust and despair on her face and my own self-revulsion — even if it is just fantasy research.

That last little coy aside gives the game away. If Romano wanted to make the point that words and acts are very different things, why did he need to specify an actual person — Catharine MacKinnon — as his imagined rape victim? Why did he need to specify himself as the perpetrator? Why did he need to describe the “rape” in such exquisite detail? Why does one feel that he has a smirk on his face as he describes the sexual humiliation (imaginary, of course) of a woman? The same point could have been made less luridly, but then, he wouldn’t have have achieved his primary aim of bullying MacKinnon in one of the most demeaning ways possible.

I bring up this long-dead controversy because it reminds me of the most recent troubles of radio host and former Reagan administration Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. Addressing a caller on his radio show Bennett said this:

One of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is … that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up …. But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

Matthew Yglesias
and Brad DeLong have come to Bennett’s defense on this particular statement, and Andrew Sullivan has applauded their fair-mindedness.


Both Bennett and Romano would suggest that their arguments are “thought experiments,” clearly intended to expose the absurdity of their opponents’ arguments. But for Bennett to make the argument that this is a reductio ad absurdum argument — as DeLong claims — then the “empirical claim,” in Yglesias’s words, must be “unambiguously true.” It is not. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that black babies born today will commit crime at a greater frequency than white babies will. The fact that black youth today commit crime at a higher rate than white youth is irrelevant to this thought experiment, unless one believes that cultures are immutable, and black youth are genetically predisposed to committing crime. What? You say you suspect that Bennett might actually believe this? Well, that might be one reason why certain individuals shouldn’t attempt certain forms of reductio ad absurdum arguments.

This is a classic case of talking in code, simultaneously asserting and denying a proposition so that one can both defend oneself against charges of racism, and wink at those who actually think black babies should be aborted.

Bigotry’s come a long way, baby.

One Response to “Words and Acts … and Freakonomics Again”

  1. […] This is such a sleepy blog that I doubt folks like Carlin Romano read it. Still, it’s a wonderful coincidence that, two weeks after my post comparing Romano with William Bennett, Romano himself has weighed in with a defense of the radio host — or as Romano refers to him, an “academic philosopher by training.” Bennett … tried to spotlight what he considered the wrongheadedness of the argument — the notion, by his natural-law beliefs, that good economic consequences (lower crime) of an immoral act (abortion) can justify the immoral act — by countering with a more extreme hypothetical proposition or conditional. […]

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