On Wednesday’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart conducted an excellent interview with Mitch Daniels, mostly focused on wealth disparity and economic policy. After talking at length about the value of consensus-building, the Indiana Governor almost immediately launched into a stream of divisive language, referring to “the president’s obsession with wealthy people,” and his “constant bashing” of them. Daniels then stated that “You could confiscate the wealth of all those people, and it wouldn’t do any good.”
When Jon Stewart pointed out that Daniels might thus be contradicting his own advice about “the language of unity,” Daniels looked introspective for a brief moment before coming up with a very unique and creative excuse. “If I got a little defensive,” he said, “it’s because you’re asking me to defend positions I haven’t taken.”
Sure, Mitch, I understand; I do that all the time! Like if somebody were to ask me to defend the death penalty, my first impulse would be to describe those who oppose it as weak-willed anarchists who want to see murders roaming our streets with impunity. Of course, I don’t believe that, but that’s just the kind of thing you say when you’re called upon to play devil’s advocate, right? Any time that somebody misidentifies my social or political views as being more extreme than they are, I make certain that appropriate their language and launch ad hominem attacks against the opposing viewpoint. I mean, that’s the only natural way to defend oneself, right?
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a public statement that sounded quite so baldly disingenuous. The only thing more stunning than the fact that he attempted to defend his aggressive rhetoric by claiming that it was a consequence of his views actually being more moderate than they seemed was that in the context of the interview the strategy apparently worked. Rather than cutting it down, Jon Stewart adopted that point and took to defending himself against the baseless charge that he was arguing on the basis of straw men. He ended the interview by saying that he hoped the governor didn’t feel that he was asking him to defend positions that didn’t represent him.
If this sort of defense was acceptable when Daniels was caught in his own hypocrisy, can it be used by anyone, anytime their own behavior doesn’t match the expectations they set for their opponents? If I catch criticism for describing corporate CEOs as wealthy parasites profiting off the painful labors of people far below them, can I then demand more civility from them by saying that I only said what I did because somebody was asking me to defend that view? If a politician publicly uses racist language, can he keep his job by saying that he doesn’t really believe those things, but was backed into a corner by minority critics who mistakenly insisted that he did?
Whatever the spontaneous strategy a professional talker comes up with, any attempt to reverse a statement that you have just made in perfectly plain terms should be met with derisive laughter. Nobody should get away with such a thing, and it should be obvious that the gauge of a person’s real views and his actual respect for his opponents is what he says when he’s not prepared to censor his own remarks, when his pressured by being asked to defend a view that he may or may not hold. And if your job is to serve the public according to your personal views of what is right and wrong, it should be obvious that if someone challenges you to defend a view that you don’t hold, you simply don’t do that. You tell them exactly what you do believe, instead. It goes a long way towards avoiding perfectly absurd backpedaling and mind-bending rhetoric. I simply can’t imagine that someone could fail to understand that after more than six years as governor. But retaining a strong tendency for hypocrisy through that much time in office? That I understand.