Bennett, Abortion, and Reducing Stupidity

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

to appear in the November 2005 edition of The Valley Scene

Republican activist Bill Bennett has never shied from controversy. Contemporary education bashing has its roots in Bennett’s 1985-1988 term as Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary, a tenure that featured attacks on the “blob” (“bloated educational bureaucracy”), advocacy of taxpayer support for private schools, and condemnation of multicultural courses. As Director of Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1988, “Drug Czar” Bennett framed government policy as a “war on drugs” and suggested on a television show that it would be “morally plausible” to behead drug dealers.

For much of the last 15 years Mr. Bennett has been the unofficial “Values Czar” of the nation, releasing a series of books embraced by the fundamentalist Christian wing of the Republican Party. Bennett and the Fundamentalists’ shrill denunciations of all who disagree with their definition of the moral life make one wonder if they have read Matthew 7:1-5 (look it up). Indeed, when Bennett in 2003 was forced to admit to being a high stakes gambler, he became no more tolerant of the foibles of others, nor did his right wing compatriots heap on him the same level of condemnation regularly heaped on those they label as sinners.

Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio program airs on 115 stations and reaches 1.25 million listeners per week. Bennett recently on that show made a widely criticized statement about aborting black babies as a way of reducing crime. To set the context: In conversation with a caller, Bennett cited Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book Freakonomics (William Morrow, 2005), which argues that legalized abortion has reduced crime rates. He then said, “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.”

Bennett’s critics on the left were quick to condemn the remarks, while his right-leaning supporters argued that he was taken out of context. Personally, I’ll take Bennett at his word when he says that he was merely “putting forward a bad argument to immediately shoot it down.” I also agree with him when he says that “a thought experiment about public policy . . . should not have received the condemnations it has.” Consequently, I know that if the argument I am about the put forward were condemned, Mr. Bennett and his supporters would be the first to defend my thought experiment.

My argument begins with a premise that we can all agree on: there is too much stupidity passing for public discourse these days. Much of that stupidity comes from the so-called punditocracy, the membership of which is primarily Bennett-like white men born into middle or upper class families. Now in the spirit of a Bill Bennett thought experiment I ask: if we aborted all the male babies of white middle and upper class women, would we see a marked reduction in stupidity passing for public discourse?

Think about all of the stupidity we have heard over the years that could have been prevented. Some examples:

Reverend Jerry Falwell on the 9/11 tragedy: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
Former Reagan Administration Arms Control Negotiation and Fox News contributor Ken Adelman’s Iraq prediction from February of 2002: "I believe that demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk . . . This President Bush does not need to amass rinky-dink nations as 'coalition partners' to convince the Washington establishment that we're right."

Reverend Pat Robertson on Venezuela’s democratically elected president Hugo Chavez: “You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop . . . We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

Washington Times’ columnist Tod Lindberg on the Post-Katrina Bush Presidency: “Bush has what Social Security and tax reform lacked: a real sense of crisis that places his political opponents in an awkward position. He can make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.”

So if you wanted to reduce public displays of stupidity, you could abort all the male babies of white middle and upper class women. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your rate of public discourse stupidity would go down. Thank you Bill Bennett for inspiring this thought experiment.

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.