I fear that MSNBC commenter Kieth Olbermann is going down the same road that created the likes of Ann Coulter. This path began when Olbermann went into a rant against President Bush that earned him a lot of praise. That must have felt good. This 'positive reinforcement' induced him to do this again -- for which he obtained more praise.
So, he wants to do it again.
This requires that Bush does something that Olbermann can rant against. If Bush does not cooperate, then the next best thing is to distort and twist something that Bush says into something he can rant against.
The 'left' will not mind. The 'left' will accept his interpretation simply because they enjoy rants against Bush, and Olbermann will get his praise, even if his rant is substantially dishonest.
I want to note that I am not accusing Olbermann of conscience deception. Rather, he probably chose to twist Bush's words because, when he thought about this interpretation and what he could do with it, the thought 'felt good' to him. He then mistook this good feeling (anticipation of praise) with accuracy and moral legitimacy.
He was wrong.
Colin Powell sent a letter to Senator John McCain regarding the treatment of detainees. In this letter, Powell wrote, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism."
When Bush was asked at a press conference to respond to this statement, Bush said:
If there is any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American People, and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic. I simply can't accept that. It's unacceptable to think that there is any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.
Olbermann then went from this to accuse the President of saying, "It is unacceptable to think."
What all of us will agree on is that we have the right, we have the duty, to think about the comparison. And most importantly that the other guy whose opinion about this we cannot phathom has exactly the same right as we do to think and say what his mind and his heart and his conscience tell him is right. All of us agree about that. Except, it seems, this President.
In this, Olbermann took Bush’s words out of context and twisted them into something that he could rant against – to the cheers of his audience who, like him, cares less for truth than they do for the fact that the can express self-righteous rage. Bush did not say, ‘It is unacceptable to think.” Bush's words, instead, are consistent with the proposition, “We can judge a person’s moral character by what they say, and some things allow us to judge a person’s character harshly.”
It is a proposition that happens to be true.
In fact, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn a person because of what they say and think. If a person were to say, "All niggers are nothing but a bunch of overly educated baboons," then this person deserves to be condemned as a bigot. Condemning him does not say that he has no right to his opinion. It says only that his opinion is not right -- not factually right, and not morally right.
The right to freedom of expression IS NOT a right to be free from condemnation and criticism for what one says or thinks. If it was, then all expressions of condemnation and criticism would have to be prohibited, which contradicts the very idea of freedom of expression. This interpretation of the concept of ‘freedom of expression’ is entirely incoherent.
The right to freedom of expression is, in fact, an obligation on the part of others to limit their response to condemnation, criticism, and the free expression of their private acts. By 'free expression of their private acts' I refer to private decisions such as who to date, who to marry, who to invite over to one's home for dinner, who to socialize with after work, and who to vote for or against.
The right to freedom of expression prohibits a violent response (which includes criminal sanctions) to somebody else's words, while permitting non-violent condemnation.
So, when Muslims respond to Pope Benedict XVI's speech or a group of cartoons with condemnation, that is legitimate. They are even permitted to demonstrate their anger with peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. When President Bush responds to critics with harsh words and condemnation, this too is legitimate. Anybody who says otherwise does not understand what 'freedom of expression' means.
However, when Muslims respond to words by making death threats, by bombing churches, by murdering nuns, these people step over the limits of legitimate response to (what they see as) offensive and contemptible speech. If President Bush should demand that legal penalties be applied to those who disagree with him, then this would be beyond the limits of legitimate response to speech that he does not like.
However, President Bush did not step over that line. He limited his response to harsh words of condemnation and criticism - which he has every right to do. He did not threaten to impose legal penalties against those who disagreed with him. He did not call for or sanction violence to be done with those who disagreed with him.
He did not commit the wrong that Olbermann accused him of.
At the low point in Olbermann’s speech, in a line that is comparable to Bush’s warnings about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in its strategic rhetorical intent, makes the accusation – unjustified and unsupported – that the President is one step away from making disagreement with him a criminal offense. Specifically, Olbermann said, “we can no longer forecast what next will be said to, or about, anyone… who disagrees.”
President Bush did do something wrong – something worthy of contempt. In spite of the fact that Bush said what his head and his heart and his conscience told him was right, he was still wrong in fact, and contemptibly wrong.
President Bush twisted Powell's words into a foul distortion of what Powell said in fact, ‘bearing false witness’ against his former Secretary of State by saying that he, Powell, dared to compare America to Al-Queida. In fact, Bush makes this accusation against any dare to assert that Bush’s actions are immoral – a group that I proudly belong to.
In fact, Bush’s response above has caused me to think that Bush has come to hold a peculiar and narrow moral code. I have discovered that the best way to explain and predict Bush’s response to critics comes from the assumption that Bush has attached himself to a moral code with only one commandment; “Thou shalt not intentionally kill innocent women and children.”
This would explain why Bush thinks there is nothing wrong with torture, rendition, arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment without a trial, warrantless spying, killing innocent women and children (as long as they are innocent bystanders and not intentionally targeted), and the like are all perfectly legitimate actions. None of these are examples of intentionally killing innocent women and children.
This would also explain how Bush could interpret the phrase, "beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," to mean “accusing America of intentionally killing innocent women and children.” If intentionally killing innocent women and children is the only moral crime that exists, then accusing America of immorality must be understood as accusing Americans of intentionally killing innocent women and children.
In other words, since the Bush Administration (which Bush likes to equate with ‘America’ as if they are the same thing) is not intentionally killing innocent women and children, then it is unacceptable to think that the Bush Administration is doing anything wrong.
That’s not say that the Bush Administration is not killing of innocent women and children. It is not wrong to kill innocent women and children – it is only wrong to intentionally kill innocent women and children. A person does not do anything wrong if there just happens to be a bunch of innocent women and children standing where a person happens to be killing.
Note: Bush did not actually use the word ‘intentionally’ in his speech. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he left this word out inadvertently, but including it more accurately describes his attitude. I think that this is a writer’s obligation – to give another person’s words their best interpretation.
That’s not a principle that President Bush seems particularly interested in following – nor Keith Olbermann for that matter – or those people who give Bush and Olbermann praise when they score rhetorical points by distorting the words of others. Or so it seems.