And I wonder, wonder who...who wrote The Book of Virtues

| Fri Sep. 30, 2005 3:16 PM EDT

Bill Bennett, America's former "morality czar" and author of The Book of Virtues, spoke frankly today in a remark he made on his radio program, "Bill Bennett's Morning in America." In response to a caller who wanted to talk about an assertion made in the book, Freakonomics, that the crime rate is down partly because abortion rates have increased:

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.

Both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the NAACP rushed to demand an apology from Bennett, and Bennett quickly responded by saying that he was using the scenario of aborting black babies to explain that opposing abortion for economic reasons was as wrong as opposing it for reasons related to racism. That is indeed exactly what Bennett was doing--I'll give him that--context is everything.

But though I accept Bennett's explanation of context, I have to ask: Of all the things he could have said by way of example, why did he choose to say something so totally inflammatory? He could just as well have said "You could abort every fetus (it didn't go by me that he said "baby") in high-crime cities, and your crime rate would go down...." But he didn't. He said "black baby." There is no way to get around his selection of a particular race in constructing his example. The metaphor excuse goes only so far.

Bennett, a peculiar kind of morals maven, is a compulsive gambler. It is very unusual for someone with a compulsive gambling habit to escape doing harm to his family, but Bennett insists that he didn't. At any rate, the revelation about his gambling doesn't seem to have hurt him in conservative circles, just as the revelation of Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction didn't hurt him. And I doubt that Bennett's suddenly finding that the only rhetorical example available to him was "black baby" will cause him to lose his status as the conservative steward of our morals.

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