May 16, 2007

Oh no he didn't!

Last night on PBS's Newshour with Jim Lehrer and this morning on NPR's Morning Edition, the late Jerry Falwell's highly inflammatory comments made on the heels of September 11, 2001 were replayed. Here's the quote that's being bandied about our public airwaves, from Falwell's appearance on Pat Robertson's 700 Club on September 13, 2001.

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and 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.' [audio]

And immediately after each clip:

Jeffrey Brown on PBS: Falwell later apologized.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty on NPR, speaking to Morning Edition host Renee Montagne: Now Renee, he later apologized for that comment.

I've been searching (not very systematically) for audio of Falwell's alleged apology. No success yet, but I have gathered what I consider to be sufficient textual evidence for my hunch that this was yet another case of a non-apology.

(Respect for the recently deceased be damned. Falwell said the words above just two days after the terrible attacks that killed thousands of innocent people and shocked people from all walks of life across the nation and the world. Where was Falwell's respect?)

CNN has this story in their archives.

[I]n a phone call to CNN, Falwell said that only the hijackers and terrorists were responsible for the deadly attacks.

[ This is followed by quotes from Falwell that, if anything, repeat what he was supposedly apologizing for. That's followed by quotes from Pat Robertson agreeing with Falwell's position, followed by National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Lorri L. Jean's expression of hope (which CNN calls a "demand") for an apology from Falwell. ]

Falwell told CNN: "I would never blame any human being except the terrorists, and if I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anyone else, I apologize."

Sure, the words "I apologize" are there, but let's examine this a little more closely. If it's true that he "would never blame any human being except the terrorists" for the attacks of September 11, then how are we to interpret the pointing-of-the-finger that he clearly articulated on September 13? Even putting this incongruency aside, there are several obvious ways in which this is not an apology in the relevant sense. For one, Falwell might only be apologizing for leaving an "impression" ("if" one was even left!), but not for the comments themselves. Or, Falwell might not really believe that the people his comments laid blame on are "human beings". Or, Falwell might believe that the people his comments laid blame on are also members of the group "the terrorists".

Or, somewhat more complicatedly, we might ask what the phrase "that impression" refers to. Of course we're supposed to think that it refers to "the impression that Falwell would blame a human being other than the terrorists". However, it could also refer to "the impression that Falwell would never blame any human being except the terrorists", which corresponds directly with what Falwell actually says in the immediately preceding clause (a prototypical way to resolve the referent of a phrase like "that X"). Under this construal, Falwell would be apologizing for leaving the impression that he would never blame anyone but the terrorists, which is certainly not the impression that his comments left, so he's really not apologizing for anything!

Two other synopses of Falwell's various insincere attempts at an apology can be found here and here. The first link reports the following first two attempts at an apology, and the second link reports the second two. Not one of these is an honest and sincere apology, for the reasons I explain below each.

  1. I sincerely regret that comments I made during a long theological discussion on a Christian television program yesterday were taken out of their context and reported, and that my thoughts -- reduced to sound bites -- have detracted from the spirit of this day of mourning.

    Here Falwell "sincerely regret[s]" what others have done with his comments (taking them out of context, reducing them to sound bites), not for making the comments himself.

  2. In the midst of the shock and mourning of a dark week for America, I made a statement that I should not have made and which I sincerely regret [...] I want to apologize to every American, including those I named.

    Here Falwell "sincerely regret[s]" having made the comments. But wanting to apologize is not the same as actually apologizing. Note that Falwell could have ended this last sentence with "... but I won't" and it wouldn't be infelicitous.

  3. This is not what I believe and I therefore repudiate it and ask God's forgiveness and yours.

    Here Falwell "repudiate[s]" his comments because they're "not what [he] believe[s]". (Then why'd he say them? And what does he believe?) He also asks for "forgiveness" from God and everyone else, as if he's merely a victim of his own inability to express what he actually believes.

  4. I misspoke [...] I apologize for my September 13 comments because they were a complete misstatement of what I believe and what I've preached for nearly 50 years [...] Namely, I do not believe that any mortal knows when God is judging or not judging someone or a nation. In my listing of groups and persons who might have assisted in the secularization of America, I unforgivably left off the list a sleeping church, Jerry Falwell, etc. ... It was a pure misstatement, unintentional, and I apologize for it uncategorically.

    This apparently "uncategorical" apology is preceded by the highly dubious claim that Falwell "misspoke" and that it was "unintentional". So, Falwell's really just apologizing for not having control over his ability to speak correctly (or something).

Finally, note that the second link also reports the following quote from Falwell:

[M]ost of the heat I've taken has not been because of the statement. It's from people who are upset that I apologized. Thousands of people of faith in America unfortunately agreed with the first statement. ... They were incensed that I apologized.

Rest assured, ye "[t]housands of people of faith in America": Falwell never really apologized. Nor do I believe he should have had to or tried. It's abundantly clear that Falwell said exactly what he believed, and what the majority of those that he represented believe -- that's what made Falwell an effective leader, and why his comments (not to mention his death) made the headlines. One of the guests on the Newshour last night made precisely this point.

Tony Campolo, Eastern University: Not only did he say what he meant, but I think that was his genius. When he made statements, which a lot of people thought were harsh, he was really articulating what huge numbers of Americans really feel and think. And that's what made him such a lightning rod.

The other guest, on the other hand, left open the possibility that Falwell may have just been really good at working the media.

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council: He would make a statement, usually in jest, knowing that a reporter somewhere would pick it up and run with it. Obviously, taken out of context, it looks horrible, but he got a headline. And he knew how to get his message across. Sometimes that was a double-edged sword, but most of the times [sic] he was very effective at doing it.

At least in the case at hand, I don't see how any of what Falwell said could be considered "in jest", "taken out of context", or simply an effort to "[get] a headline". Falwell said what he said because it was an emotional time and he really, truly believed it. Posthumously pretending that Falwell apologized for his comments may make him look a little better to those of us who think that what he said was wrong, but this comes at the expense of how he looks to those who think that what he said was right. He said what he said, and he didn't apologize for it, no matter how that makes any of us feel.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at May 16, 2007 09:16 PM