Live From New York

The Politics of Pity

Ann Coulter has an underlying point.

By 6.9.06

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My mother died of emphysema in December 2003. She spent the last two weeks of her life in a hospice, under heavy sedation but still gasping for air and coughing up phlegm, as my sister and I alternated vigils so that, in case she woke up, she wouldn't feel alone. She never woke up.

Watching my mom die of emphysema made me an expert in...well, what it's like to watch your mom die of emphysema. The experience didn't provide insight into the disease itself, its onset or prognosis, or its treatment options. I've no idea whether the federal government is spending too little, too much, or just enough on emphysema research. My mother's death didn't mystically impart a capacity to speak intelligently on these issues.

The brouhaha over conservative columnist Ann Coulter's disparaging remarks about 9/11 widows has obscured the validity of her underlying point. Grief does not confer competency. If Coulter went overboard in calling the four New Jersey women "harpies" and "the witches of East Brunswick," she's nevertheless correct in asserting the irrelevance of their views on pre-9/11 intelligence failures, the state of homeland security, and the ongoing war on Islamic terrorism. None of the women has the slightest claim to analytical proficiency in these areas. To act as though they do is to fall victim to the classical logical error argumentum ad misericordiam -- an argument that appeals to pity in order to support an unwarranted conclusion.

Let me put this in broader terms. The policy views of relatives of 9/11 victims became no more valid on September 12, 2001 than they were on September 10, 2001. In the case of the 9/11 widows, the fact that their husbands were blown up by terrorists makes them experts in what it feels like to have your husband blown up by terrorists. Nothing else.

It's in this light that we should consider the moment, during the 9/11 Commission hearings, when counterterrorism wonk Richard Clarke apologized personally to the families of 9/11 victims. It was undoubtedly the dramatic highlight of the proceedings. Their cheers, however, reduced a serious review process to pathos and allowed the impression that the purpose of the hearings was to provide the families with "closure" rather than make detailed policy recommendations. Clarke's moment in the spotlight was a distraction, not a breakthrough.

Related to the argumentum ad misericordiam fallacy is the white-liberal-guilt-driven belief that ethnic minority status carries oracular insight into social ills. The victimization of one's ancestors, according to this view, justifies both rage against the status quo and perceptions of malign intent which cannot be supported except by arguing, in effect, "You'd realize it too if you were black." On the basis of this logic, the Congressional Black Caucus has become a virtual paranoia machine, churning out one ludicrous conspiracy theory after another, on topics ranging from the response to Hurricane Katrina, to the "systematic" disenfranchisement of black voters, to "environmental racism," to racial profiling, to contemporary COINTELPRO activities, to the spread of AIDS.

It's time to construct a wall of separation between heartfelt emotion and policy debate. If the Coulter controversy lays the foundation for that wall, then her tactlessness will have served a purpose.

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About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.