Vice President Joe Biden, who in our kingless nation has been sent to play the role of Britain’s Prince Philip, condemned unscrupulous bankers earlier this week and, in doing so, caused something of a flap. While eulogizing his son Beau, Biden spun into a roving digression, lamenting that the United States was being torn asunder by a class of unscrupulous and avaricious bankers — dastardly men who spend their days tricking the public to take “bad loans,” taking advantage of the ignorant and the needy, and foreclosing the homes of military heroes while they serve overseas. Searching for a verbal shortcut with which to button his image, Biden plucked a Shakespearean name from the air: “Shylock.”
The invocation made waves. Describing Biden as “a stalwart against anti-Semitism and bigotry,” a man who is “friendly to the Jewish community,” and an “open and tolerant” individual, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman nevertheless contended that the allusion served only to remind him “how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society.” Biden, Foxman ultimately charged, “should have been more careful.”
Reading these words, one can only marvel at how exquisitely thinly Foxman has managed to slice the critique: ensuring with his throat-clearing that his friend would be protected from any serious repercussions, while managing to extract his pound of outrage nonetheless. But, impressive as the balancing act was, there was really no need for comment at all. For all the hand-waving that it elicited, Joe Biden’s crime was little more than to have employed a literary reference in order to bolster his message — that is, to have permitted the infinitely more talented William Shakespeare to illustrate his point. Politically and critically, that point was self-serving and ham-fisted. Literarily, his invocation of Shylock’s name was both hyperbolic and out of place. Nevertheless, Foxman was not complaining about these things. Rather, he was objecting to the use of a word. For shame.
Should it stand, one can only wonder how far we might be expected to take the injunction. If, as Foxman implies, we are to refrain from using in argument any character who cannot be squared with our delicate contemporary sensibilities, we will soon find that both our language and our culture have been impoverished. Where, pray, is the line? If, as is common, I were to propose that free people should not make a habit of “crucifying” public figures for using florid and powerful language — or for that matter, for including in their speech references to troubling figures from the Western canon — would I also be accused of stirring up anti-Semitic feeling? Would I be offending Christians by misapplying the Passion? Who decides?
There is, it should always be remembered, a crucial difference between one’s being a fool and one’s being a knave. Joe Biden is many things: comical, inept, unsophisticated, and occasionally oafish. But he is not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe, and nor for that matter can he be accurately described by any of the other witless and aggressive buzzwords that are flung so profligately by the terminally aggrieved. Biden is a man who has a tendency to speak before he thinks; whose grasp of the English language is impressively tenuous; and who has managed to move between a series of progressively high offices without growing up at all. Still, are we honestly to conclude from this that when he jokes that so many immigrants from India are moving into Delaware that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent,” he is taking a heartfelt shot at Indians? Are we really to deduce that when he rashly invites a wheelchair-bound man to “stand up” and be applauded, he is throwing shade at the disabled? Must we assume that when he describes Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” he is revealing a deep-seated tendency toward white supremacy?
I think not. Rather, Biden’s mistakes are the inevitable product of a political schedule that requires its adherents to speak incessantly, and an avuncular, exuberant, and, yes, older man who grew up before the advent and ubiquity of social media and who finds himself, as Freddie deBoer rather brilliantly suggested last month, among the vast majority of normal human beings who are unable to keep up “with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement.” In a culture that is increasingly thriving upon outrage, this is a recipe for disaster.
At present, we find ourselves at a peculiar juncture — at a place where “offensive” has simultaneously become the worst and the most malleable of epithets. Far from inviting hasty societal condemnation of anybody who steps out of line, the extraordinarily inconsistent manner in which society takes umbrage should instead prompt us to cut almost everybody a break. As it stands, we are doing exactly the opposite, our journalistic and political elites having constructed a carefully calibrated caste system that determines the severity of a person’s verbal offense depending upon how he votes. If it seems odd to the naked eye that national figures such as Harry Reid and Al Sharpton can say all manner of peculiar things and enjoy relative impunity while nobodies from the middle of nowhere are hunted down and interrogated, that is because it is. Joe Biden — the vice president of the United States — will suffer a day or two’s inconvenience for his words, and, for as long as anybody bothers to examine them, his mistakes will be treated as a sign of eccentricity and caprice. The same courtesy, alas, will not be extended to everybody. Consider what happens when a Republican candidate for director of municipal drains says something mildly impolitic. First come the “BREAKING!” reports; then the nationalization of the indignation; and, finally, the endless think pieces pondering what the incident says about the party at large. What gives?
Slate’s David Weigel, who has written a little about this phenomenon, calls it “the GOP Lawmaker principle.” “As the national electoral plight of Democrats increases,” Weigel’s axiom holds, “so does the incidence of stories about obscure state Republican lawmakers.” Grateful as I am that Weigel has acknowledged the double standard, I must nevertheless disagree with his explication, which notably fails to account for why the opposite is not the case when Republicans are in electoral trouble and Democrats are ascendant. Indeed, I suspect that, rather than being the product of perennial electoral undulations, the disparity is the product of pronounced biases among those charged with reporting on our politics, and, too, of the leeway that having the “correct” political platform can afford those who err. Frustrating as it can be to witness, it stands to reason that a journalistic class that overwhelmingly leans to the left will react differently to their enemies than they will to their friends. To hear a Republican say something ugly is to hear revealed a rotten and antediluvian worldview; to hear something ugly from a politician who is “on the right side of history,” by contrast, is to hear an anomalous mistake at variance with an otherwise virtuous political platform. At times, one can almost hear the cogs whirring: “There’s no way that he could have meant that; he’s supportive of Planned Parenthood and the NAACP.”
“All that glisters is not gold,” Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice. And all that yields outrage is not offensive, either. For when everything becomes objectionable, nothing does; when one’s intent is ignored, one’s character is impossible to discern; and when we filter our judgments through our tribal loyalties, we lose our capacity to reason. “Had you been as wise as bold,” the Prince of Morocco laments in Act II. Indeed so.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.