Wednesday, September 17, 2008

McCain, Obama, Kiddie sex-ed, and Lies

There has been a considerable flap over a McCain ad accusing Obama of supporting comprehensive sex education for kindergarten students. Obama's people say the ad is a lie, and are supported by, so far as I can tell, most of the media other than McCain partisans. As I read the evidence, it reflects poorly on both candidates, but worst on the media.

The controversy centers on an Illinois senate bill that Obama voted for, although he neither wrote it nor sponsored it. Googling around, one finds lots of stories criticizing McCain and explaining that the bill was merely intended to warn children against sexual predators. Obama is quoted, from an earlier round of the controversy, as saying that it was aimed at inappropriate touching.

Most of the reporters who repeated Obama's version as gospel do not seem to have actually bothered to read the bill, although it is readily available online. It contains, along with much else, the following language:

"Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades K 6 through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV AIDS."
(I believe the underlining and strikeouts show changes from the pre-existing law.)

If Obama thinks that AIDS is transmitted by touching, he has problems more serious than his views on sex education.

It's true that the bill also says all instruction is to be age appropriate. Precisely how one provides age appropriate instruction in the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV to kindergartners has not, so far as I know, been explained by either the Obama campaign or anyone else.

As I read the bill, the authors were trying to please everyone from the pro-abstinence right through the AIDS activists. They--and, to a lesser degree, state senators who voted for the bill, including Obama--are responsible for the result. It's entirely possible that Obama's description of what he thought the bill was about is true, but it is not an accurate description of what the bill actually said. I doubt Obama is in favor of explicit sex-ed for small children, which is what the McCain ad implies. But he did vote for the bill, and so is in a poor position to label a truthful description of what was in it as a lie.

We can expect each campaign to slant such material in the way that favors their candidate. But it would be nice if reporters actually bothered to check the facts before accepting one side of the argument and labelling the other a lie.

14 Comments:

At 5:11 AM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Dick White said...

Let's call this a sin of omission on the part of the media. Then there is the sin of comission, e.g., Palin on the Bridge to Nowhere (an earlier Friedman post). It is fair to say that she supported, encouraged or was generally positive toward the initiative before she was elected ("for it before she was against it") but it is unambiguously wrong as Jeffrey Toobin has said repeatedly on CNN that she "lied" about it with her quote about telling Congress "no thanks" etc. The final Congressional approriation deleted the mandatory expenditure for the "bridge" but it did not proscribe the use of the funds for the bridge (which had commenced under the previous administration). Palin, as newly elected Governor, cancelled the "bridge" and reallocated the funds--no lie. The challenge, it seems, is to establish a virtual and visible ombudsmen function to deal with these inaccuracies from both campaigns.

 
At 5:56 AM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Douglas Knight said...

Precisely how one provides age appropriate instruction in the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV to kindergartners has not, so far as I know, been explained by either the Obama campaign or anyone else.

If you can't explain it, it's because you aren't trying: one can simply say it's not transmitted by touching.

 
At 6:21 AM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

**Precisely how one provides age appropriate instruction in the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV to kindergartners has not, so far as I know, been explained by either the Obama campaign or anyone else.**

Okay. That one is easy (you must not have experience with five year olds). "Children, when someone else is bleeding, don't lick their blood, use it as finger paint, or touch the blood. You can get sick from touching other people's blood sometimes."

Not that it will work with most five year olds. But, hey, it doesn't hurt to educate.

 
At 6:55 AM, September 17, 2008, Blogger Seth said...

The bill specifies that "age-appropriate" teaching is to be done. McCain thinks that requires "comprehensive sex education"; therefore, McCain believes that comprehensive sex education is age-appropriate for kindergarden students.

The further lie is McCain's claim that the bill is Obama's only accomplishment. Should we pick one clause in one bill that McCain voted for, and claim that's McCain's only accomplishment? For that matter, would you consider it fair (or honest) to claim that McCain supports every single sentence in every single bill he ever voted for?

 
At 8:38 AM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this significant:

(I believe the underlining and strikeouts show changes from the pre-existing law.)

If this means what it seems to mean, then to vote for the bill is nothing more or less than to vote for the changes. To vote against the bill is merely to vote against the changes. So only the content of the changes are relevant to this question, and the surrounding text, since it is unchanged by whether the bill passes or fails, does not figure in. But in that case, then I think you need to completely rethink, since you seem to be figuring the surrounding text in, i.e., treating a vote for the bill as a vote for the surrounding text.

Or have I misunderstood?

 
At 8:40 AM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my bad. Didn't see the underline under the K. Never mind.

 
At 10:15 AM, September 17, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

Seth writes:

"The bill specifies that "age-appropriate" teaching is to be done. McCain thinks that requires "comprehensive sex education"; therefore, McCain believes that comprehensive sex education is age-appropriate for kindergarden students."

The term "comprehensive sex education" is a direct quote from the bill.

 
At 12:28 PM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For that matter, would you consider it fair (or honest) to claim that McCain supports every single sentence in every single bill he ever voted for?"

Why can't it be both honest and unfair?

 
At 12:58 PM, September 17, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks:

"Why can't it be both honest and unfair?"

That, I think, is my view of this sort of thing. I may use it as the quote of the month for my web page.

 
At 2:08 PM, September 17, 2008, Blogger Joe said...

The quoted comment does not mandate sex education. It puts a requirement on any sex education that is provided. Basically it says "If you're going to teach sex ed, mention HIV prevention".

Does anyone have a problem with that?

This contrarian game sometimes leads you off into the weeds.

 
At 8:58 PM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

joe: hear hear. These parse error need to stop.

 
At 11:26 AM, September 18, 2008, Blogger Harold Feld said...

I have heard that Obama engaged in a specific colloquy on the subject when the bill was debated asking what "age appropriate meant" and was told by the bills sponsors that it meant teaching younger children about inappropriate touching and so forth, as Obama explained.

Legislative drafting is always a pain in the neck, made worse by the use of inappropriate vehicles (omnibus bills, large and complex bills introduced with little time for reveiw or debate). Worse, the way in which campaigns use the supposed "legislative record" to attack candidates for accepting compromises or -- alternatively -- voting against bills with "poison pill provisions" is one of the factors that has made getting effective legislation passed impossible.

I have few state legislative resources, but if you are curious you might wish to do a quick search and see if Obama is at all mentioned in the legislative history, or if some guide to the interpretation given by Obama exists. While a court might not honor such an interpretation, it would certainly give credence to Obama's claim that he and others reasonably understood the bill to be for a particular purpose.

 
At 6:38 AM, September 22, 2008, Blogger AndyHat said...

"If you see a needle on the ground, don't touch it or pick it up."

There, a lesson in HIV prevention appropriate for kindergarten age.

 
At 9:14 AM, January 22, 2009, Blogger 海賊王 said...

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