Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Is Christine O'Donnell a Nut?

Reading news stories, including a recent story by Michael Moynihan in Reason, the answer seems to be yes. Following up the detailed claims in those stories, it isn't so clear.

One of Moynihan's claims is that "O’Donnell lied about attending a Master’s degree program at Princeton University." That's a strong claim; the only support is a link to an article critical of O'Donnell by John McCormack in the Weekly Standard. He bases it on her claims in a lawsuit against her previous employer, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group. To his credit, he provides a link to the claims. I read it, partly out of curiosity about O'Donnell, partly because I had connections with ISI long ago, in its earlier incarnation as a libertarian organization called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.

As best I can tell, nowhere in her claims does she say that she attended a Master's degree program at Princeton. By her account, when ISI originally offered her a position in February of 2003, one of her reservations was that she had applied to Princeton's Master's degree program for the following fall. ISI assured her that she would be given enough time, up to one day a week, to attend classes—presumably she was applying to a part-time program—but then reneged on that agreement, with the result that she was forced to withdraw. A careless reader might take that as meaning that she took classes for a while and then had to cancel. But given that her employment started in March and she was planning to start taking classes the following fall, it looks more as though she applied, was accepted, but then withdrew when she discovered that she wasn't being given the necessary free time. She says that she got a full refund of her tuition, which would be a little surprising if she had actually attended classes for a while before withdrawing.

Getting curious, I followed up on some of the other evidence offered that she was a nut. One repeated claim was that she was, in Moynihan's words, "opposed to the sinister habit of masturbation," which makes it sound as though she had been campaigning against it. Another story describes her as the "masturbation hating candidate" and links to another informing us that "One of the most notable things on her political résumé is her well-publicized position against masturbation."

All of this seems, as far as I can tell, to be based on a single comment made in the course of an MTV program on sex in the nineties. O'Donnell asserted that the bible says that lust in your heart is to commit adultery, and that you cannot masturbate without lust—both, I think, correct statements. As best I can tell, that is the sole basis for the claims of "well publicized position" and "masturbation hating candidate."

I don't take the bible as a source of truth, but quite a lot of people do, and the fact that O'Donnell does, or at least did at one time, isn't evidence that she is a nut.

Another charge is that "she suggested that age-appropriate sex education, even for kindergarteners, could convince children that strangers with candy were "not so creepy." Following the link kindly provided by the Huffington Post, one finds a reasonable enough argument—that if small children are accustomed to discussing intimate matters with their teacher, they will be less likely to be frightened by a similar conversation from another adult. I'm not sure she is right, but the appearance of crazy views is coming from the way the view is described by her critic, not from what she actually said.

Reading O'Donnell's charges against ISI, I was struck by a point that none of the stories seems to have noticed. While she objects to quite a lot of things about their treatment of her, the central complaint is that they are, or at least wish to appear to be, Christian fundamentalists who believe that women ought always to be under the authority of men. She got fired, by her account, when she objected to being made the subordinate of a recent (male) hire who had been brought in as her assistant—a change made to make sure that she was under the "cover" of a male during a period when the vice-president she reported to was going to be absent.

Running through much of the criticism of O'Donnell is the implications that she is committed to fundamentalist Christianity. It is surely at least worth mentioning that a large part of the reason she sued her employer was, by her own account, the fact that they were.

Finally, it's worth noting that a good deal of the material used to make O'Donnell look nutty is coming from her activities in the nineties, when she was a twenty-something crusading for sexual purity. It would be interesting to see a similar selection for left of center candidates.

O'Donnell may really be a nut, of course. Sarah Palin was badly misrepresented by her critics during the campaign, but even without the misrepresentation her actual views do seem a bit odd.

Part of what first got me interested in O'Donnell was the dual issue she appears to raise for not only Tea Party supporters but libertarians as well—and, for that matter, for some on the left. The first half of the issue currently appears as the argument that the Tea Party is the best thing that could have happened to the Democratic party, since it is forcing on the Republicans candidates whose views are too far from the center to win—what my wife, remembering an earlier example, refers to as the McGovern effect.

The other half is the nature of the candidates. Tea Party candidates, or LP candidates, or Socialist candidates for that matter, are unlikely to have a background as high level elected officials or much experience in electoral politics. Their willingness to run in what everyone else sees as a hopeless cause may reflect either a wildly unrealistic view of the world—I still remember the people who, back in 1964, thought Goldwater would be elected by the "silent majority"—or blind fanaticism. They are, in other words, quite likely to be nuts. Which might create difficulties for electing them, and further difficulties if they do get elected.

Following up the charges against O'Donnell, I am struck by the other side of that story. Almost anybody can be made to look nutty by a suitable selection of past comments—consider that the current Vice President is a man who apparently believes that FDR was President at the time of the stock market crash and went on national TV to reassure people. Given a press sufficiently hostile to one candidate and friendly to another, it isn't that hard to create the illusion that the outsiders are all nut cases, their opponents all reasonable folk.

20 Comments:

At 4:22 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Serena said...

I agree with everything you've posted. The thing is how could she apply to a Master's program in 2003 when she barely got her BA this year?

 
At 4:24 PM, September 15, 2010, Anonymous Zibe said...

Thanks for sharing your article,love to read it

 
At 7:57 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Doc Merlin said...

1. You can tell how dangerous she is to her opponents by the extremeness and vociferousness of their attacks. People like Mccain and Bob Dole never got such attacks, primarily because the left viewed them as no threat. Unlike them, she does seem to be one.

2. She's a very attractive female conservative candidate, those always seem to get a lot of flack.

3. This election featured a lot of red-on-red attacks, with for example, the republican she defeated refusing to endorse her afterwards.

 
At 9:29 PM, September 15, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't take the bible as a source of truth, but quite a lot of people do, and the fact that O'Donnell does, or at least did at one time, isn't evidence that she is a nut.

Actually, it is.

 
At 9:37 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

In response to Serena:

As best I can tell from the various accounts, she completed almost all of her bachelor's degree seventeen years or so back. It isn't clear if the reason she didn't get it was that there was still something to do or that she still owed Fairleigh Dickinson money.

Either way, she might reasonably have believed that she could deal with the problem before starting for her master's, or else that Princeton would accept her on the understanding that she would deal with it in the near future.

Whether that is the case, of course, I don't know, but it doesn't seem impossible.

 
At 3:28 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article, David. Maybe she is not a nut, but I understand why Palin likes her so much. They are both kind of odd.

 
At 4:34 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous paul said...

I think its redundant to call any politician "nuts." ; )

thanks for the article David.

 
At 6:01 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Henry said...

1. You can tell how dangerous she is to her opponents by the extremeness and vociferousness of their attacks. People like Mccain and Bob Dole never got such attacks, primarily because the left viewed them as no threat. Unlike them, she does seem to be one.

She was dangerous to her Republican opponent (evidenced by the fact she eventually beat him). She is not dangerous at all to her Democratic opponent, indeed, her nomination single-handedly increased the Democrat's chances of winning by perhaps more than any other nomination in recent history has.

 
At 8:10 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The statement in the ISI lawsuit is pretty clear:

"She had applied for admission to a Master’s Degree program at Princeton University, to start in the fall of 2003, and was concerned that the ISI position would not fit with her plans."

Non-degree Master's programs at Princeton are primarily foreign students (see http://gradschool.princeton.edu/admission/non-degree/). I'd be amazed if they accept Masters students with only high school qualifications.

Anyway, it will all come out in the campaign once someone asks her to clarify whether or not she applied and/or was accepted at Princeton.

 
At 12:20 PM, September 16, 2010, Blogger Xatrucho said...

> I'd be amazed if they accept Masters students with only high school qualifications.

Its more common than you'd think. Master's admissions are pretty flexible as long as you can pay them. I have two friends who finished their Master before having their bachelor, though I admit that happened on European universities, but big, respectable universities. So I'd go with PLAUSIBLE!

 
At 3:39 PM, September 16, 2010, Blogger Andrew said...

Thank you for researching this, David.

Like the first Anonymous poster, I'm a little troubled by this paragraph:

I don't take the bible as a source of truth, but quite a lot of people do, and the fact that O'Donnell does, or at least did at one time, isn't evidence that she is a nut.

Perhaps you can flesh out what you mean here. Do you think the belief that the Bible is literally true is respectable because so many people hold it? Or do think it's respectable because you think highly of the Bible's content? Would it matter if she quoted the Book of Mormon?

 
At 4:06 PM, September 16, 2010, Blogger jameswilson said...

Economist teaching at a law school without taking a course for credit in either field. I suspect you probably never took a course in journalism either, but you could probably teach that, too.

 
At 6:45 PM, September 16, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

Andrew asks about why I don't think that believing in the Bible makes one a nut.

I suppose the short answer is because I know of the existence of lots of people who, on other evidence, are not nuts who hold religious beliefs that seem very strange to me. I've probably even known one or two who believed in the literal accuracy of the bible.

So far as this example is concerned, the factual part of what she said was true—the Bible does say what she claims and masturbation does involve lust. I don't have any good basis on which to derive my own moral beliefs, so am in a poor position to describe someone else as a nut because of hers.

Indeed, in some ways I'm more sympathetic to the Christian who does follow the doctrine where it leads, even if as unfashionable as in this case, than with the person who claims to believe in Jesus and the divine inspiration of the bible and all the rest of it--but somehow manages to avoid any conclusions from that that would make him too unpopular with his secular friends.

Mormonism is strange, arguably stranger than conventional Christianity, but I wouldn't take someone believing in it, by itself, as evidence he was a nut either. Or Islam for that matter.

 
At 1:24 AM, September 17, 2010, Blogger Stephen R. Diamond said...

While I haven't read the language of the complaint, this quote tells against your construal: "ISI violated its promise to allow Miss ODonnell time to take Master's degree classes at Princeton in return for a salary as small as $65,000 for her credentials and expertise, and as a result of ISI's breach of its agreement, Miss O'Donnell was forced to quit her courses at Princeton, losing her time and money invested in this course of study at Princeton."(http://tinyurl.com/2ctthkh)[quit her courses at Princeton]

As I said, I haven't read it, but the complaint is posted here: http://tinyurl.com/244ugw6

 
At 2:58 AM, September 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The words "opposing the sinister habit" would imply prefering to use one's own right hand, not a nut.

 
At 7:42 AM, September 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

She said condoms encourage gay men to contract AIDS. She thinks condoms cause AIDS. Obviously she needs to be elected to public office

 
At 11:25 AM, September 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Andrew

The bible is not a true document. It may be interesting, insightful, or inspirational, but it is not true.

 
At 12:09 AM, September 18, 2010, Anonymous Springfield Reformer said...

Saying the Bible is true or untrue is a far more complex statement that it may appear to be. The Bible contains history, much of which is ordinary, some of which is extraordinary, even miraculous. Which part is true, which part is untrue? Why?

The Bible also contains many moral and theological propositions. Which are untrue? Why? Which were true in a given historical context and which are intended as eternal maxims? Should we not love our neighbor? Should we not keep promises? Should we kill at will?

So a blanket statement that the Bible is untrue is careless and extremely oversimple at best.

Personally, because I do see the universe as rational, and human life as purposeful, it is very easy for me to see the plausibility of God. Admit that one idea, and all the rest becomes at least possible as well.

So, if everyone who accepts that premise is "nuts," then the "nuts" hold an overwhelming majority, do they not? Because as a purely statistical matter, most Americans do believe in God. And frankly, I can see little political value in trying to assert the minority view as the measure of sanity, which exactly what these accusations against O’Donnell impliedly do. Logically, that should backfire, and I suspect it will, once people think it through.

 
At 9:16 AM, September 19, 2010, OpenID andyhallman said...

Indeed, in some ways I'm more sympathetic to the Christian who does follow the doctrine where it leads, even if as unfashionable as in this case, than with the person who claims to believe in Jesus and the divine inspiration of the bible and all the rest of it--but somehow manages to avoid any conclusions from that that would make him too unpopular with his secular friends.

That's pretty interesting, because I'm more comfortable around people who are Christian in name only, who just wear the label to fit in and nothing more.

The person who accepts the Bible as truth and then tries to infer from that other facts about the world is the one who worries me. He is the person who retards instruction in evolution and science because they contradict the holy book.

 
At 12:49 PM, September 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

O'Donnell's campaign manager has admitted that she was never accepted into a Master's program at Princeton. Yet her original compliant against her employer claimed that she had been prevented from RETURNING to the Master's program.

She had AUDITED an undergraduate course at Princeton; she was not IN a program there to begin with. There's just no way to explain that away.

Also, O'Donnell's campaign manager said that she finished her undergraduate coursework just this summer. How does that square with O'Donnell's claims that the only thing keeping her from receiving her degree had been unpaid bills.

I am also quite confident that if you called someone working in graduate admissions at Princeton, they would confirm that they don't admit people without undergraduate degrees. They might admit college seniors on the condition that they must graduate before starting the program, but that' certainly not the situation O'Donnell had claimed to be in.

 

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