Honesty and civility

The Gweilo Diarist, fresh from his exciting discovery that the faith of Averroes, Avicenna, and Omar Khayyam “is at its heart a false, empty, hateful, and failed religion,” has decided to give me a lesson in honesty and civility. He thinks, or at least says, that Elliot Abrams “manifestly isn’t” a felon, and implies that I am therefore dishonest and uncivil in arguing that he might legitimately be called one.

Honest and civility are highly valuable qualities, and I aspire to improve every day in every way. So of course I’m grateful to Conrad for offering to instruct me. But I wish he could be a little more explicit about the nature of my failings.

My argument, to recap it briefly (Conrad found my longer exposition “convoluted”), was as follows:

1. Elliot Abrams deliberately deceived a Congressional committee conducting an investigation.

2. Deceiving a Congressional committee conducting an investigation is a felony (18 USC 1001).

3. Someone who has committed a felony can legitimately be called a felon.

4. Therefore, Elliot Abrams can legitimately be called a felon.

Now with which step in this chain of logic does Conrad disagree? #4 seems pretty easy. #2 requires no more than reading the statute. So the open questions seem to be one of fact — did Abrams “conceal a material fact”? — and one of language — does committing a felony make someone a felon, or is it only being convicted of a felony that makes someone a felon? Simply saying that Abrams “manifestly isn’t” a felon (based on his being allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, for which he was subsequently pardoned) doesn’t really constitute an argument on either point. So where do we disagree, Conrad? About what Abrams did, or about how to refer to someone who committed a felony but wasn’t convicted of one? And to repeat my earlier question: Am I also forbidden to call O.J. Simpson a murderer?

Let’s not forget: Abrams wasn’t deceiving the Congress about his sex life. He was involved with covering up war crimes by the government of El Salvador and the Reagan Administration’s support of Contra terrorism in Nicaragua.

Conrad cites Glenn Reynolds as also disagreeing with me. (His reading of Glenn’s somewhat Delphic utterance matches Kieran Healy’s, though Kieran agrees with me rather than Conrad on the underlying question.) Whether the Oracle at Knoxville buys my argument or not, he at least states it clearly: that it can be appropriate to call someone a felon even if he hasn’t been convicted of a felony.

One step toward honesty and civility in discourse is to accurately report an opponent’s argument, rather than misrepresenting it to make him look bad. Perhaps when Conrad is finished dealing with my moral deficiencies he might want to consider that. Motes and beams, motes and beams.


Dan Simon more or less agrees in principle, but suspects me of a double standard in distinguishing Abrams’s false testimony about war crimes from Clinton’s false testimony about his love life. I don’t think that all felonies are created equal, but they are all equally felonies; as I said in my original post, I think it’s appropriate to call Clinton a perjurer even though he was never convicted of perjury. Simon is of course completely right that my motivations in defending someone who calls Abrams a felon, and in repeating the charge myself, are largely partisan and ideological. But my position is consistent, even if my vehemence about it might vary with the circumstances.

But you’d have a hard time convincing the Gweilo Diarist, who now adds “decent” and “honorable” to “honest” and “civil” on the list of things my post isn’t (and wonders why I’m taking it personally). He continues to assert that Abrams “is not” a felon, though his argument shows only what no one has ever denied: that Abrams was never proven to be a felon in a court of law.

Conrad seems to live on a planet otherwise similar to ours, but on which prosecutors never take a cheap plea bargain because they can’t prove (beyond a reasonable doubt, under the whimsical constraints of the common-law rules of evidence) that someone is guilty of something everyone knows he’s guilty of. The only difference between the misdemeanors Abrams admitted committing and the felony I say he was guilty of is intent: the prosecutor would have had to prove that Abrams’s “failure to testify fully and accurately” was a “knowing and willful” act. (As to materiality, the hearing was about Reagan Administration policy toward Central America, and the fact concealed was all the stuff Ollie North was running out of the White House basement. Any further questions, counselor?) Absent a confession, a witness, a diary, or a telepath, those states of mind are virtually impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt, and none of those aids to justice happened to be present in this case. So the fact that the prosecutor didn’t think he could prove that Abrams deceived the Congress deliberately rather than in a fit of absent-mindedness hardly demonstrates Abrams’s innocence.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com