Thursday, October 1, 2009

ACORN cracked

ACORN's recent embarrassment seems like a redemption to me, as to other conservatives. Like them, I have been very dubious of ACORN's voter registration practices, and appalled at the thought that it was getting millions of dollars of federal funds, some of which was being used for partisan political purposes. The video sting seems like the kind of thing that is too good to be true; and, like anything that seems too good to be true, I am curious to know the downside. To that end, I read a few liberal defenses of ACORN. There is no shortage of arguments in ACORN's favour, but they seem to fall into two broad categories:
(1) The videos don't tell the truth; and
(2) The behaviour documented in the videos can be excused, or at least explained, at an organizational level.

The most fundamental argument of the first category is that all Republicans are liars, therefore the evidence cannot be believed a priori. Obviously, this is not part of a serious argument, but it is often the starting point for an individual's quest for truth -- and I don't disparage it, because I disbelieve a lot of what I hear without further confirmation. Others say that the videos have been edited to make things appear worse than they are. I don't know much about video editing, but I can't see how they can have been fundamentally altered. The clips that I have seen are direct, question-and-response, leaving no room for the kind of dishonest cutting practiced by, say, Michael Moore. Still others argue that the videos amount to entrapment: you can't lead an individual to crime and then convict him of it. This misses a major element of entrapment, however: cui bono? If someone walks up and offers to kill some person that you don't like, you stand to benefit in an obvious way. It's entrapment because the person is tempting you into a crime. The ACORN employees had no personal stake in the advice they were giving; therefore, it seems reasonable to believe that they would give that same advice under other circumstances. I have to admit that I feel a little bad for them in this regard; their willingness to help is part of what got them into trouble. Then again, someone in a position of public trust should recognize the public benefit over private gain when the two come into conflict. A subset of this argument is the idea that the videographer, O'Keefe, violated "journalistic integrity" in the way he approached the issue. The irony of liberals whining about a sting operation seems to have escaped the people who make this argument. I remember distinctly a national network trying to catch Food Lion in a similar sting regarding proper food handling perhaps 20 years ago. The planted employee, who worked in the deli, tried to get her manager to leave out old meat, but the manager insisted that it be thrown away. I don't remember the outcome of the case, but I certainly didn't hear any complaints about journalistic integrity then. Another defense is that the videos were obtained illegally. Whether this is true or not, it does nothing to defend the behaviour of the ACORN employees; it only means that they were caught unfairly, not that they were innocent victims.

The other type of argument is that the videos are accurate, but they record explainable behaviour that does not indicate systemic problems. ACORN itself tried to excuse the videos initially by saying that the employees were not properly trained; I have also seen conflicting claims concerning how many ACORN offices may have turned him away to balance against those who got caught. This argument doesn't carry much weight with me; if someone caught a handful of Walmart stores ripping off customers, I don't think liberals would emphasize how many stores were caught being honest.

Some have claimed that the employees were scared and/or that they turned in O'Keefe after he left. This actually could be a valid excuse. I don't really see how anyone could be scared of O'Keefe -- I have to agree that he looked like a clown in his pimp outfit. But it is reasonable to think that employees might have waited until later to report the activities to the police. No one is claiming that all ACORN offices did this, of course; I would like to know more specifically how many, if any, actually did so.

My favourite argument came from a post on DailyKos.com: since ACORN deals with, and recruits from, the poorest segments of society, it's inevitable that you will get a few scumbags. A pathetic excuse and liberalism's barely-concealed elitism, all at once!

Whether ACORN offices were encouraging prostitution and sex slavery is, to me, a secondary issue. It's a serious charge, but it is not necessary to demonstrate its validity to undermine ACORN's credibility. The fact that no one is denying is that ACORN offices suggested ways for O'Keefe to cheat the government: claming "employees" (sex slaves) as dependents, hiding money in a tin can. I don't see any reason for them to make these suggestions to clients, legitimate or not, and it seems reasonable to suspect that they give the same advice to just about anyone who passes through their doors. Although they might not be trained on how to deal with potentially criminal clients, they certainly are given training on how to help clients deal with the government -- and apparently that training includes lying and cheating.

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