I Still Hate Petty Partisan Sniping, Double Standards, and Bad Faith (In Order of Ascending Hatred)

I’m going to go after Michelle Malkin just a bit here (or rather, Doug Powers, who writes for her blog) but I don’t want you to think I’m singling her and her ideological brethren out as the sole perpetrators of such crimes as I’m about to describe. In fact, while I usually search the blogs of partisan hacks on both sides for evidence of dumb statements I can mock to myself while taking my morning shower (why do you think I still have a bookmark to DailyKos?) I haven’t had time to read them as often lately and only found this by accident.

The accident was, I was looking for the proper citation for the quote in the previous post, and I discovered what Mr. Powers had written about Obama’s description of Al-Quaeda as “a sorry band of men which perverts religion”:

“A sorry band of men”? Only Barack Obama could make a murderous global Islamic terrorist organization sound like the Bay City Rollers.

That’s just one step away from “wascally wabbits” isn’t it?

At first I was annoyed at this on the level of petty partisan sniping: After all, is this really a big deal? Is this really the best thing you’ve got to be annoyed about, even if it was reasonable to be annoyed about?

And then for a second I thought, “Hey, you’re being unreasonable. Just because Powers disagrees with the conclusions you drew recently about combating terrorist by not letting yourself think of them as something fearsome, doesn’t mean he’s necessarily being a petty sniper.

But then I thought, “Wait, when I was writing that last post, I felt vaguely uncomfortable because of how right-wing it made me feel,” and I realized that this was because the idea I was espousing was pretty similar to something Jonah Goldberg said back in the day about George Bush’s description of the Al-Qaeda terrorists as a gang of  “cowards” (an adjective he subsequently applied to all sorts of terrorist organizations) right after September 11th:

The point of calling terrorists cowards is twofold: First, it happens to be true, and second, they really don’t like it. Calling them “evil” is fine. But they already think the same of those they murder. Why pay them the compliment of calling them brave?

Now, Goldberg isn’t the most conservative of conservatives and the NRO isn’t the most right-wing of right-wing journals, but let’s be honest, they’re not usually in my camp. So what’s the difference between calling terrorists a”sorry band” and a “cowardly gang”? I’ll admit there is one, but it’s tiny, and pretty linguistically subtle. Is that really what Powers was upset about? And more to the point, what did he want Obama to say? Is he really saying he hoped Obama’s speech would contain the line “Today, we continue to grapple with a murderous global Islamic terrorist organization of virtually unparalleled strength, whose clever guerilla tactics and use of asymettrical warfare continue to flummox the most advanced army in the world…”

So then I thought, “Okay, so this is a classic political double standard– like the democrats carping so continuously these days about the filibuster that they defended vigorously just 6 years ago when the republicans tried to kill it.” But then I realized what was really getting to me about this, and that’s that, as has become the norm in our political discourse, Powers assumes without any particular reason to do so that Obama was intentionally trying to stupidly and recklessly mislead the country about the strength of our enemies. Or something like that. I still don’t know exactly what his complaint is about basically telling our enemies they are losers (Maybe he should have taunted them with a cocky “Bring ’em on” instead?) but the point is, he assumes Obama is acting in bad faith, and you just can’t do that. All ability to have a rational dialogue breaks down when you’re willing to take whatever your opponent says and disregard what he claims he means in favor of what you think he means.

There are two reasons for this. First, it’s often just not rational, and obviously as soon as you abandon rationality you’ve abandoned debate. I mean, does Powers really think that the president was trying to trivialize the threat of terrorism and insult our troops who give their lives fighting it? I mean even if you believe he is actively a bad person trying to harm America, wouldn’t you expect him to be a bit more subtle about it so as not to doom his re-election chances? It’s just not rational to read this as a deliberate… whatever it is that Powers finds offensive about this. Worst case scenario it seems pretty clear is’t an unfortunate turn of phrase (and I don’t even see that, quite frankly)

Secondly, you can’t debate when you don’t presume the other guy is speaking in good faith because, well, you’ve cut him out of the picture. All of a sudden, since you profess to have the right to re-interpret the intentionality and meaning behind anything he says, you’re not debating him anymore. You’re debating your own caricature  of him. Which is to say that at best you’re just espousing a point of view in which you’re using a fake second person as a rhetorical prop (and you’ve uncreatively named this prop-person after your opponent), and at worst you’ve lost it completely and started babbling like a schizophrenic.

Look, I know it’s tempting. I do it myself a lot; in particular, when anything comes out of the mouthes of Arlen Specter, John McCain, Joe Lieberman and to a lesser extent Harry Ried, I automatically assume it’s just a politically calculated move to remain electable and that they do not, in fact, have any opinions of their own (what with their souls having been replaced by twitter feeds from pollster.com and all). But I shouldn’t do that, not if I ever expect to have meaningful dialogue about their positions. I’m tempted to argue that my beliefs about these guys are more defensible because there’s a pattern of changed positions that at least supports my presumption of bad faith on their parts, but I’ve decided not even to go there. It’s not a good idea, not if you ever want to preach to anyone besides the choir.

So to sum up in an unnecessarily melodramatic fashion: arguing that your opponent speaks in bad faith is the worst, sneakiest form of echo chamber thinking combined with straw man fallacies that I can think of. Really though, I think it’s about 50% of what’s wrong with political discourse in America. See also Olbermann, Kieth and O’Reilly, Bill. Now that’s enough yammering from me for the night; I am going to bed, in hopes that when I wake up, Stephen Colbert will be there to comfort me about the state of discourse in the world.

Oh, and for the record Mr. Powers: no, if I ever meet a terrorist mastermind in person, I would not cal him a wascally wabbit, as such a term carries too many connotations of cunning bravery. I will, however, with the highest, most patriotic amount of pride I can muster, tell him he and his cronies are nothing more than a sorry gang of cowards without the strength of conviction to do anything with their life besides trick other people into blowing themselves up for their own demented gain.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

9 Responses to I Still Hate Petty Partisan Sniping, Double Standards, and Bad Faith (In Order of Ascending Hatred)

  1. Moominmamma says:

    I appreciate your sentiments and agree with you entirely, under normal circumstances of public discourse. However, I think you give people such as Mr. Powers far too much credit for being interested in rational discourse. They are not. It is almost the furthest thing from their minds, in my estimation. They are interested in preaching to the choir, because only the choir will affirm their views. They are deeply needy people, desperate for the high a dose of self-righteousness and righteous camaraderie gives them. They aren’t remotely interested in persuading people to their opinions through considered analysis of factual information. All they can do is rouse the rabble, create a fever pitch of anxiety and anger through emotional tirades such as the one you cited, complete with juvenile, schoolyard-level taunts. They obtain their feelings of personal power, such as they are, from being affirmed by the choir in the same way that a gang leader is affirmed by those who mistake his bullying for strength and leadership.

    This article, which touches on these same issues, might be of interest: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/dinesh-d-souza-091310

    (Sorry, nobody in Moominland knows how to hyperlink that URL)

  2. Moominmamma says:

    Ooooh, I guess the hyperlink happens automatically. Way cool.

  3. Paul West says:

    This is pretty tangential to your point, but I thought I’d take advantage of the mention of “cowardly” terrorists to rant about the misuse of this modifier. Terrorists of old who would plant bombs and run and hide may well have been cowardly, and perhaps the handlers of suicide bombers are themselves cowardly. On the other hand, it seems completely wrong to label someone who pilots a plane into the side of a building or who blows himself up as a “coward”. Are there not enough pejoratives to use in its place? I do wonder if we attack our enemies as being cowards because we are a little uncertain about our own bravery. How brave does one need to be to drop a bomb from a plane in a conflict where the enemy has no weapons effective against planes? Even more disheartening, how brave is it to drop that bomb on a house to dispatch a known terrorist leader, knowing full well that his wives and children are also in that house? If the location is known well enough to bomb it, doesn’t it mean there were ground-based alternatives that were not taken because they were more dangerous?

  4. Stephen says:

    People succumb to rhetoric (and marketing for that matter) too easily. I don’t think people are forcing their representatives to talk to each other so much as past. I’d almost be willing to go as far as to say that I haven’t seen a real public political debate in my life time, and I shouldn’t ever really expect to. The few I have considered legitimate didn’t really seem to stand the test of time. Politicians rarely provide legitimate clash, and when they do they never substantiate it with anything that could bite them later (excluding demagogues and polemicists). Unfortunately that’s the result of the soup which is american public opinion today and it doesn’t precisely foster accountability. What’s beginning to bother me much more are the things which aren’t being discussed: federalization, GAO efficacy reports, private contractors, and the raging corruption within the financial and insurance sectors (still not effectively regulated by the way).

    And with regards to the cowardice argument, I’m curious how you feel about the predator drones issue.

    • Paul West says:

      It’s a little bit murkier to cite the use of predator drones as another example of absent bravery, since one could argue that they are being used in locations where troops cannot be sent (in contrast to the example I was trying to recall from Iraq). Cowardice vs. bravery issues aside, I do have grave concerns about the idea of some CIA employee using joystick controls to carry out extra-judicial executions of people, not to mention the accompanying “collateral” damages inflicted on non-combatants. Our society has too freely embraced the idea that “the end justifies the means” I expect we will be less enthusiastic about the use of drones as their use proliferates (Iran having already claimed to have joined the club), especially when they are put to use for terrorist purposes, perhaps against us.

  5. Colin West says:

    This question about what we should label cowardice and bravery is fascinating enough that I’ve been chewing on it for a couple days now and still haven’t quite pegged the right answer. I think my thoughts are developing some cogency, but by now they’re expansive enough that I think it might be worth a full blog post in its own right. That will probably happen tomorrow afternoon. Because after all, it’s Friday! Hurray!

    What I can address in a bite-size way is my take on the question of the sort of “depersonalization” of war. I happen to love 40’s era culture quite a bit, and one of the things that always strikes me is how seriously they soldiers and sailors who saw combat treat the concept of war in their writings and reminiscences from the era. Heck, the whole country seems to have shared their sense of moral revulsion at the horrors of war, even if silently acknowledging them as a necessary evil in order to prevent even deeper horrors. But it frightens me that some of this “halo effect” seems to have disappeared today. The men and women I know who have seen combat, of course, still understand the gravity of taking up arms against a fellow human being, and appreciate that it should be an action taken only under the worst of circumstances. But somehow, the rest of the country seems to be drifting further away from this, and losing sight of the consequences of war. I hear it discussed on the news sometimes as though the question of whether we should engage in some military action or another were just a question of policy to be kept in the same category as the question of whether supreme court judges should have a mandatory retirement age.

    I think that’s pretty obviously a dangerous thing, and I think it stems from the fact that we’re all a little more out-of-touch with the consequences of war, and the face of the damage it causes (isn’t this ironic, though, in the age of digital connectivity?) So it terrifies me even more to think that someday, through the miracle of joysticks and long-range cameras, our soldiers might become equally divorced from the costs of war. This is a tricky thing to say, of course, because it’s hard not to be in favor of something that helps keep our men and women out of war zones. But in the long term, it has to be remembered that American lives aren’t the only ones worth preserving, and that even if you believe that enemy soldiers deserve to die, it’s hard to claim the same about enemy civilians. I don’t know for sure, but it’s hard not to suspect that getting to kill people with joysticks instead of man-to-man makes it all seem a little less serious, and a little more like a video game, which in turn probably lowers the threshold of how seriously you take the decision to take action, even if it threatens civilians. Since we’re already starting to see predator drones used in places like Yemen which aren’t even war zones at the moment, it’s easy to imagine an admittedly-slippery slope between here and a day when we barely acknowledge collateral damage.

    I just finished watching “The Godfather” (while I made spaghetti sauce– perfect) so the whole thing reminds me of what Sonny says Michael about why he doesn’t have what it takes to kill a man in cold blood even though he’s a vietnam vet: “What do you think this is? The Army, where you shoot ’em a mile away? You’ve gotta get up close like this and bada-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit!” I won’t say war is never called for but I also hope we never get to the day when we can declare it so comfortably that we don’t have to at least stare uncomfortably at our nice clean suit first.

    And yes, that line made the spaghetti sauce much less appetizing, at least for a moment.

    • Colin West says:

      I am so bad at bite-sized, aren’t I?It comes from my deep, deep fear of being misunderstood when I speak, although I don’t know where that fear itself comes from. It also helps to explain why I like math so much, I think. Ah math, that wondrously unambiguous language…

  6. Stephen says:

    I’ll defer my comments on bravery, and implicitly the viability and legitimacy of warfare, to your expected post.

    I had something more on-topic I wanted to run by you. I’ve commonly complained about the notion of partisan politics and polemic and a general schema has emerged. If we describe political views as a simple spectrum, as political scientists like to do, there should be a standard distribution of views on any issue. Extremism would seem to be a natural consequence of having any consolidated power group of sufficient size. At the same time there seems to be a notion that consolidating viewpoints has an intuitive political advantage, leading to the two party system. The core problem with polemic is that people aren’t generally crazy. Over time and as issues mature it requires a specific focus on lopsided issues or heavy reliance on common psychological flaws and biases as a party to maintain extremist viewpoints. What doesn’t require a large degree of focus is apathy. One of the most crucial parts of our government system, imho, is the ability for extra-governmental factions to create businesses and other organizations which can behave in sane, rational ways which are not subject to extreme political views. The question is the threshold at which people stop performing these roles.

    It seems that two problems exist today which are natural consequences of the initial conditions described above: first is the development of businesses and organizations which are corrupt, profitable, and completely beyond the realm of political discussion (as they take efforts to avoid divisive issues). The second is the gradual degradation of public participation in legitimate civic participation. Incidentally, I earnestly believe that the louder participants of extremist movements don’t hold earnestly the beliefs that they advocate. They’re simply pontificating because they’ve never really thought about the issue within any alternative contexts and consequentially tend to side with their own history of agreeing with themselves. Nevertheless things are (still) incredibly good here. We’ve gone two generations without any existential or even significantly damaging threats to our security. Many people retain assets. That may be changing in the near future and we still aren’t talking about real issues. Why? Is political discourse obsolete and individual participation in decline?

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