Monday, September 28, 2009

Romancing the Straw Man: An Analysis of Right-Wing Debate Tactics

I would like to start this article with a little quiz. To begin, take a small piece of paper and number it from one to nine. Then look at the following quotes and try to guess (no cheating please) whether their authors were Communists or American presidents. Write a 'C' for the former and a 'P' for the latter.

1. "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes... There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing."

2. "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched."

3. "It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor... Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless. Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

4. "It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize."

As an outspoken liberal, I have had more people refer to me as a "Communist" and "Socialist" than I can remember. Now, most of the time when people use the expression "more times than I can remember", they do so hyperbolically. Not so here. I actually cannot recall how many times one of those epithets has been used against me, since after the first couple dozen counting just seemed like an unnecessary expenditure of my synapses.

That said, I CAN remember my favorite time of being called a Communist. It occurred back in 2006, when I was taking a GRE study course at the Kaplan Center. Our teacher would stride into class every day with cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat (I lived in Pennsylvania at the time, but I will generously overlook the geographic/sartorial mismatch in this story) and teach us all sorts of tricks for beating the graduate school test. One day I raised my hand to answer a question. For reasons that are still a mystery to me, my teacher identified me, with an obonxious smirk, as "you with the Communist beard."

At the time I didn't know that a beard could be Communist. Since then I have thoroughly interrogated not only my beard, but my mustache, eyebrows, sideburns, and chesthair in order to detect any un-American political views. All of them have so far come up clean, although I remain a bit worried that my hairline's ongoing recession may indicate a covert sympathy for the appeasatory foreign policies of Neville Chamberlain. But I digress...

Condescending (but hilarious) ridicule aside, the reality is that there is great danger in the persistence with which conservatives brand liberals with any of the aforementioned terms. It isn't because I fear a return to McCarthyesque witch hunting (although having pundits like Ann Coulter proclaim Joe McCarthy as their personal hero is more than a little disturbing). Rather it is because people who throw around terms like that commit the "straw man fallacy", one which works to the detriment of the ethical and intellectual quality of American political discourse.

For those of you who have lost me with my use of dialectic jargon, let me offer this excellent definition of a straw man fallacy as provided by The Nizkor Project (an organization that promotes exists to rebut the spreading virus of Holocaust denial, and is thus all-too-familiar with how to expose logical fallacies):

The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of "reasoning" has the following pattern:
Person A has position X.
Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
Person B attacks position Y.
Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

So when is the accusation of being a "communist" or "socialist" an example of a straw man fallacy? Simply put, it is a straw man argument when the individual using that label does so to refer to a person or policy to which it doesn't accurately apply. Just for clarification, a "communist" is someone who believes in the ideology known as "communism", which is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary (the one source I believe is immune to claims of ideological bias) as:

1 a : a theory advocating elimination of private property, b : a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed; 2 capitalized, a : a doctrine based on revolutionary Marxian socialism and Marxism-Leninism that was the official ideology of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, b : a totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production, c : a final stage of society in Marxist theory in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably, d : communist systems collectively

Likewise a "socialist" is someone who believes in the ideology known as "socialism", which is defined as:

1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods; 2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property, b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state; 3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Note that neither of these definitions claim that the term "Communist" or "Socialist" can be affixed to those who advocate any form of government control over the economy. Were that the case, the terms "communist" and/or "socialist" could be accurately used in reference to those who support the FDA (which monitors the quality of food and pharmaceuticals that are distributed to the American people so as to prevent dangerous or misleading products from entering the marketplace), the SEC (which regulates our stock and options exchanges as a means of preventing a repeat of the great stock market crash of 1929), the Tennessee Valley Authority (which provides navigation, food control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and numerous other services, to say nothing of high-paying jobs, to the nearly six million residents of the Tennessee Valley), the Department of Transportation (which helps fix and build new roads and bridges), public schools (funded by the government), state colleges (funded by the government), firefighters (paid for by the government), police officers (paid for by the government), and any other non-military good/service that is paid for and provided by our government (including, incidentally, Medicare and Medicaid). Since I strongly doubt that anyone with a modicum of sanity will honestly argue that America's firefighters and public school teachers are a pack of card-carrying Commies, it stands to reason that people can support having SOME services provided and/or regulated by the state without being Socialists or Communists (and bear in mind that for years school teachers, police officers, and firefighters were not paid for by the government, and that qualitative as well as egalitarian issues ultimately led to the public clamor of them to be paid for by the public, with the case for public school teachers being made by none other than Thomas Jefferson).

The question, of course, is where the line separating the sane from the red should be drawn. The answer, I feel, is so obvious (and so poorly understood) that it warrants being put in all capital letters:


Once you realize this, it becomes clear that the burden of proof lies on those making these bold claims to validate them by connecting the substance of Obama's policies with the principles of communism and/or socialism as articulated above. Remember: It is not socialistic or communistic to argue that the government should regulate and/or provide certain sections of the economy. Saying that would be the equivalent of saying that public elementary schools and state-run firefighters associations are socialist/communist entities. Apart from radical libertarians, virtually every democratic community - including the America envisioned by our Founding Fathers - has recognized that certain social services must be provided by the government, with the only question being where the line should be drawn between what must be guaranteed by the government and what ought to be left to the private sector. The only way to be a socialist or communist is to argue that the government should econtrol the entire economy. Considering that the centerpiece of Obama's health care reform proposal would prohibit insurance companies from dropping patients who become sick, make it impossible for those same companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions, and create programs so that those who are currently uninsured can receive medical insurance, the ability to take those facts and deduce that they are somehow "socialistic" or "communistic" is a great stretch of logic at best. Indeed, even if Obama WAS proposing a government take-over of our health care system and/or the abolition of non-government insurance companies, that would not by default constitute a Communistic or Socialistic policy, any more so than the government abolition of private law enforcement officials and creation of a single government-paid police force could be rationally argued to be communistic. This is no doubt the reason why facts have become anathema to these opponents of Obama's health care plan.

Please note that I am not saying that all right-wing criticisms of left-wing policy are inherently flawed. While I am clearly on the liberal side of the health care debate (as well as most other economic questions), it is entirely possible for a conservative to present an intelligent, logically coherent argument in opposition to my personal opinions. What this article is attempting to shoot in the butt is the idea that it is acceptable, or by some far reach of the imagination justifiable, for conservatives to claim that American liberals - the majority of whom want to extend the government's control over various sectors of the private economy because they believe that the existing state of anarchy works to the detriment of fair competition, a truly free market, and the ability of less privileged Americans to secure their God-given rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - are Communists or Socialists simply because their proposed policies would impose some limitations on private enterprise. Such assertions don't merely reveal sinister disingenuousness and/or an appalling lack of critical thinking skills on the part of those who make them; they cause a deterioration in the quality of our public debate on matters of great importance by forcing those who want to bring about a better America through an honest weighing of facts and ideas to instead waste their time batting down outrageous fictions. What's worse, the type of person who would be inclined to believe such fictions in the first place generally does so not because he or she began with an understanding of what communism and socialism entail and then connected it to policies being currently advocated, but instead because he or she WANTS to believe that their political opponents are communists and socialists, since doing so will allow them to more easily vilify their adversaries and then dismiss whatever they have to say. People with those motives, whether they are conscious of them or not, may retain the right to participate in public debate, but all intelligent and fair-minded Americans - regardless of their political persuasions - should discourage their brethren from ever taking them seriously.

My spending so much time to debunk and condemn these individuals would be wasteful if there weren't so many of them out there, and if they weren't granted such a prominent voice (including by the ever-inclusive President Obama, who still hopes to win them over). They can be found in the halls of Congress and in other prominent political positions, claiming that Obama's stimulus package, health care reform bill, and even generic back-to-school speech represent the sinister encroachment of communist and/or socialism, from politicians like Chuck Grassley, James Inhofe, Katherine Bachmann, and Sarah Palin; their voices echo from FoxNews and a plethora of radio shows, from people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter; and they have flocked to town hall meetings across the nation to harass elected officials who just want to provide health care to the needy, as well as carry guns and make threatening statements about President Obama and those who dare to support him. None, of course, have bothered to put forth a single articulate, coherent, and fact-based statement explaining precisely HOW Obama's policies will bring about the advent of communism or socialism in America. As far as they're concerned, they don't need to - the mere fact that they are convinced it is so is more than enough to fuel their rage.

While I may mock the absurdity of their logic, the reality is that far too much tragedy has sprung forth from people like them. It is not merely that their use of straw man arguments has prevented (or at least inhibited) intelligent and honest discussion on consequential issues. They have - from the time Thomas Jefferson was accused of being a Napoleonic sympathizer right through to the claim that Barack Obama supports death panels - stifled necessary social reform under the massive quantities of bullshit they toss on top of it, causing untold suffering to millions of innocents due to the festering problems they leave unresolved as a result of their efforts in spreading ignorance. Even more directly frightening is the manner in which their attitude often results in active persecution, even violence - from the thousands of lives that were ruined due to the communist witch hunts promoted by Senator Joe McCarthy to the rising right-wing rage against President John Kennedy's alleged communist sympathies that culminated in the attack on his UN Ambassador (Adlai Stevenson) and Kennedy's own assassination three weeks later. History has provided us with plenty of warnings about what can happen when people who use straw man arguments to advance hateful accusations are left unchecked. Considering that America now has a black president, brought to power by a newly empowered left-wing base, with an agenda that (though not liberal enough for my liking) is certainly far more progressive than anything proposed by a sitting president in forty years, I worry greatly about the ultimate consequences of the right-wing's historic love affair with straw men.

On that note, I'd like to provide the answers to the quiz from the beginning of this article.

1. P (Andrew Jackson)
2. P (Barack Obama)
3. P (Abraham Lincoln)
4. P (Theodore Roosevelt)

The first thing you may notice is that all of those quotes - even the ones that may have seemed most "Communistic" - came from American presidents. Half of them, in fact, came from Republican presidents (to say nothing of the two greatest Republican presidents).
And how would those figures have responded to being accused of Communist sympathies? Theodore Roosevelt was renowned for quick and cutting wit, so the chances are he would have replied with a jab that would have humiliated his adversaries far more effectively than I am capable of doing. Abraham Lincoln's political stoicism would have probably prompted the same maddeningly passive reaction that we are currently seeing from Barack Obama. And Andy Jackson? Let's just say that, for the sake of avoiding controversy, I won't put my speculation as to his probable reaction on the public record. Suffice to say the situation I envision is one I would gladly spend money to witness.

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