When I was a kid (and don’t lie, when you were a kid, too) debate was easy. Anytime another kid said “Hey! It’s my turn!” we’d cross our eyes and repeat their words back to them in a mockery of their own voice. It was so blissfully satisfying! Not only did it release us from the debate, it smacked down the all-important trump card of every playground argument everywhere: that the other guy is a dumb-talking stupid-head.
And then we grew up. And some of us learned how to do the same thing so, so much better! Observe (and note: I will not be bleeping the profanity):
“Look, these people, they’re fucking retarded… It used to be these Republicans didn’t believe in global warming or evolution. That was bad enough. Now they don’t even believe in egg plus sperm equals baby. Where does Todd Akin think babies come from? Does he think there are separate storks for people who were raped and people who weren’t? Hey look over there! It’s the rape stork. It drops off all its babies directly at the orphanage. He’s a fucking idiot. Just a plain fucking idiot. I’m sorry — I don’t say that word very often — but it happens to fit in this case. He’s just a fucking idiot.”
That could have been Archie Bunker talking about Jews back in the seventies (and in an alternate reality where he could repeatedly launch F-bombs while drinking from his label-less beer can). Instead, that was a parody of Bill Nye, offered by a satire website (thanks to my buddy Clint for catching it).
“‘Beakman’s World’ is for f**king idiots! Shut up and pay attention!”
Thing is, this only works as parody because it so well represents the current state of modern political discourse. Lots of people believed this, and cheered it on. A lot of the people who find out its fake are terribly disappointed, because this so accurately represents what they themselves think.
So, since a lot of people think this way, let’s examine it for a moment:
Surely fake-Bill-Nye knows about the medical phenomenon wherein ovulation can be postponed by great stress (such as the stress caused by rape). Even if fake-Bill-Nye didn’t know that, I found that link in, like, eight seconds. Isn’t research another thing fake Science Guys are supposed to be really good at?
But what fun is it doing eight seconds’ worth of research when you can just seize the opportunity to cross your eyes, adopt a moronic voice, and shout “Look at me, I’m a Republican! We don’t know where babies come from! We hate science and Science Guys! Ain’t we all just a bunch of big dumb-talking stupid heads?”
Next step: “Stop Punching Yourself” debates.
This (as anyone who’s spent three or so minutes in college knows) is called the Straw Man Fallacy. In brief, it means that sometimes it’s a lot more fun to whale on a goofy-looking effigy of your opponent than to actually debate them.
Of course, in the fake Bill Nye example, it ends up being a Straw Man vs. a Straw Man. Which is actually pretty good entertainment.
Now, before you jump down to the comments section to point out that conservatives love the Straw Man argument just as much as liberals do, let me say this nice and loud: YOU ARE RIGHT. There are loads of conservative types who think good debate is calling Barack Obama a Socialist and then sticking their fingers in their ears and singing the Star Spangled Banner. But there are two big differences between the Straw Men of the right and the Straw Men of the left.
1) They are not Equally Weighted.
It’s subtle, but did you catch the key difference (apart from the gratuitous use of hyphens)?
The liberal Straw Man could– and surely does– represent at least some actual liberal people. Let’s call him the literal-liberal (just because I couldn’t resist). Like it or not, some liberals do have an entitlement mentality. More than a few of them are overtly Socialist-leaning. Some of them are indeed lazy abusers of the system. And if you don’t know that some liberals are a bit Pollyanna, I submit that you don’t quite know what the word means.
The conservative Straw Man, if he was real (and he would certainly be a he), would have long since burnt civilization to ashes with the murder-heat of his unholy gaze.
Like this, but wearing an American flag pin.
Don’t believe me? What are the most recent Republican talking-points about President Obama? He’s a “nice guy, a good father, but a bad president”.
And the most recent Democrat talking points about Romney? He’s a decade-long tax cheat, a woman-hater, “happy to party while black people drown”, eager to put people back in shackles, and a callus murderer of wives.
In short, the Straw Men aren’t remotely equal. One is a bit of a caricature. The other is a thousand-foot-tall colossus of evil (with a lot of hyphens).
2) the Straw Men are Erected by Very Different Camps.
Where are the most cartoonish Straw Men erected among the conservative camp? The fringes. Mainstream conservatives are embarrassed of these people. When a right-wing lunatic screams about DEFEATING THE GODLESS (GAY SLUR) SOCIALISTS IN THE WHITE HOUSE, they are instructed to shut up, change their thinking, or go join the Reform Party.
And it is easy to understand why: conservatives have been portrayed as anti-intellectual doofuses for so long that they are loathe to contribute to the narrative. As a result, mainstream conservatism seeks to be painstakingly careful, inoffensive, and welcoming. For proof, look at how conservatives react when one of their leaders says something thoughtless and clumsy: he is seamlessly and wholly rebuked.
GO AWAY! JUST!! GO!! AWAY!!!
Now let’s take a look at where the most cartoonish Straw Men are erected in the liberal camp:
1) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the loudest (unsubstantiated) accusations about Mitt Romney’s tax cheating.
2) Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been the most strident voice about the Republican “War on Women”.
3) Veteran political news guy and teacher of masters level journalism at Georgetown University, David Chalian is the guy who casually said that the Romneys were “happy to have a party with black people drowning”.
4) It was Vice President Joe Biden that told a largely black audience that Romney wanted to put them “back in shackles.”
5) And of course by now we’ve all heard the pro-Obama super PAC ad that blamed Mitt Romney for the death of steelworker Joe Soptic’s wife.
To make an obvious point, these are not fringe players in the Democratic Party. It’s the Democrat leaders themselves that are constructing the largest and most outrageous Straw Men.
Pictured: The Democratic National Convention.
And it is easy to understand why: liberals have been portrayed as ultra-reasonable and compassionate for so long that they feel no need for critical self-analysis. As a result, mainstream liberalism feels utterly justified replacing debate with smug cries of “fucking idiot!” Hating conservatives is not only the last acceptable prejudice; it is the new liberal virtue. For proof, look at how liberals react when one of their leaders says something vicious and inflammatory: they pile on.
There is actually a new branch in the elitist avoidance of actual debate: claims that the debate has long since been won, thus there is no reason to offer further argument. Have a simple question or doubt about things like evolution? Or global warming? Or Keynesian economics? You aren’t a critical thinker with a question; you are a brain-dead moron worthy of hatred and mockery. “Everybody knows the argument’s already been won and your side lost, idiot! Get with the program you stupid poopy-head!”
I thought it was fundamentalist Christians that abhorred questions that opposed their beliefs?
Like this, but with Al Gore and “Earth in the Balance”.
So what (I ask myself) is the point of all this?
I guess it’s this: I grew up in an uber-conservative world. One of the things I came to reject about that world was the weakness of its Straw Men. In rejecting them, I began to seriously inspect the actual arguments and core beliefs of the opposing side. I didn’t switch over, but I definitely moderated my opinions and discourse. I learned that most Democrats and liberals aren’t cartoon characters. And in some instances, I learned that I actually agreed with them.
I’m not alone in this. Many of my conservative friends are the same way. Like I said, we’ve been portrayed as greedy, homophobic, racist hatemongers for so long that it has had the opposite effect on us: we’ve dedicated ourselves to cultivating classical tolerance, respect, and long-term compassion.
So I suppose this is really meant to be a challenge to my liberal-leaning friends. I truly value intelligent debate, but the moment you allow my side to be represented by a preposterous caricature (“War on Women!”), a hateful epithet (“Fucking idiot!”), or a tacit dismissal (“We already won that argument, moron!!”), you make debate pointless and impossible.
Fine! You win! McNuggets are chicken! Stop hurting me!
It’s a basic social truth that when you insult somebody’s chosen leaders, you insult them. Unless you live in a seamless ideological echo chamber, when you label Paul Ryan an asshole (saw that one on Facebook yesterday), Dick Cheney a Hitler-monster, or George Bush a tapioca-brained puppy murderer, you are also labeling at least some of your friends.
Come on. It’s childish. It’s intellectually lazy. And it certainly convinces no one.
And if you don’t have any conservative friends– or if your conservative friends are fringe weirdoes– I’d challenge you to seriously consider how strong your opinions can be without having them subjected to incisive debate. Beliefs formed from willful ignorance of the other side– or an easily defeated Straw Man representation of that side– are the weakest beliefs of all. That is the mistake all the old-school fundamentalists made. Don’t be like them.
Find people who can challenge you intelligently, who can logically and reasonable offer an opposing viewpoint. They are out there, but you might have to lure them into the open. This should not surprise you; when someone’s been called an evil, racist, greed-beast their whole life just because of their political convictions, it becomes an easy habit to hide those convictions.
And if you truly, seriously value intellectual honesty, do the opposite of the Straw Man types: instead of erecting a willfully obtuse schoolyard mockery of someone’s belief (“Republicans don’t know what makes babies! Doih! I’m an idiot Republican!”) try the approach favored by playwright David Mamet (and good Jewish Rabbis everywhere): do not attempt debate until you understand your opponent’s perspective well enough to repeat it back to them with their approval.
Let’s not be a bunch of Straw Man builders. Let’s reject and rebuke our leaders when they build Straw Men. Let’s resist the satisfying but ultimately petty urge to pile on when they do.
Let’s dismantle the Straw Men wherever we find them, eh?
Because sure, it may be more fun to resort to playground mockery. But at some point, isn’t it everybody’s personal responsibility to grow up?
And now, as a little mental palate cleanser, why don’t we all sit back and watch some “Beakman’s World”:
I live in Missouri, so straight off, a few things:
I didn’t vote for Todd Akin in the primaries. After his woefully thoughtless comments about “legitimate rape” and “a woman’s body taking care of that kind of thing”, I ardently hoped he would remove himself from the race. I agree with all of those who still believe he should.
But really. Hasn’t this all gotten just a bit completely bat-guano insane?
This– the thoughtless, off-the-cuff comments of a senatorial candidate from middle-America– has become international news. The President himself made a rare appearance at a White House press briefing just to obloviate on Akin’s comments and turn them into a male-bashing pro-Obamacare rallying cry. Everywhere I look, both conservative- and liberal-minded people are hyperventilating about the dreadful ramifications of a Republican party that embraces– and apparently agrees with— such a person as Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin.
I want him gone. So it annoys me to have to say this:
And it wasn’t one of those typical politician non-apology-apologies (“I’m sorry if what I said managed to offend someone somewhere somehow”). He acknowledged that what he said was factually incorrect, foolishly unchecked, and ridiculously poorly spoken (sort of like a nineties NBC news expose. RIMSHOT!). He has apologized repeatedly and ardently. And you know what? I think he is sincere.
Does this make him a good candidate for the senate? I still think not. Communication is one of the most important jobs of a politician, and Akin has a lot to prove after this debacle. But does it make him a monster/villain/Hitler rapemaster? Let’s not be idiots. And let’s not be naive.
In every corner of the political world, politicians say stupid, off-the-cuff things, many of which deserve to be just as publicly lambasted as Akin’s.
A few tasty examples:
Remember when Harry Reid called Barack Obama a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”? Try, if you will, to imagine what would have happened if Todd Akin had said such a thing? I have it on good authority that the Internet would have exploded.
Or what about when Joe Biden, no stranger to the gaf, called the then-future-president “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Seriously, the first “clean” and “bright” mainstream African American? If that had come out of the mouth of Sarah Palin, every issue of the New York Times would have spontaneously combusted with the incandescent jubilation of its editorial staff.
More Biden: “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” Is that racist? Because if that had been said by anyone with an R in front of their name, it would have been proof that every individual Republican on earth is more racist than the whole of the KKK combined.
But what about just plain stupid gafs? Surely only brainless anti-science conservatives make those. Never anybody as hyper-intelligent as Al Gore:
“the interior of the earth is extremely hot, several million degrees.” Which would, of course, make the earth a star, not a planet. People can’t live on the surface of stars. I am pretty sure even my kids know that.
Or what about when Representative Sheila Jackson Lee asked if the Mars Pathfinder would take a picture of the flag that Neil Armstrong planted, er, on the moon.
And this from Representative Hank Johnson, during discussions about thousands of marines stationed on the island of Guam: “My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”
But Todd Akin’s comments were about “legitimate rape”, right? That’s, like, totally beyond the pale. Except that a few years ago, Whoopi Goldberg claimed that film director Roman Polanski didn’t commit “rape rape” when he drugged and sodomized a thirteen year old girl. That somehow didn’t make for an international incident, despite the fact that, until this week, about a million times more people had heard of Whoopi Goldberg than Todd Akin.
There are more. Enough to fill a hundred books, both from Republicans and Democrats.
Shall I tell you what I think? I think people are prone to make stupid, off-the-cuff comments. I don’t mock any of the above people (much) for occasionally vomiting a little lunacy. After all, most of them live their lives in front of cameras. If any of us had to endure that kind of scrutiny, we would all occasionally (or not so occasionally) stick a few extra feet in our mouths. We all have a few unchallenged, silly opinions. We all have a few cobwebby mental corners.
The trick isn’t to never have a stupid opinion. The trick is to be willing to acknowledge it was stupid and to change it.
Akin did that. He totally did. Most of the above people have not. And virtually nobody demanded that they should.
But let’s look at one more example. Did President Obama apologize and retract hisstatements when he said:
“If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them.”
“Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket…”
Or even, despite all of his assurances that Obamacare is not a step toward a universal single payer health care system, this from 2003:
“I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program… A single payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see.But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately.”
These are not misspeaks. These are intentional, bedrock opinions. Unlike Akin, who acknowledged his incorrect opinion and changed it, the President has not so much as acknowledged that he ever even said the above. And the press does not challenge that.
Also unlike Akin, these quotes from the President represent actual legislation— governmental actions that influence all of our lives. You may like these legislations– national health care, Cap and Trade, etc– and agree with them entirely. It is one thing, however, to want a single-payer health care system and the dismantling of the coal industry; it is another to state these end goals to the minority thatagree with them, and then lie to everyone else about them in order to make them more palatable.
But back to Akin. Even now, the most shrill among us are pounding away at how his statements represent the Republican party and conservatives as a whole. This, despite the fact that virtually every Republican and conservative leader, from the presidential candidate on down (and including such conservative talking heads as Rush Limbaugh and Shaun Hannity), has rebuked Akin, pointed out the foolishness of his statements, and called for him to step out of the race.
Clearly, obviously, he does not represent his party as a whole.
How many publicly liberal-minded people have distanced themselves from the statements made by their own leaders when they are ridiculous, silly, or outright deceptive?
Some. I know some such people. But I know plenty who won’t. Ever. No matter what their leaders say.
But that won’t change, anymore than the fact that there are conservative-minded people who won’t ever hear a bad word spoken about (or from) their own leaders. Extremism and willful blindness exists on both sides.
But for now, really. Unlike most of the above people, Todd Akin has apologized. He admitted he was totally wrong. He was sincere. Are we really this opportunistic and petty? Are we really this unable to take a deep breath and let a guy admit that he, like the rest of us, can occasionally be a total putz?
Can we try to quit belly-Akin?