Political rhetoric

2008 03 07
Hillary’s Strategy

This is surely going to be a disappointing post, as I don’t have any confidence in my political analysis. I’m more of a policy guy. But here we go anyway.

For those of you who, like me, thinks that Hillary is not going away any time soon, what do you think her strategy/justification for staying in will be? I can think of three main planks to such a justification: momentum, toughness, and battleground states. Of course there are other possible planks: “experience,” military leadership, NAFTA, shady real estate deals, etc. But for some reason I think these will fade into the background. Maybe I think so because McCain is now the nominee, and so Hillary can run on claiming to be the best bet to go the long haul and beat him, and this will make policy arguments seem relatively immaterial by comparison. Plus, when it comes down to it, Hillary doesn’t really have military leadership experience, and Rezko-Gate just ain’t gonna cut it.

Anyway, assume that I’m right about the three I highlight. As long as Hillary wins Pennsylvania and doesn’t get totally swept in the other, smaller contests, she can claim that she’s got real momentum going into the Convention. She’ll point to this as the reason why it’d be crazy to bow out now. But of course, if Obama really cleans up in the remaining contests, even if he looses Pennsylvania, he’ll draw quite a bit of attention to his own momentum, and Hillary’s big Mo argument won’t be as strong.

So then we move to toughness. Hillary has gone negative, and is likely to stay there for the remainder of the contest. And I agree that it’s not clear how Obama will respond, or how the electorate will respond to his response. But I wouldn’t count Obama out here–not out for the count, nor out of the negativity business himself. Sure, the Clintons are very good at what they do, but we don’t yet know what Obama is capable of, and the last days leading up to this past Tuesday are not a good indication of how he will respond with so much time before Pennsylvania. My guess is that he doesn’t end up doing too badly on the toughness front throughout the remainder of the race.

This leaves us with the Battleground States. Hillary will claim, as she and her surrogates have been doing, that it is important to pick a nominee who “can win” the traditional Battleground states, like Ohio and Florida. Perhaps she’ll even decide not to push for a Florida recount, so that she doesn’t actually have to win there again in order to link it, if only by association, with her win in Ohio. Anyway, it is here that I expect her, in the coming weeks and months, to really stress her quote-unquote differences with Obama. I could be wrong, but I just don’t think she has much to hang her hat on as she goes forward trailing Obama in pledged delegates. And without the lead in pledged delegates, she needs to give superdelegates a reason to vote for her that will not make them look blatantly small-d un-democratic. This is another reason momentum alone won’t, I think, do it for Clinton. What is it momentum toward? Well, toward winning the primary, and thus the nomination. But the primary is about winning delegates, and Hillary will have arrived without having done that. And for those superdelegates who are trying to devise justifications for voting for Hillary, they will sound strange saying, “Well, she really has the momentum to carry her through to winning my vote!” That will look self-important, and, more importantly, it’ll be a blatant distraction from what the convention is all about: picking a nominee to win the general election. I just can’t see having momentum toward winning the nomination as having such momentous importance at the convention itself. (But maybe I’m wrong, or maybe the claim will be that she has momentum toward winning the general election.)

This is why I think the Battleground argument will be front and center among Hillary supporters and (potential) superdelegates. But now we come to the punch line: the battleground argument is absurd! It is a safe assumption that the vast majority of those who voted in the Democratic primary in any state will vote for the Democratic nominee in November, no matter who it is. And then the question becomes, Who can attract more Independents and Republicans? I think the answer to this is, clearly, Obama. At any rate, winning the primary in a battleground state is little indication that one’s rival will lose it in the general election. It just doesn’t work like that.

Of course, I’m probably wrong about all of this. Maybe NAFTA will come to dominate the arguments leading up to the convention. Or maybe superdelegates just won’t care to give good justifications for their choice of Hillary–it won’t be the first time that justification isn’t really an issue. Or maybe superdelegates will fall in line behind Obama–especially if he wins Pennsylvania–as they should. Who the hell knows. But the battleground argument is absurd, and I hope someone can shine a light on its absurdity before it ends up having any serious impact on the outcome of this by now McCain-aiding primary.

Register your thoughts and outrage below…

Howls of outrage (15)

2007 07 18
On the call for more of the same old rhetoric

Norm links approvingly to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rhetorical responses to terrorism, the upshot of which is that Western leaders fail to engage in enough moral denunciation of terrorism, eschewing this for practical and “logistics-heavy rhetoric about getting to the bottom of each case.” Norm remarks: “Merely to read his proposal brings home how rare a language of forthright public condemnation of terrorist politics now is.”

This strikes me as mostly silly. The most obvious feature of, say, British and U.S. political leader’s responses to terrorism over the last six years has been a cynical attempt to exacerbate and exploit hysteria about possible future attacks in order to push unrelated agendas. If people are now coming to favour a more measured and practical approach to terrorism, surely this ranks as the most obvious reason for it, as opposed to, say, political correctness, which the author puts at the top of his list of explanations. And, contra the author of the piece, we’ve seen plenty of morally loaded language, much of it from bad politicians pursuing rotten agendas who want to obscure that rottenness by fulminating vaguely about evil and whatnot. Neither Norm nor the author bothers to mention the contraction of civil liberties in the U.S., the dishonest selling of the Iraq War, or the massively expanded use of torture and extraordinary rendition by the United States — all policies defended explicitly and repeatedly by hysterical appeals to the threat and insincere and hypocritical moralizing about its nature. I’m guessing these things made a bigger difference to public attitudes than the fear of offending terrorists.
Add to this the fact that terrorists want to terrorize, and one way of thwarting them is to not get too ruffled (which is perfectly compatible with taking the threat seriously). And so on.

Just to be clear, if you want to denounce terrorists as morally reprehensible, by all means go ahead. But it’s pretty weird to offer an analysis of people’s responses to political rhetoric that ignores the political context in which the rhetoric is employed. The context here involves the repeated abuse of the rhetorical tropes in question, so I hardly think it’s irrelevant.

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2007 06 10
If he has his way, you’re toast

Speaking of Rudy Giuliani, there’s a point I meant to make a while back when Keith Olbermann and others were making a stink about something Giuliani had said. Since the general issue is bound to come up again, it might be worth pointing this out, even though that little spat is long over. The issue was this: Giuliani said that if the United States chooses a Democratic president, we’re all likely to be less safe. Olbermann had a cow over this.

Now, the problem I had with Olbermann’s response is that it seemed to me to run together two very different kinds of criticism. We might say:
a) Giuliani’s claim is false; and/or
b) Giuliani’s claim is out of the bounds of acceptable political discourse; it’s not the sort of thing that is appropriate for a politician to say.

Now (a) seems to me indisputable, but (b) seems very disputable indeed. Look, Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a policy debate about security. Unless you think that security policies broadly conceived make no difference whatsoever to security, then I think you’re bound to allow that there’s nothing objectionable at all about claiming that people who favour different security policies will make you less secure. Giuliani’s claim is silly in the extreme, but there’s nothing wrong with this kind of claim in general. And it’s a damn good thing too. I want to say – because it’s true! – that George Bush’s policies have made us much less safe than we might otherwise be. When I say this I’m not ipso facto fear mongering.

None of this is to deny, of course, that Republicans have contemptibly exploited people’s fears for several years now. Or that Giuliani ought to be laughed off the national stage for this remark, and many others. Or that he’s an awful man who needs to be vigorously challenged when he says things that are obviously false. But the critical response to this needs to be more precisely targeted, or risk falling into absurdity itself.

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2007 05 11
On the consequences of expanding executive power in a two party system

Cruel circumstance threw me into close proximity for several hours this morning with someone who wanted to talk about politics with me quite a bit more than I wanted to talk about politics with him. Among the lessons he taught me:

—The notion that global climate change is anthropogenic is a hoax, pushed on us by corrupt scientists who have been bought and paid for by the Democratic party, in order to justify the Democratic party’s insatiable quest for power, all the better to force one-child policies and the like on American society. It’s arrogant to think that we could have an effect on the climate of the earth. Mother Earth is way bigger than any of us, and could crush us if she wanted.

—People on welfare should be forced to work during the day and locked in concentration camps during the night like criminals, since “that’s what they are.”

—Atheists have absolutely nothing to orient their lives by, whereas by contrast he has the ten commandments, which is what the country was founded on, though sadly it is abandoning it just because “Habibi there in the corner doesn’t believe in Jesus.”

—A few years back he was denied welfare when he really needed it solely because he is white. There was an actual official racial quota barring him.

—Fox News is reliable. OK, more reliable than the others. They don’t have an agenda. OK, their agenda is not as bad. Why? Because Wolf Blitzer is a practically a communist.

And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head. Anyway, I pushed back here and there, but recognized from the outset the futility of hoping to have a productive dialogue with him.

But! Unbudging as he was on any of these issues, on one point I was able to unsettle him. We were discussing the Bush administration’s attack on habeas corpus, as part of its expansive reinterpretation of executive power. He began with a spirited defence of the Bush administration’s policies, but I pointed out that the Bush administration hasn’t just given itself new powers. It has arrogated those powers to whoever is in the position of president of the United States. And eventually, sooner or later (he was sure Giulliani would be the next president), there will be a Democratic president. And that Democratic president will have those powers, thanks to the Bush administration. And neither he nor I want that to happen. And with that he gulped, and agreed with me.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 06 29
9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11

I’m so tired of hearing about September 11 in connection with the war in Iraq. I’m tired of the references to 9/11 in Bush’s speeches, and I’m equally as tired of every lefty blogger pointing out all those references to 9/11 in Bush’s speeches. Yes, folks, Bush invokes 9/11—a lot. Yes, it is indeed a matter of sophistry, rhetoric, and evasion of cogent argumentation. But, No, he has not come out and directly linked Saddam and AQ. There was, of course, some genuine legerdemain: making a statement about AQ or bin Laden, and then saying in the next sentence that Saddam has supported (Palestinian) terrorists. But the speechwriters knew what they were doing, and the record pretty much supports that.

But the current invocations of 9/11 are the foreign policy equivalent of Santorum-ian statements about the damage to individuals that can be done by a corrupted liberal culture. Santorum’s point is that individuals are hurt when they must live surrounded by debauched concupiscence. The idea is that the rights of liberal citizens to act as they please must be constrained by the rights that illiberal citizens have not to be confronted with liberal nonsense. So when Santorum points to gay sex and tries to argue that allowing that sort of nonsense will open us up to man-on-dog sex, he need not be relying on the claim that gay sex is as bad as man-on-dog sex. He need only be invoking a common characteristic of both, namely that the existence of both in our society infringes upon a certain moral space that he believes decent, god-fearing citizens are entitled to.

Bush’s use of 9/11 these days is similar: he need not be saying that Saddam was as big a threat as bin Laden was before 9/11. He is saying that our 9/11-inspired appreciation of how vulnerable the US is should convince us that we could not simply abide the threat–whatever its actual nature–that was posed by Saddam’s Iraq. Since we did not know what sort of threat there in fact was, we were justified in invading Iraq because we were justified in being more careful than we were before 9/11.

My point is this. While Bush and Santorum fully appreciate the rhetorical points they score when they mention grave threats (man-on-dog sex, 9/11) in the same breath as less grave threats (gay sex, Saddam), the best way to combat their arguments (if genuine arguments they be) is not to point out that they make such comparisons, but it is rather to meet their comparisons head on. Point out that gay sex occurs between consenting, loving, peaceful adults who use the act as a form of expression of their love, or even simply that it occurs between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. Point out that while bin Laden was a threat, Saddam was not; or–if you’re currently more concerned for the lives of real Iraqis and American soldiers–point out that we are not doing any good in Iraq, and that we’re creating and perpetuating more terror than we’re combating or stamping out. Those are the only effective ways to demonstrate the inaptness of the analogies and connections. Insisting on the existence of more sinister rhetorical motives is either (a) politically inexpedient or useless, or else (b) a misrepresentation of what Bush (and Santorum and the rest of them) are really doing with their words.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 04 02
Speaking of Zimbabwe . . .

Shortly after writing that last snarky post about Zimbabwe’s elections, I met a Zimbabwean at my wife’s show last night. An interesting woman. She works as a reporter for the U.N. here in NYC, in which capacity she interviewed Mugabe herself a few years ago. She told me that he emphatically declared in the interview that he wouldn’t run again. She laughed, a bit bitterly, at how that declaration turned out.

The conversation had an interesting dynamic. When I first mentioned the election, she seemed defensive, and a bit reluctant to criticize Mugabe. Most of her ire seemed directed at the opposition, whom she characterized as feckless and unwilling to address any of the structural problems that had brought Zimbabwe to its current crisis. But it became clear that her reluctance to bash away at Mugabe was a response to the function that Mugabe-bashing often seems to play in the Western media, and certainly not a reflection of any admiration for the man. She felt – and I think there’s something to it – that Mugabe-bashing can be entirely truthful and yet still play an objectionable role: that of whitewashing both the deep inequities in landholding in the country and, more importantly, the historical role of the British in the current crisis. It needn’t be that way, of course. But it often seems to be. (See this interesting post on Crooked Timber for an interesting take on the matter.) Once it was clear that I had no objection in principle to a view which casts blame more broadly, her reservations about Mugabe-bashing seemed to fall away, and she was quite frank about the terrible damage that he had inflicted on the country without any help from the British or anyone else.

A lot of political discourse seems to work this way. Facts that are uncontroversial, or ought to be uncontroversial, become politicized. When that happens we (often reasonably) end up paying as much attention to the role that citing them plays in our political discourse as to their truth. The most obvious recent example of this is surely the way that many of us have argued over how to understand and represent the depredations of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq. Opponents of the war are often accused to wanting to pass over this awful history in silence, since opposing the war meant, among other things, opposing a war that would finish off the regime responsible for the horrors.

Well, perhaps in some cases. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of consciences I can’t even hazard a guess about. But in a lot of cases, it seems to me that reluctance to dwell on the sordid history of the Ba’ath regime is more a response to the role that that history has come to play in the political debate about the Iraq War than a reflection of a guilty conscience. Often citing that history really means: Let’s not dwell on Western complicity in these or similar horrors. It means: Let’s not dwell on what this Western complicity in past horrors suggests for future involvement in the region. So I think I can understand the impatience that some people feel when the conversation is turned, yet again, to selected aspects of the history of Iraq, since the rhetorical force of the move is to push us away from an examination of other facts which are just as relevant to the debate. You can short-circuit a debate with the truth, as well as with lies.

For my part, I prefer another rhetoric about Iraq altogether. I prefer a rhetoric about Iraq and the Iraq War that puts the barbarity of the Ba’ath regime right up front. I think it’s a more truthful rhetoric, and also a more effective one. It’s more effective in large part because it helps to make the point that you can be perfectly frank about Iraq’s awful history and still have opposed the removal of the regime that did so much to make it awful. Skirting over that point can come to seem like an implicit concession that dwelling too much on the character of the Ba’athist regime would lead you to support it’s removal. And that’s not a concession that I’m willing to make, and not one I would ever want to imply.

Thinking about things this way leads me to wonder if the “other side” downplays certain facts (say, about the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East) not because they refuse to accept them (as I often assume), but because they object to the role that citing these facts plays in our political discourse about the U.S.’s role in international affairs. Some of our interlocutors might turn out to be more reasonable, and less dishonest, than they seem, if that is the reason for some of the selectivity and silence we see in their rhetoric. It isn’t the way I would go myself, but the motive here is less rotten than the one that I typically project on my interlocutors.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 07 23
Tim Burke on fairness and balance

He’s right about this, you know. A sample, below the fold, so I have a record of it:
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2004 06 15
I can’t shut up about the Chafetz review

First I reviewed a book review by Josh Chafetz. Then I couldn’t help getting another dig in. Before the men in white suits come to take me away, just let me make two more points. They are both tucked mercifully below the fold.
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2004 06 15
Footnote on Chafetz on Frank

Yesterday, I wrote about Josh Chafetz’s review of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?. I just had one remark to add to that post:

If you’re a graduate student (as Chafetz is) and the New York Times offers you a book review, you bloody well take it, regardless of the book, it’s area, or whether that area has anything to do with anything you (supposedly – you’re a graduate student, after all) know about.

At the same time, if you write a book (as Frank did) arguing that many poorer mid-Westerners support a political party that essentially exploits them economically, and attempting to examine the phenomenon, I think you have a right to be angry when the New York Times assigns your book to someone who cheerfully admits in the course of the review that he doesn’t know anything about the economics of your central claim, and instead spends most of the review dilating on the theme of condescension in your book.

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2004 06 14
Chafetz on Frank

Josh Chafetz of Oxblog reviewed Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? in the New York Times Book Review this weekend. I haven’t read Frank’s book, so I’ll remain agnostic on it, but it’s still possible to make a remark or two about the review itself.
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Howls of outrage (2)

2004 05 26
Bush uses anti-American slur

The Aardvark is on the case.

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2004 01 12

This is a long, interesting, and sensible guest-post on the topic of evil over at Normblog.

I was thinking about this subject the other day as I read over an old Hitchens article in Slate criticizing people for sneering at Bush’s use of the term “evil”. Whether deliberately or not, Hitchens seems to miss the point. When people like myself sneer at Bush for using the term “evil”, we’re not sneering at the term “evil”, we’re sneering at Bush-using-the-term-“evil”. I agree with Garrard that the term “evil” is an indispensible part of our moral vocabulary and that objections to it are usually misguided. The problem with Bush’s use of the term include, but are not limited to, the following:

a) We feel that it is connected intimately with Bush’s moral arrogance, his refusal to examine his own behaviour. And we see that as dangerous.
b) We feel that, however justified the use is in a particular case, Bush comes by the application of the term dishonestly. For Bush, it is a symptom of lazy thinking (which we righly see as dangerous), even if many uses of the term aren’t a symptom of lazy thinking.
c) We feel that in the wrong hands the term functions (and is intended to function) as a debate-stopper rather than part of an attempt to inform or articulate a principled position. We can’t help noticing that many people who use it in the current political climate regard themselves as exempt from the need to defend their position in any detail, when in fact their own favoured position is not the only response to the evil we both recognize. The objection, then, is not to the use of the term “evil” – it is to the mere use of the term evil in contexts where more desperately needs to be said.

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