The More We Talk, the Less We Think
The Volokh Conspiracy has a very interesting example of the way in which an opposing viewpoint is not refuted, but simply delegitimized. One of the telltales of this underhanded tactic, Volokh notes, is an failure by the refuter to provide a link to the original source material, something far more common in 'responsible' newspapers than in the blogs. Eugene Volokh writes:
Here's today's Slate's Bushism of the Day:
"That's George Washington, the first president, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three -- three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting?" -- Showing German newspaper reporter Kai Diekmann the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006
Now it strikes me as a little odd that Slate, one of the pioneers of online journalism, doesn't take advantage of one of the great advantages of online journalism over offline journalism -- the ability to link to the original sources (eithers ones that are already online or ones that are put up on the Web by the journal itself), so that readers can see the context for themselves.
Here is the context for that quote:
That's George Washington, the first President, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three -- three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting? People say, so what? Well, here's the "so what." You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you're gone. If they're still analyzing the presidency of George Washington -- (laughter.) So Presidents shouldn't worry about the history. You just can't. You do what you think is right, and if you're thinking big enough, that history will eventually prove you right or wrong. But you won't know in the short-term.
Without this context, Bush's quote seems mysteriously inarticulate, and understandable only as an unintentional self-parody of his own unintellectualism. Why would he say that it's interesting that he read three or four books about Washington this year? Mystifying.
It may be that President Bush is a dunce, chimp and idiot. But if so then a cherry-picked quote would not even be necessary to prove the point. It is characteristic of chimpanzees that even if you print their remarks in full they still sound like chimpanzees. The actual point of the the George Washington remark appears to be that history often delivers a judgment different from that of contemporary journalism. This assertion could be legitimately disputed by Slate, which often has wonderful articles. But in this unfortunate instance they've chosen to simply dismiss it as the babbling of a retarded Harvard Business School Graduate and ex-fighter pilot who happens to be President of the United States. There are precious few journalists who can claim as much; and while neither being a Harvard alum, fighter pilot or US President is proof of any particular genius, people having those accomplishments should not normally be presumed illiterate or mentally retarded unless there is compelling proof to the contrary. And the proof, as the full Volokh citation shows is not only absent but suppressed, possibly because it is not proof at all, unless it is proof of the writer's bias.
In an atmosphere of partisan debate it is very easy -- even natural -- for writers on both sides to inflate their own virtues and dismiss those of their opponents. I've argued that one of the things we've lost since anonymous blogging went out of style is the necessity to examine an argument on its own merits -- because we didn't know who wrote it. Once we know an argument's provenance it changes everything. Recently columnist Robert Scheer saw an argument he liked, then trembled when he saw who had made it.
These days, even when George W. Bush is right, he’s wrong.
Six years of deceitful defenses of disastrous policy decisions will have that effect on a president’s credibility. It is good news that the public is finally hip to his con, yet it is worrisome when surprisingly sensible proposals by the president on immigration are automatically rejected because of the source.
What is different about Bush’s stance on immigration is that the president is, at long last, dealing with a subject he actually knows something about — as opposed to his failed war of words against terrorism, Iraq, nuclear weapons proliferation and even Social Security. On this subject, the former governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico grasps that the problem is complex and the solution elusive and that fact and logic do matter.
From now on, President Bush should sign his articles "Commando Cody of the Rocketmen". That would make them more acceptable to the literati.
Cody awaits the onslaught of the Zombies of the Stratosphere
Andrew Sullivan justly warns about how far this process of delegitimizing one's ideological opponents has gone.
In Britain, it's a live issue, since a follower of Opus Dei, Ruth Kelly, is now the Equality Minister in the Blair cabinet, bringing calls for removal from some gay groups. I think those groups are mistaken. Kelly has every right to her religious faith; and she has also publicly insisted that as a public servant, her first loyalty is to uphold the laws as they stand. That's exactly the right position; and exactly the right distinction between faith and politics.
One indicator of how much the early 21st century has come to resemble the era of religious wars is the revival in various guises of the concept of cuius regio, eius religio "a phrase in Latin that means 'whose rule, his religion'." The Free Dictionary notes that cuius regio eius religio forms the basis for state sponsored religions, and once granted that Political Correctness constitutes a religion in all but name it becomes apparent that all candidates for high or official positions will become subject to a doctrinal test. The Inquisition returns in its modern form, asking after Blasphemy and Witchcraft -- put differently of course. The nice thing about Commando Cody is that, never having existed, he is ineligible to be questioned by the modern Inquisition. Except by the Radar Men from the Moon.