Saturday, June 13, 2009

Killing Strawmen

I don't always go to Wulfgar's site, but every once in awhile, it does provide a certain amount of humor. Specifically, this posting. Now, if you read this post, you will see quite clearly that this is the classic straw man argument, and I mentioned in his comments:
How many bales of straw had to die so uselessly for this post?
To which, he replied:
Lame, Steve. If you see a straw man, point it out. I'll still crush you like a bug, but please, show some courage. Please?
I saw his reply as the equivalent of the "I am not, You are" school of argument, and figured that he couldn't be so obtuse as to ignore that which was obviously in front of his face.

I was wrong.

Then like a child who has found a hammer, he decided to apply it to everything that he could. Such as in the Electric City Weblog posting on David Letterman's over the top gratuitous insult of Sarah Palin's daughter. Under the comments, I said this:
Just another example of the coarsening of our society that 1. the joke was made, and 2. that anyone would rise to defend it. Of course, the liberal use of the word hypocrisy flows only one way. I am sure that everyone will just be having a laugh riot when Letterman starts making jokes about Obama’s daughters.
Now, if you understand the rhetorical trick of the strawman argument, it is clear that there is nothing of the sort present. But Wulfie, armed with his new toy declared:
"I am sure that everyone will just be having a laugh riot when Letterman starts making jokes about Obama’s daughters."

And when he does,. I’m certain that you’ll call him out.

And you stupidly, with no support, accused me of a Straw Man? Steve, you’d best get your … uh … doody together. There, was that polite enough?
This was the beginning of my realization that he had no real clue as to what he understood a strawman argument to be. But the piece' de resistance was when Dave pointed out that Obama is the master of the strawman argument, to which Wulfie replied:
Hmm. Not disagreeing, Sir Mr. Budge Sir, but it would be helpful to the quest of Mr. Eschenbacher if you actually had an example …
Then I knew, that Rob the Wulfie had no idea what a strawman argument actually is. For him to ignore Obama's prolific use of the strawman either implies willful self delusion, or actual ignorance.

So, for the purposes of his clarification, and to help him not look quite so dumb, let's take a look at what a strawman argument actually is. In general terms, it is a rhetorical device that is dishonest. It is designed to set up a false argument in order to destroy that argument, and thus destroy the supposed proponent of the argument, even though that is not what they argued. A more formal statement can be found at Wikipedia, (just to make it easier than looking it up in a book) and is related in part here:
A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position.[1] To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position

As to the strawman Killer in Chief, we only have to go visit that bastion of Right Wing thought, the Washington Post, which reports that President Obama
President Obama likes to portray the battle over the economic stimulus package that passed the Senate on Tuesday as a stark choice between his approach and that of those who would "do nothing."

"Nothing is not an option. You didn't send me to Washington to do nothing," Obama told a gathering of 1,500 here on Tuesday, bringing the crowd to its feet as he campaigned for passage of the more than $800 billion package.

The president used the same language Monday in his first prime-time news conference, suggesting that lawmakers who opposed his prescription want the government to ignore the deepening economic crisis.

"There seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing," he said.

But in truth, few of those involved in the stimulus debate are suggesting that the government should not take action to aid the cratering economy.

Many of the president's fiercest congressional critics support a stimulus package of similar size but think it should be built around a much higher proportion of tax cuts than new spending. Others have called for a plan that is half the size of the one headed for a House-Senate conference -- still massive by historical standards.

Even those who think that no new government spending is necessary do not advocate a stand-still approach. A newspaper ad by the Cato Institute, signed by 250 economists, argued for removing "impediments to work, saving, investment and production" and said that "lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth."

You can even read more in that ultra right wing anti government rag, The New York Times. From that article:
“There are those who say these plans are too ambitious, that we should be trying to do less, not more,” Mr. Obama told a town-hall-style meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on March 18. “Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore.”

Mr. Obama did not specify who, exactly, was saying America should ignore its challenges.

Similarly, the next day in Los Angeles, Mr. Obama took on Wall Street and Washington, two of his favorite straw men. “I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems,” Mr. Obama said. “It would be nice if I could just pick and choose what problems to face, when to face them. So I could say, well, no, I don’t want to deal with the war in Afghanistan right now; I’d prefer not having to deal with climate change right now. And if you could just hold on, even though you don’t have health care, just please wait, because I’ve got other things to do.”

Mr. Obama continued on the offensive against straw men that day in Los Angeles, pointing out that critics told him not to go on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on NBC because “I can’t handle that and the economy at the same time.” Then, his audience primed, he delivered his standard kill line: “Listen, here’s what I say. I say our challenges are too big to ignore.”

And who can argue with that? Like most straw men, Mr. Obama’s are not complete fabrications. White House officials correctly pointed out that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, took a crack at Mr. Obama for appearing on the Leno show, saying that his “suggestion is that he come back, since he’s taken full responsibility, and get his people together” to confer on the budget.

But that is still a ways from the tortuous construct which Mr. Obama ended up with, that turned Mr. Kyl’s remark into one that somehow needed the “our challenges are too big to ignore” rebuttal, since it suggests that one of those challenges was apparently appearing on Leno.
And just to make it easier to understand for Rob
The telltale indicators that a straw man trick is on the way are the introductory words “there are those who say” or “some say.”

“In strawmanese, you never specify who ‘those who’ are,” Mr. Safire said. “They are the hollow scarecrows you set up to knock down.”

Now there is another version of this trick which does specify the person but is just as dishonest because it implies things that are not said. But that is the subject for another post.


Dave Budge said...

HHS Sec.,Kathrine Sebelius, was on the Sunday talk shows doing the same thing today talking about health care reform saying "doing nothing is not an option."

goof houlihan said...

The Sebelius quote is answerable. "doing nothing" really is better than, "doing the fatally wrong thing". Measure twice, cut once.

A variation of that is "keep this moving forward". You can imagine the head lemming saying just that.

Dave Budge said...

Goof, not that I disagree, but for those who actually have a voice in the matter, like the congressional GOP, aren't saying "do nothing."

Steve said...

This method of false rhetoric seems to be quite popular with the administration, having just watched Joe Biden on Meet the Press. I can only believe that the lack of intellectual rigor has more to do with the lap dog press than anything else. The first time some reporter asks the question "Just who did say that?" you are going to have a complete breakdown in Obama's message.