Saturday, March 18, 2006

“If I Only Had a Brain”

Ah, the famous “straw man.” Fabled in song, story (including one really popular film from 1939), and a lot of Kansas cornfields, it’s also the rhetorical technique used by people who can’t win an argument with logic, truth, and the facts. The Associated Press catches up with the rest of us in describing how the current administration relies on it.

“Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day,” President Bush said recently.

Another time he said, “Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free.”

“There are some really decent people,” the president said earlier this year, “who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care … for all people.”

Of course, hardly anyone in mainstream political debate has made such assertions.

When the president starts a sentence with “some say” or offers up what “some in Washington” believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.

The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.

He typically then says he “strongly disagrees” — conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.

Bush routinely is criticized for dressing up events with a too-rosy glow. But experts in political speech say the straw man device, in which the president makes himself appear entirely reasonable by contrast to supposed “critics,” is just as problematic.

Because the “some” often go unnamed, Bush can argue that his statements are true in an era of blogs and talk radio. Even so, “‘some’ suggests a number much larger than is actually out there,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

A specialist in presidential rhetoric, Wayne Fields of Washington University in St. Louis, views it as “a bizarre kind of double talk” that abuses the rules of legitimate discussion.

“It’s such a phenomenal hole in the national debate that you can have arguments with nonexistent people,” Fields said. “All politicians try to get away with this to a certain extent. What’s striking here is how much this administration rests on a foundation of this kind of stuff.”

It’s also used by pundits and network talking heads — FOX is a shining example of setting up a straw man (i.e. “Iraqi Civil War — Caused by Anti-War Dissent from the Democrats in the US?”), or posing it as question to one of their bobblehead guests: “Some say that President Bush is the greatest president in the history of the known universe. What do you think, Fred?” It’s popular with push-pollers, too: “What if I told you that John Kerry didn’t really serve in Vietnam but spent all those years playing piano in Madame Chang’s Whoopie Parlor in Tokyo. Would you still vote for him?” There’s no truth to the argument whatsoever, but just by making the statement they’ve set up the falsehood as a legitimate point of discussion when it really has no place in the discourse at all.

The beauty of the straw man is that it is very good at diverting the conversation from the issue at hand, and it’s been pretty well mastered by commenters who dare not admit that they’re wrong or haven’t a leg to stand on. And the surest way to put an end to it is to call it for what it is — bullshit. Or you could always light a match.