Straw men lie in the weeds of muddled language

Our side is corrupt, but the other side is more corrupt.

Bret Stephens’ critique of liberal thinking (Reading Orwell for the Fourth, 7/4/2020) doubles as an example of a “straw man argument:”

The more serious problem today comes from the left: from liberal elites who, when tested, lack the courage of their liberal convictions; from so-called progressives whose core convictions were never liberal to begin with; from administrative types at nonprofits and corporations who, with only vague convictions of their own, don’t want to be on the wrong side of a P.R. headache.

This has been the great cultural story of the last few years. It is typified by incidents such as The New Yorker’s David Remnick thinking it would be a good idea to interview Steve Bannon for the magazine’s annual festival — until a Twitter mob and some members of his own staff decided otherwise. Or by The Washington Post devoting 3,000 words to destroying the life of a private person of no particular note because in 2018 she wore blackface, with ironic intent, at a Halloween party. Or by big corporations pulling ads from Facebook while demanding the company do more to censor forms of speech they deem impermissible.

These stories matter because an idea is at risk. That’s the idea that people who cannot speak freely will not be able to think clearly, and that no society can long flourish when contrarians are treated as heretics.

That idea, old as Socrates, formerly had powerful institutional defenders, especially in the form of universities, news media, book publishers, free-speech groups and major philanthropies.

But those defenders are, on account of one excuse or another, capitulating to people who claim free speech for themselves (but not for others), who believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new “intersectional” hierarchies may arise), who are in a perpetual fervor to rewrite the past (all the better to control the future), and who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired)

The last paragraph is where the straw man is plain to see because the language is so tortured. (I love irony.) The first four paragraphs describe liberal elites’ arguments in such general terms that a reader can think: “Yes—I see that. It makes sense to see things that way.” Thus, without analyzing the clarity of the language and images used in Paragraph 5, where Stephens knocks down the straw man he erected, readers might agree with his negative depictions of liberal ideas.

If you are still not clear about this straw man technique, read Paragraph 5 again. Then compare it’s clarity of language and images with the clarity of Natasha Trethewey’s first three paragraphs (My Life Under Mississippi’s Racist Flag, 7/04/2020), which was the editorial directly following Stephens’ piece on July Fourth, 2020.

As my mother made her way to the hospital, hundreds of Confederate flags lined the streets. It was Confederate Memorial Day, 1966, exactly 100 years since the holiday was first celebrated, and the celebrations that day were particularly fervent in the aftermath of recent advances in the civil rights movement: the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. The laws were changing, but the iconic symbol of white supremacy and Black oppression could still be enlisted to send a message.

And the messages were everywhere. The landscape of my childhood was overwritten with monuments to and symbols of the Confederacy: They were in the names of roads, bridges, buildings, schools, parks, other public works and counties. And the state flag of Mississippi, incorporating the Confederate battle flag in its top inner corner, was among the most conspicuous.

Its message was a kind of synecdoche, a part standing in for the whole: The South may have lost the Civil War — a war fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy — but Mississippi would not be inclusive of all her citizens except in the continuing narrative of white dominion over Black subjects. The inclusion of the battle flag within the state flag served as a visual reminder of white Mississippians’ allegiance to that white supremacist heritage and was indicative of the new ways the state would find to maintain the second-class status of Black Americans. It waved to us again and again: Know your place.

The editors of the NYT, not Bret Stephens, were channeling Orwell.  

Or, if that is too complicated, Charles Blow’s NYT editorial, ‘Tell the Truth and Shame The Devil’ (July 6, 2020) provides a simple example:

. . . Trump stood at the base of Mount Rushmore and said, “Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy and reason.” He continued later, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

To be clear, the “our” in that passage is white people, specifically white men. Trump is telling white men that they are their ancestors, and that they’re now being attacked for that which they should be thanked.

Although Trump did not specifically say that “our” was a reference to white people, Blow’s second paragraph drew that conclusion. This is the most common form of straw man—drawing a conclusion based on what you believe the speaker meant, not on what he actually said.

So, yes–Blow erected a straw man. Then he artfully knocked it down with facts about the oppression of black people by “our heroes”–Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt.

What do you call it when a writer puts a conclusion in a speaker’s mouth (erects a straw man) and then knocks it down with facts that support the writer’s conclusion instead of the one argued by the speaker?

I guess it is irony. Thanks Charles Blow. I love irony.  

Straw Man update:

Here is another one from Bret Stephens (NYT, 8/18/2020):

Economically, the conservative idea is that free markets foster personal enterprise, frugality, creativity, industry and other components of moral character. The populist idea is that free markets make you filthy rich.

No, Bret–the populist ideal is a question:

Where do we have free markets?

Oh–I forgot. There is one place where we have a free market. Legislators from both parties get purchased by the highest bidders. Clearly, we are the greatest nation in the world (sarcasm).


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