Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sullivan's One Trick...Exposed

I've finally deciphered Andrew Sullivan's basic rhetorical technique. It goes like this:

1. Highlight and extremist view by someone who disagrees with Sullivan on an issue. Or, portray a view as extreme that really isn't that extreme.
2. Link that view to mainstream oppposition for the item of disagreement -- it helps if he can use an umbrella label for the other side -- e.g. "Chritianist," "theocons", "spineless left," etc.
3. Use this link to marginalize all those who disagree with Sullivan on the issue

So, for example, if Sullivan were arguing against having trains to run on time, he would mention that Nazis wanted trains to run on time, then list all of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and then say this should give some insight into what motivates those who want trains to run on time.

It's a slightly tricky dance, because Sullivan has to portray a view as extreme and contemptible while at the same time assigning it to most of his opposition. But he has mastered it through years of practice.

Some examples from the curent front page:

  • In this post, Sullivan first writes

    "A National Journal poll shows that 84 percent of a selected group of influential Congressional Republicans deny that there's a human component to global warming "beyond a reasonable doubt". The international scientific community puts the likelihod at 90 percent. Whoever these Republicans are, they are not reasonable people, or even vaguely in touch with reality. "

    Whoah there -- I think denial or "skepticism" about global warming is pretty silly at this point, but Sullivan hasn't made the case he'd like you to think he has. He doesn't provide a link to the poll, but I found one, and the questions was, "Do you think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made problems?" Answering "no" to that question is not the same thing as denying there's a human component to global warming.

    It may still be silly to answer "no" to that question, but the evidence Sullivan marshals doesn't prove it. 90% certain does not equal "beyond a reasonable doubt." I wouldn't want to send someone to jail if I was only 90% sure that he was guilty. We shouldn't have gone to Iraq if there was only a 90% likelhood that Saddam had WMD.

    Sullivan continues...

    from the Christianist wing of the party, we are asked to believe that Ted Haggard is now "completely heterosexual." (Yes, I know Haggard's team of reparative therapists are not Republican officials; but their tight connection with the Rove machine has been integral to previous electoral strategies.) Even the "ex-gay" people don't buy Haggard's story.

    So, Sullivan admits that nobody really buys this story, but still tries to say it's typical of the Republican party's "denial." Why? Because the therapists' "tight connection with the Rove machine has been integral to previous electoral strategies." Hmm, I must have missed the campaign ads saying that gays could be converted. Maybe I need to move to a redder state.

    So, to summarize, Republicans are out of touch because they do not consider a 90% likelihood to be "beyond a reasonable doubt," and because part of Rove's strategy is mobilizing the Christian base, and some extreme Christian made a ridiculous claim about Ted Haggard being "completely hereosexual." Got it.

  • In this post Sullivan finds it troubling that those who believe that unborn children are human persons would be less than enthusiastic about a presidential candidate (Rudy Giuliani) who would continue the legal regime that says killing them is a constitutional right.

    I couldn't disagree more. And that is the core divide in contemporary conservatism: between fundamentalism and freedom, between a politics based on divine revelation and Thomist law-making and a politics based on man-made law and individual liberty. Giuliani is running as a secular, modern conservative to run what has become a religious, theological party. His fate is going to be a fascinating insight into what American conservatism can now mean. And the Christianists are not going to put up with secular, inclusive, reality-based conservatism.

    Yikes -- we'd certainly want to be on the side of "freedom," "man-made law," "individual liberty," secularism, modernism, conservatism, secularism (again), inclusiveness, "reality-based" conservatism (again) rather than "fundamentalism," "divine revelation," "Thomist law-making," and a "religous, theological party."

    But is the choice so stark? I'm unconvinced.

    Earlier in the post, Sullivan pinpoints the point of contention with "Chrisitanists" belief in the supremacy of "natural law" over "individual liberty,"

    Surely, though, there is a point where natural law does indeed trump individual liberty. I doubt Sullivan would have a problem with child abuse laws, or laws against infanticide of day-old babies. The disagreement isn't between two completely irreconcilable visions of what the law should be, but a disagreement about the scope of natural law. Does the natural law say the the unborn have a right not to be killed? I say yes; Sullivan and Giuliani say no, or that they're not sure.

    But that won't do -- it is neccesary to portray his opponents as unreaonable extemists, and if the baby of natural law goes out with that bath water, so be it.

  • Here, Sullivan takes on those of the right who are trying to smear lawyers defending terror suspects (which I agree is despicable). But it concludes with this:

    Reading Steyn's and Levin's defenses of the indefensible is a good insight into exactly how uninformed and ignorant parts of the degenerate right have become.

    Thankfully, Sullivan limits the smear to "parts of," but the general smear is there nonetheless.

  • In this post, Sullivan quotes a study about "extreme fringes of American Catholicism." The pull quote:

    Few Americans defended Mel Gibson's drunken rant about the evils of the Jews. But radical traditionalist Catholics did. A three-year investigation of this subculture by the Intelligence Report has found that these Catholic extremists, including the Gibsons, may well represent the largest population of anti-Semites in the United States. Organized into a network of more than a dozen organizations, scores of websites and several extremist churches and monasteries, radical traditionalists in the U.S. are preaching anti-Semitism to as many as 100,000 followers. A few, such as the lawyer for Terri Schiavo's family, Christopher Ferrara, are even movers and shakers in important right-wing Republican circles.

    Now, I spend a fair amount of time reading Catholic bloggers, the kind that think that Pope Benedict is a liberal squish, criticize bishops if they walk by pro-choice Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, etc. Suffice it to say that this represents the most conservative 5% of American Catholics. And I never saw these defenses of Mel Gibson's rant. So, this would have to be an extremist faction of an extermist faction. If this is indeed the largest popuation of anti-Semites in the United States, then this is a truly enlightened age.

    The final smear is a nice counter-weight to the above item, though. Whatever you think about the Schiavo case, it seems strange that lawyer who failed to keep Terry Schiavo's feeding tube on in a state with a Republican governor, and with a Republican presidient and Congress would qualify as a Republican "mover and shaker."

Of course, this biggest victims of this tactic were those who opposed the invasion of Iraq. They were subject to regular smears, and informed that a few extremist crazies exposed what really fueled the anti-war movement.

Hopefully, we're smart enough not to fall for it again.


Dawn Coyote said...

So, how do you quantify "reasonable doubt", anyway?


More bad: (6).

JohnMcG said...

I'd put it at 96-98.

To pick the other legal standard, if the question were, "Does a preponderance of evidence suggest that human activity has contributed to global warming?" and the numbers were similar, Sullivan would have a point.

I also just noted my one trick -- misspellings in the post title (now corrected).

twiffer said...

isn't that, well, pretty much everyone's trick these days?

Leigh Hunt said...

Hi JohnMcG,

I just wrote a post on my own blog along similar lines (though confined exclusively to the global warming poll) before finding your post in Sullivan's trackback list.

The Republicans' comments (included in the poll report) make it obvious that "reasonable doubt" is indeed the key phrase in the global warming question. It's striking that Sullivan can include those words in his summary of the poll and still manage to ignore their implications.

august said...

My two other favorite Sullivan tricks:

1. Define "true conservatism" in such a way that nobody in America qualifies as a conservative.

2. Take a totally confused (and ever-shifting) stance on an issue and call it "conservatism of doubt."

While we're on the subject: poll. Does anybody here read Hitch?
(not me)

JohnMcG said...

1. Define "true conservatism" in such a way that nobody in America qualifies as a conservative.

Except, of course, Sullivan on that particular day.

I don't read Hitchens either -- I'm usually pretty sure what he's going to day anyway -- pretty much mock everyone else's intelligence other than his own.