November 03, 2005

Political Straw Men

In the study of logic, one frequently comes upon the "straw man." This occurs when an opponent takes the original argument of his/her adversary, and then offers a close imitation, or straw man, version of the argument; "knocks down" the straw man version (because the straw man, as its name implies, is a much easier target to hit, undermine, etc.) -- and thereby gives the appearance of having successfully countered the original argument. The fallacy is that the idea attacked is not the idea the opponent held in the first place.

For example, in a pre-election debate, the moderator asks for each candidate's position on gun ownership. Candidate Keary says, "People should be able to own handguns, but they must register them and take a test or a course to prove they can use them safely. Americans have to do this with our cars, and guns are as dangerous or more dangerous than cars." Candidate Bosch responds,"My opponent wants to take guns away from hunters and sportsmen, and let only criminals have them. I believe in the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and unlike my opponent, I think that law-abiding citizens shouldn't be left to defend themselves against criminals using only sticks and stones."

Bosch's answer may have sounded good, but it completely mischaracterized Keary's response, by setting up and then knocking down the fictitious, straw man argument that Keary thinks no one but criminals should have guns.

In the world of politics and policy, an interesting variety of the straw man occurs when an official or advocate is being interviewed in the media, and gets a tough question. The speaker may instead answer a similar, but overly specific, question, giving the appearance of answering the original question when he did not in fact do so. This is a red flag that the speaker is being misleading in order not to incriminate himself. He can later say he answered "truthfully."

This is something kids do all the time. For example, Johnny throws a rock through a neighbor's window, breaking it. After the neighbor complains to Johnny's father about the window, the father confronts Johnny, asking, "Johnny, did you break Mr. Wilson's window?" Johnny replies, "I didn't throw a baseball at his window." Johnny's statement is technically true, but it didn't anwer the question, instead putting up a straw man (the baseball) and knocking it down to appear innocent.

In recent weeks, there have been several glaring uses of the straw man in the media by high-profile men and women in high-profile matters. In each case, it appears that they were taking Johnny's approach:

1. James C. Dobson, head of conservative group Focus On the Family, got into hot water with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican, as well as others, after emerging from a White House meeting with Karl Rove. Dobson said he had "conversations" with Rove about Harriet Miers, the woman nominated to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and "When you know some of the things that I know--that I probably shouldn't know--you will understand why I have said, with fear and trepidation, that I believe Harriet Miers will be a good justice."

Upon hearing this, Specter stated on ABC's "This Week" program, "The Senate Judiciary Committee is entitled to know whatever the White House knew. If Dr. Dobson knows something that he shouldn't know or something that I ought to know, I'm going to find out."

In their October 12, 2005 radio program, Dobson and Dobson's colleague John Fuller stated the following:

Fuller: "Well, I’d also guess, Doctor, that the answer you gave here about the contents of that conversation and why you couldn’t divulge some of those matters, won’t satisfy the senators on the judiciary committee, who were looking for some red meat."

Dobson: "We did not discuss Roe v. Wade in any context or any other pending issue that will be considered by the Court. I did not ask that question. You know, to be honest, I would have loved to have known how Harriet Miers views Roe v. Wade. But even if Karl had known the answer to that and I’m certain that he didn’t, because the President himself said he didn’t know, Karl would not have told me that. That’s the most incendiary information that’s out there and it was never part of our discussion."

Notice how specific the thing is that Dobson says was not done -- discussing Rowe v. Wade. But Specter never said he wanted to know only if Rove and Dobson discussed this case. Specter's comments were not even limited to abortion. But even if the crux of the matter was Miers' views on abortion, Rove could have conveyed those views to Dobson by using language that did not name the case Rowe v. Wade. For example, Rove could have told Dobson that Miers is categorically opposed to abortion, or that Miers says she'll follow her personal religious views on the court, and by the way, that Miers belongs to an Evangelical church that is strongly opposed to abortion. Rove and Dobson could have had any number of conversations that did not specifically mention Roe v. Wade, but gave all the necessary information, and Dobson's statement would still be technically truthful.

2. Colin Powell being interviewed by Larry King on October 17, 2005:

KING: What do you make of all of this Karl Rove leak story?

POWELL: I only know right now what I read in the paper. I appeared before the grand jury, the State Department. And some of us in the State Department had some knowledge of this matter. And we all immediately made ourselves available to the Justice Department and the FBI even before the prosecutor was...

KING: Was it an involved, interested grand jury?


KING: I mean, were they on tops of things?

POWELL: They were following what was going on. And I think we have been forthcoming in what was known within the department about it, the famous State Department memo that I was given by one of my staffers, which, by the way, never had the name 'Plame' anywhere in the memo.


POWELL: No. A lot of press reports suggest the name was in the memo. It was not.

KING: What do you make of the poll that 2 percent of blacks support the president?

Note how Powell uses the name "Plame" as a straw man to dodge the issue, raised in many press reports, of whether the memo he refers to identified Joe Wilson's wife Valerie as a CIA agent. Of course, there are many ways to identify Valerie Plame without using her maiden name "Plame." The memo could have identified Plame as "Valerie Wilson." Or it could have indicated "Joe Wilson's wife." While a savvy interviewer could easily have followed up by asking Powell whether the memo identified the woman in any manner, including "Mrs. Wilson" or "Joe Wilson's wife" or "Valerie Wilson" or otherwise, Larry King failed to follow up and went on to other questions. Perhaps that's because Larry King, according to the interview, considers Colin Powell "an old and dear friend." Perhaps that's why Colin Powell agreed to this interview, with the King of softball questions.

3. Here's a simple one: Ann Coulter on Fox News, Oct. 1, 2005, speaking about liberals:

"They tried blaming a category five hurricane on Bush."

Of course, critics weren't blaming President Bush for Hurricane Katrina, but rather, Bush's failure, and that of FEMA director Michael Brown and his boss, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, to respond swiftly and adequately to the devastating flooding that killed a thousand people in New Orleans and surrounding areas days after the hurricane struck. But of course, it's much easier to knock down the silly straw man that Bush somehow caused the hurricane than to deal with the issue of Bush's response to it.

While it's very sad to see someone like Colin Powell become a hollow man by using the straw man tactic, at least we can all have fun looking out for this tactic by Bush Administration officials and their supporters. Maybe we can even invent a new game: Straw Man Bingo!


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