Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Scottish Cultural Moment" Dept, plus Pierce family anecdotes old and new

Jennifer, if you're reading this, you should stop now, since having to hear this joke for a fifth time is just cruel and unusual punishment, unless for some reason you're interested in the difference between the way I tell a joke and the way I write a joke. You now know by experience what those who have been my friends for years have long been resigned to: you do not want to be the first person I happen to tell a new joke to.

Since I know two Jennifers, by the way, I should probably have been specific as to which one I was addressing in the foregoing paragraph, but the trouble is I can't remember this particular Jennifer's last name...I remember that she's named after a street in Houston but that's the best I can do.


James and Alistair -- just a couple of London blokes, they are -- are sitting in a London pub discussing Alistair's upcoming wedding. As we join them, Alistair is talking about why he's not going to wear a tux: "...but I thought: 'Alistair, old boy, why don't you go back to your Scottish roots for the big day?' So it's out with tux and in with the kilt -- kilt, sporran, dirk, pipers, Scottish all the way."

James has just done a spit-take with his Guinness in delighted amusement over the visual image. "A kilt? You're not serious, Alistair -- you're wearing a kilt?"

"Indeed I am, laddie. You'll see for yourself come the big day."

James shakes his head in amused disbelief. "This I'll have to see, you in a kilt." He pauses for a moment, then asks, "So what's the tartan?"

A bit bemusedly, Alistair answers him: "Why, I should think she'll be wearing white."


I was, back up at the top of this post, merely teasing my esteemed co-worker Ms. White, which I feel it necessary to specify, since I'm so notoriously apt to forget names people might really have thought I seriously couldn't remember her name. (No way I'm going to forget "White." True, I might forget "Jennifer," but that's only because Outlook fills in "Jennifer" for me as soon as I type "Whi..." in the e-mail "Send To:" box, thus relieving me of the necessity of remembering it...) In fact I now have to tell an entirely true story on myself.

A couple of days ago I arrived at work and, along with several other folks, got in the elevator, headed for the 19th floor. A moment later a woman about my age stepped onto the elevator and slotted herself in among the rest of us. I glanced at her and instantly thought, "Hey, I know her! In fact, she's very cool...very smart, and an exceptionally nice!#$#!, what is her name? And where do I know her from? She's not BG...oh, @#$!#$, she's out of context and the synapses aren't firing, but I know I know her, and I know I like her...where do I know her from?...Oh, wait, she's got a BG badge. But why haven't I seen her around here before -- I know I met her someplace else...c'mon, hon, if you'd stop holding that badge in your hand with its hedge toward me and just hold it up where I can sneak a peek at it..."

The elevator was about halfway up at this time, and then, sure enough, she happened to turn her head and saw me. Instant recognition, and she said delightedly, "Kenny! How are you doing? It's so good to see you!"

Quite truthfully -- because although I couldn't think of her name to save my life I knew perfectly well that in whatever previous existence I had known her, I had really liked her, I answered, "It's great to see you, too! Are you working at BG now?"

"I started yesterday." Well, that explained it.

"I'm delighted to hear it." That was nothing but the truth. "What floor are you on?"

"Twenty. You?"

"Nineteen." As if on cue, the elevator stops at my floor. "This one, in fact."

"I'll come find you," she says cheerfully.

"Awesome. Welcome to BG!"


The door closes and I head for my desk, thinking, "Aw, man, what a way to start a day, making a fool of myself before I even sit down." I get there and several of the folks who sit in my immediate vicinity are already seated; so naturally I immediately have recourse to my standard psychological coping mechanism for situations in which I have just made a royal ass of myself: I promptly tell my friends the whole story. Chris Greer is chuckling away by the time I'm done: "You have no idea what her name is?"

"No idea in the world. I just know that she's smart, good at her job, and a very nice person, and I really like her. But on her name, not a clue."

All of a sudden Pete O'Neill, who I had not realized was even listening, pipes up from his desk over by the window: "Kenny, are you by any chance talking about Lisa Kutach?"

Cue the "Hallelujah Chorus." "Yes! Yes! Of course!"

So Pete came through for me in a big way, and this morning when I ran into her on the 20th floor I was able to say cheerfully, "Hi, Lisa."

I'm figuring Lisa doesn't know about the blog and by the time anybody tells her about it she won't trouble to crawl through the archives and stumble across this post -- but just in case: Lisa, if somehow you've found out about this blog and are now reading this entry...[sigh] don't mind me, it's just that I'm an incurable airhead. But I really am delighted you've decided to come join us.


It's a genetic thing, you know -- a congenital defect, if you will. My father's father, whom unfortunately I never met (he died in '64, two years before I was born) was a lot like me, or perhaps vice versa. My late (and much-lamented) Aunt Gloria was so honked off the, wait, let me start back at the beginning.

Aunt Globie, like my dad and all their siblings, was born on the farm. (My dad is a throwback to an era my own kids can't imagine; he grew up plowing behind a mule and learned to drive on the Model T pickup truck Pa bought for the family after my dad was a few years old, and when he was in college he went back home to the farm and helped install electricity in the house so his mama could use an electric iron rather than having to heat the Old Cast-Iron Faithful on the stovetop every time she did laundry. It's not that Pop is that old; it's just that Pa and Granny were that poor and that far behind the times.) Now Pa was precisely as capable of imagining a Lamaze class as he was capable of imagining a Kazakh transvestite, which is to say, not at all: his role in the birthing marathon was to fire the starting gun, as it were, and then nine months later, after the doctor or midwife came out and told him the baby's gender, to go in and find out from Granny what the kid's name was going to be and then to go hitch up the horses to the wagon and head the twenty miles into Athens so that he could fill out the paperwork for the birth certificate.

Well, when Aunt Globie was born, Granny informed Pa that his latest daughter was to rejoice in the name "Gloria Fern Pierce." And off Pa went in the wagon, and in due course, several hours later, he returned, having completed his assigned duty.

About twenty years later, young Billy Halpert proposed to Globie, and she accepted, and the family headed into Athens in a festive mood to get the marriage license. But they ran into a completely unexpected snag: there was no birth certificate.

"Are you sure?" I can hear Globie's incredulous East Texas drawl in my mind clear as if I'd been there my own self.

"No, ma'am, I've looked twice; there's no Gloria Pierce registered."

Then Pa spoke up sheepishly from where he'd been standing off to one side. "Um...try looking under 'Violet Rose Pierce.'"

And there it was. And thus the whole story came out...

Twenty miles is a long way when you're riding in a wagon behind two horses. It took a few hours for Pa to get to Athens, and I imagine he was kinda tired and adrenaline-crashed even before he started...and besides, this is Pa we're talking about, and he was an airhead after my own heart. So he got to the hospital, and the nice young lady took out the form and settled in at her desk and then looked up at Pa with her pen poised at the ready and asked, "What's the baby's name?"

And Pa realized that he had no idea.

"Um...hold on a minute, it's slipped my mind..."

The family story doesn't describe the look on the nurse's face, but you and I, Gentle Reader, can readily fill in the narrative lacuna from our own imaginative resources.

Pa was concentrating desperately now. "...wait, it was a couple of flowers, I think...oh, wait, I got it! It's Violet Rose."

And he answered the rest of the nurse's questions, and then he went back home, and he walked in and carefully referred to "the baby" until some other member of the family referred to her as "Gloria," and he thought to himself, "Oh, probably nobody will ever look at it anyhow" -- and until Billy Halpert fell in love with Globie and asked her to marry him, she had no idea that she didn't even know what her own name was.

So you see, as my East Texas Granny would tell you in a New York minute, "Kenny comes by it honest."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On "fuzzy" logic

Leanne having pointed out that not many people other than engineers know what I mean when I refer to "fuzzy logic," I thought a quick explanation would be in order:

Can you define "old"? For example, is a 41-year-old man "old"? ("Yes!" emphatically answer Anya, Natasha and Kinya, all of whom habitually address me as "starik," i.e., "old guy.") How about a sixty-year-old? How about someone 110? What if that 110-year-old is a sea turtle? (Okay, I admit that last one is cheating a bit.)

If you look at, say, the Social Security Administration, their attitude is that nobody is old when he is 62 years and 364 days old; but the next day, instantly, poof! old guy. Now this is absurd, and recognizing that it's absurd is really all that "fuzzy" logic is about: it's about recognizing that you start off not at all old, and then you get sort of older, and then you're kinda old, and after a while you're pretty old, and after a while later you're definitely old, and after a while it's like, whoa, don't tell me you're still around.

"Binary" definitions say, "Either you're old, or you're not." They deal only with yes-or-no questions. "Fuzzy" definitions lend themselves to questions like, "On a scale from one to ten..." Binary: "Are you happy, or are you not?" Fuzzy: "How happy are you?"

Thus "pregnancy" is a purely binary issue; if someone asked a lady, "How pregnant are you?" it would be an absurd question. "Old," on the other hand is fuzzy.

Now, logic is just the rules for thinking carefully and clearly. And thus "fuzzy logic" is not "careless and confused logic" -- fuzzy logic is just the rules for thinking carefully and clearly about fuzzy things.

Whaddaya think, Leanne -- think that'll help 'em?

Oh, and on a related topic... I think I've mentioned this before, but there are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who think in binary, and those who don't.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The demonization conversation continues

This post continues a discussion from the comments to my recent series of posts on demonization. May I encourage you guys to go read those comments? Jim is a dream come true for me: he is very intelligent, he is generous and charitable in discussion – and he disagrees with me on just about everything. I learn more from going back and forth with Jim than I do from discussions with anybody else I can think of off the top of my head.

Jim, I can answer some of your questions very quickly:

“Is calling someone stupid demonization?” No.

“Is calling someone immoral demonization?” Not usually.

“Is repeatedly referencing something bad that someone did demonization? Even if they have either confessed and asked for forgiveness, or been found with extenuating circumstances?” Not if you don’t exaggerate wildly yet in all seriousness, impute to them (at least in what a reasonable listener would take to be your implication) the deliberate embrace of evil and malice, and/or rhetorically associate them with notoriously evil cultural symbols.

“Is repeatedly accusing someone of something they didn’t do demonization?” Not so long as you refrain from exaggeration, imputation of malice and association with iconic evil.

“Is repeatedly saying this person will do something bad, even though there is no evidence supporting the accusation, demonization?” Frequently but not necessarily.

“Does tying obviously charged words like Nazi or gulag automatically make it demonization?” Not quite all the time, but most of it.

Also, let me immediately say something with respect to the following statements from your comment:

“If the definition I extrapolated is correct, then let me say I disagree that Durbin’s description of the things going on in Guantanamo are demonization. He did not exaggerate the things going on. He read a report written by someone who saw the actions. That report was not exaggerated.” I completely agree with you that Durbin’s description of the things going on in Guantanamo was not demonization (though it was unquestionably special pleading of an extreme and rather indefensible degree). What followed was, however, unusually blatant demonization. I hope that by clarifying a little better what I see as the distinguishing marks of demonization I can help you see why I disagree emphatically that you successfully absolve him of demonization with your subsequent defense: “He did not say this is worse then what you may find in Stalinist Russia, or that dubya is worse than Pol Pot. He did say that ‘if you didn’t know better, you would think this was something that Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot did.’ The key weasel words were ‘if you didn’t know better.’”

Okay, here we go. You will gather from the foregoing that I consider the characteristic marks of demonization to be:

1. Exaggeration, not for comic effect.

2. Imputation of evil motives.

3. Rhetorical association with iconic evil. (You seem to think that you have to say somebody is worse than an icon of evil before one crosses the line. Um…if you are capable of sitting calmly and thinking your opponent is playing fair when he tries to convince your friends and neighbors that you are merely as bad as Hitler, then you have set your civility-bar a whole lot lower than most of the rest of us have. [chuckling] I’m trying to imagine you saying with a straight face, “I don’t understand…why should I be angry? He only said I was the moral equivalent of the vilest human being of the last half-millenia. Personally I choose to take that as a compliment. Now, if he’d said I was worse than Hitler…well, them’s fightin’ words.”)

And there’s a fourth characteristic indicator of demonization as well:

4. Playing to an audience known to be predisposed to hatred of the person or group being demonized.

It seems to me that you and I don’t see the necessity for the precise operational definition in quite the same way, because you are thinking (it seems to me) in binary logic whereas in matters linguistic I think fuzzy-logic principles pretty much always apply. By that I mean that there are some things that are obviously demonization, some things that obviously are not, and other things that we can say, “Well, he’s skatin’ pretty close to the line there.” In short you seem to me to be asking a question analogous to asking, “Where does evening end and night begin?” I could be wrong about that, of course.

But in any case, once we allow for the fuzzy/binary distinction, I think you can see what I mean: the more of those four characteristics you see in a piece of rhetoric, and the more blatant they are, the more you can suspect / opine / be certain that the demonization card has been played. Furthermore, the third (association with iconic evil) and fourth (playing to an audience predisposed to hatred) are much stronger indicators of demonization than are the first two. Basically, any time you hear somebody associate a political opponent with iconic evil…

Hang on a minute, I should explain the “iconic evil” bit. An icon of evil is a figure whose name in popular culture has become associated with evil to the point at which the mere mention of the name provokes instant revulsion. The worst, by definition, is Satan himself, followed for those of us who grew up in the twentieth century by Hitler/the Nazis, then Stalin, and then a tier populated more or less equally by Mussolini and Pol Pot and Mao, with Osama and the Islamofascists seemingly poised to leap past that fourth tier into Stalin territory…though, if you were in the left-hand half of the American Left, I suspect that you would react to being called “Osama” with rather less outrage and hurt feelings than if one of your fellow Kossites were to call you “Dubya.” And given the number of Americans who are either atheists or else the sort of vaguely religious persons who think only fundamentalists and the SNL Church Lady believe in the out-of-date myth of the Devil, my impression is that calling somebody “Hitler” or a “Nazi” is now perceived as a more deadly insult than calling him “Satan.”

At any rate, any time you hear somebody associate a political opponent with iconic evil, you should immediately suspect demonization, especially in the current American environment of incivility and mutual condemnation. Once you’ve spotted that tactic, then you check the other characteristics: if exaggeration is present, or if there is no reason to think that the speaker has his tongue in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye, or if the speaker does not make a significant effort to clarify his intent and explicitly reject the apparent imputation of malice (for the association with iconic evil will always be heard by ordinary listeners as an imputation of motives similar to those of the icon of evil), then you can be pretty confident that you have demonization. If you have wild and grim-faced and non-caveated exaggeration along with association with iconic evil, with an intended audience already addicted to rabid hatred of the target, then you definitely have demonization, in its purest form.

In Durbin’s case, in that last paragraph I quoted, he dragged in the two most iconic evil figures of the twentieth century PLUS one from the third tier, exaggerated grotesquely, did so in absolute grim humorlessness and in the most serious forum imaginable, and offered no recognition whatsoever that reasonable people might differ from him on the moral issues involved or that Bush and his administration might be doing what they sincerely (however mistakenly) believed to be the morally right thing to do. And as if that weren’t bad enough, his clear target was Bush & Company, while the choir to which he was obviously preaching was the Democratic base – and only a very oblivious person indeed could, in Durbin’s position, have been blind to the fact that the choir to which he was preaching was already notoriously prone to saying (absurdly) that his target was on a moral plane with Hitler and that Bush’s choices are consistently the choices of a deliberately evil man. If that’s not demonization then nobody in the entire history of the world has ever employed demonization as a rhetorical tactic.

The only possible results of Durbin’s outburst were either (a) no effect, in the case of the great many people who very reasonably see no reason to pay the slightest attention to anything Durbin, or any other Congressmen for that matter, sees fit to disgrace himself by saying in public, or else (b) the stirring up of anger and defensiveness and disgust on the part of people who did not already agree with Durbin’s position, or else (c) the inflaming and reinforcement of the already cancerous tendency for literally millions of people on the Left to hate Dubya with a passion bordering on insanity. I am quite ready, especially in light of Durbin’s subsequent apology, to believe that Durbin did not intend any of those consequences, and that he somehow thought that his speech would have some sort of persuasive effect on some undecided person, somewhere. But that’s just because I’m quite ready to believe that Durbin is an ass, which as a matter of fact is indeed my private opinion, and which I have on previous occasions taken the liberty of making public.

But, as I say, it isn’t really Durbin that interests me. It’s the political climate in which demonization is all but universally excused by all those who happen to agree with the demonizer and to disagree with the target. In a healthy society I would hope that as soon as Durbin unburdened himself of that rot – or as soon as a Republican unburdened himself of similar nonsense pointed in the opposite direction – the Congressmen on the demonizer’s own side of the aisle would be the first to rise up and condemn his tactics. If America were still the kind of country that produced leaders capable of writing the Federalist…okay, another digression I just can’t resist. Washington’s Farewell Address. Madison and the Federalist. The Gettysburg Address and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Audacity of Hope. [singing chirpily] One of these things is not like the others… (And before Republicans snicker too hard: I originally intended to end that series with Dubya, but was thwarted when the only thing I could come up with for the current Fearless Leader was “The Pet Goat.”)

At any rate, if America were still the kind of country that produced leaders capable of writing such things as the Federalist, then I think you would probably still be right, Jim, in saying that people’s readiness to condemn any given example of demonization would be affected by their party affiliation. The problem is that such a society would not be like modern America; it would be the opposite of modern America. America today has the negative sign backwards, as it were: in a healthy society, you would be far more eager to jump all over the perpetrators on your own side. In modern America, Democrats generally try to excuse or at the very least play down the seriousness of the rantings of the Durbins, while complaining about how “hateful” the Republicans are; while Republicans call Rush Limbaugh a great American and complain about how hate-filled the Daily Kos and the radical feminists are. Both sides seem to me to be desperate to point out the log in the other side’s eye; but I quit reading Michelle Malkin long before I quit reading Molly Ivins, and it seems to me that this is the only healthy response – if you can tolerate evil among those who agree with you better than among those who disagree with you, then you have a deep and serious problem, it seems to me. And the excuse-your-own-side dynamic is not just taken for granted, but is seen as perfectly normal and acceptable, as can be seen in the reactions I got from Democrats when I used Durbin as my example: why was I picking an example two or three years old? Why not Republican examples too? It was taken for granted that my real agenda was to bash Democrats, not to discuss a tactic. The obvious reason for my picking an example two or three years old seems never to have occurred to, for example, the Ghost: it’s because in the two or three years since Durbin’s outburst I haven’t happened to see another example of demonization – including by Democrats – more memorable than Durbin’s, which example happened to stick in my mind not because he was a Democrat but because I have a very deep and decades-old and personal interest in the gulag. If my point had been to say, “Democrats are more evil than Republicans,” then I’m sure fifteen minutes of googling would have gotten me far more recent examples, and therefore examples far more useful for Democratic-bashing purposes.

That’s the single thing that most deeply concerns me. There have always been people who wielded demonization; but it used to be that any responsible and well-educated person would repudiate those of his side who stooped to it. Today the typical responsible and well-educated person will explain to you why it’s not really demonization as long as it’s coming from his side of the aisle.

Now, to return to the tactic itself, having amused myself sufficiently with sweeping dystopian generalizations: I think it would probably be useful at this point to compare my view on demonization to the well-known rule of internet debate by which the first person to mention the name of Hitler is automatically declared to have lost the debate. I personally think that that rule is well-intentioned but overdone – but the reason recourse has to be made to such a blunt and universal rule is precisely the fact that people don’t really understand what demonization is. That rule is meant to head off the most common form of demonization; but as you can see (a) it is only applied when the icon of evil employed is Hitler, and (b) there are circumstances in which you could compare your opponent’s proposals or attitudes to those of Hitler without demonizing. That latter statement may be difficult to believe; so let me give you an example.

Let’s look at the hilarious PTA scene from Field of Dreams, in which both of the characters in the debate are written and acted with note-perfection, including Amy Madigan's Annie, who is one of my favorite characters from the world of fiction and who inspired one my personal favorite Peril posts. For those of you who have not seen the movie (shame on you!), Beulah wants the works of Terence Mann to be kept out of the public school library. There are reasonable arguments both for and against such a measure; but (entertainingly) neither Buelah nor Amy Madigan’s character Annie is reasonable. And of course Annie resorts, shamelessly, to wild-assed demonization: “Who wants to vote for Eva Braun here? Who wants to burn books?” – You know what, if I’d thought about it in time, I’d’ve used that scene, rather than Durbin’s silliness, to establish my categories for demonization, and then nobody would have been distracted by pre-existing party allegiances. Oh, well. I blew that one. Too late now.

What I want to point out here is that Annie could have made similar arguments without demonizing – but only if she had said something like the following:

“Listen, I’m sure you mean well, but I get pretty nervous whenever people start claiming that censorship is a great idea – especially when we’re talking about government censorship. I mean, not to call you Eva Braun or anything, but we all remember that one of the first things the Nazis did when they got power was to start burning books, and that they were especially fanatical about controlling what the young people were allowed to read. I understand that you don’t think that what you’re doing is the same thing the Nazis were doing; but they look enough alike to cause me some concern. Could you explain exactly what the difference is that you see between what you’re proposing and what the Nazis were proposing?”

Now that is actually a fair question; and even though the Nazis come into play – indeed, even though Reasonable Annie is tentatively drawing an equivalence between what the Nazis were doing and what Beulah wants to do – there’s no demonization here. There’s no equivalence drawn between Beulah herself and the Nazis themselves. (As opposed to, “Who wants to vote for Eva Braun here?”) Note the very careful, explicit recognition that Beulah has good intentions; note that Reasonable Annie is very up-front about not wanting to exaggerate what Beulah’s doing. She just wants Beulah to clarify what it is that sets her proposed policy apart from the Nazi one that we all, including presumably Beulah, agree was a bad one – indeed, Reasonable Annie is making it clear that she does not think Beulah is a Nazi and that she takes it for granted that there is something that sets the two policies apart from each other, even though she herself can’t at the moment tell precisely what that something is supposed to be. If and when Beulah clarifies her position, then you will be able to move on to have a reasonable discussion about whether the alleged differences are valid, and, assuming they are, what sorts of measures need to be taken to be sure you don’t start sliding down a slippery slope and wind up some place nobody, including Beulah, ever meant to go.

But then, of course, if Annie had done it that way, she would have been very reasonable – and, also, she wouldn’t have swept the vote. Instead Annie went with the flagrantly unfair, unreasonable, wild-eyed, judgmental, malicious, irresponsible and emotionally powerful approach. (In fact, in her own words, “It was just like the Sixties again!” I couldn’t agree more. ;-) )

This I think goes to your point about Republican rhetoric about Democrats’ “letting the terrorists win.” It is one thing for Republicans to say that the approach the Democrats want to use is foolish and is likely to result, however unintentionally, in a disastrous weakening of our national security. It is another thing entirely to call Democrats “traitors” (and I have always disapproved pretty strongly of the name of the “Patriot Act,” with its deliberate attempt to imply than anybody who voted against it was an enemy of the American people). I think a serious and reasonable point can be made – I would make it myself if I ever got around to finishing your and my long-suspended discussion on torture – that the Democratic approach fails to deal adequately with the government’s moral obligation to protect the innocent in a world in which lack of knowledge is an unavoidable constraint and tragic mistakes are inevitable no matter which policies you adopt…but that no more means that Democrats are purposely helping terrorists kill Americans than the unarguable results of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies prove that Chamberlain was on Hitler’s side all along. So I think usually when you hear the word “traitor” getting thrown around – “traitor” being a word that clearly implies a particular, and despicable, conscious motivation – then you’re probably dealing with demonization (and if a name like “Benedict” or “Quisling” pops up then we have a definite diagnosis). Similarly the phrase “aiding and abetting the enemy” has to be used with extreme caution if it’s going to be used at all – I think there’s no doubt that the New York Times, for example, has done exactly that objectively speaking; but I think it’s very difficult to say so without appearing to imply, I am sure unjustly, that they did so on purpose. That’s a line I don’t want to cross; but it’s a line certain Republican commentors cross on a near-daily basis. (Or at least they used to, back before my marriage disintegrated and I stopped having time to pay attention to politics.)

Oh, on the humor thing: since my reason for trying to define what is ethical and what isn’t in political discussion, is fundamentally about monitoring and controlling my own behaviour, it doesn’t bother me much that people can claim that they were “only joking.” I always know whether my own intent was humorous or not, and that’s the really critical issue. When somebody else says something grossly offensive, then we can either believe them, or else – as very often happens – we can say, “Yeah, like hell you were joking; you just got into more trouble than you intended and now you’re trying to weasel out of it.” That’s just a matter of how much judgment we want to go around passing on other people, and it has to do with asking what kind of person a particular person is, rather than what kind of rhetorical tactics are socially acceptable in public discourse. Personally I think “feminazi” is a contemptible term to use (precisely because of the “Nazi” component) and I don’t really care that Rush Limbaugh is sufficiently lost to charity as to think that it’s funny. But how much does it really matter what I think about it? I mean, that’s pretty much between Rush, his dittoheads, the feminist lunatic fringe (I confess that I share Rush’s basic opinion of their character and sanity, more or less; I just object to his tactics), and the God to Whom they all answer. All it means for me is that I don’t listen to Rush very often.

By the way, I should point out here that when I put moralistic musings like this one out on the blog, the main reason is so that when I violate ’em myself, you guys can jump my case and hold me accountable.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Reasoned Political Analysis of the Day Dept.

Kevin Henry asks a profound and troubling question.

As he insightfully points out: asteroids and terrorists...what are the Democrats thinking?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's most impressive is the amount of spare time this guy has on his hands

Thanks to Christian for this one.

Monday, February 11, 2008

On Demonization

Okay, I just put up a series of six long posts having to do with the rhetorical tactic of demonization and why I am appalled when I see people indulging in it. The six posts need to be read in order, if you're interested at all...but of course, this being a blog, "in order" means, counterintuitively, "from bottom to top." So here to help you is a table of contents:

I. The Tactic
II. The Nature of Hatred
III. Hatred and the Inability to Learn
IV. Hatred and the Motives of the Hated
V. Guilt and Stupidity
VI. In the End, You Are What You Hate

Now, I have a special warning for my friend the Ghost, whose vigorous give-and-take with me wound up pushing me to think through this issue so carefully:

My dear Ghost, I love ya, but this series is about demonization, NOT about George W. Bush and the Republicans. It's not about Guantanamo. It's not even about Dick Durbin. It is about demonization. I picked Durbin simply and solely because his unhinged rant was one of the best examples of demonization I've seen in a long time. But if I had written exactly this same series of posts in the mid-'90's, I haven't the slightest doubt that the starring roles in my examples would have been played by unhinged Republicans ranting about the Great Satan Bill Clinton -- and the people who, like the politicians providing my examples, were swamped with Clinton-hatred, would have been filling my comments with desperate attempts to prove that I was wrong about demonization because Bill Clinton Really Truly Is That Evil.

Well, I'm not gonna let that happen. So, again, I love ya, but any comment in which you sail off ranting about how terrible Republicans in general are and Bush in particular is, is a comment that I will ruthlessly delete. The topic is demonization. Stick to it, or stay on the sidelines. (I hope when you read this the tone that comes through is mildly exasperated affection, not bitch-slapping annoyance.)

On Demonization VI: In the End, You Are What You Hate

This is the sixth and -- no doubt mercifully -- the last in a series of posts whose table of contents may be found here, and it assumes you have read all of its predecessors beginning here.

Now I'll try not to take to long on my last point for this post. It has to do with something that athletes and other successful people understand, something I've tried hard to explain to my kids. Your subconscious doesn't work logically -- it works in images. And the concept of negation -- which is to say, the word "not" -- is a purely logical concept.

What this means is that if your subconscious goes to work shaping you into that which you visualize -- even if you're visualizing it because you don't want to be that way. Athletes know what the difference is between the players who consistently come through in the clutch and the people who don't. Put a come-through guy on the free-throw line with no time on the clock and his team a point down, and he'll be saying to himself, "Gimme that ball so I can win this game." Give a choker the ball in the same situation and he'll stand there staring at the rim and saying, "Dear God don't let me miss." And most of the time (assuming the player has good free-throw skills to begin with), the player's subconscious obligingly arranges the result he has visualized. ...continue reading...

This effect is far more serious when you get into human relationships. Haven't you ever seen a guy who hated his father, who spent all his childhood swearing, "I'll never be like that bastard" -- and now everybody who knows him says, "He's just like his old man"? Philippians 4:8 urges us to think about the honorable and the admirable, because God knows that you conform to what you fill your mind with.

Have you seen what happened to Michelle Malkin? A couple of years ago she was on my blogroll. She had a good sense of humor and an interesting point of view. But she loved to do one thing in particular: she loved to point how examples of how hateful the Left was. And the more she talked about how hate-filled the Left was, the harsher and harsher her tone got, and the more her tone when she talked about the Left started to take on the unmistakable timbre of hate, until the point came when I could no longer stomach it and removed her from the blogroll. Meanwhile, what kind of audience is she attracting? Ask Helen. (And if you think Michelle's decline is merely a figment of my own imagination, ask She Who Must Be Obeyed what she thinks.)


So here is the supreme irony.

Because hate makes you stupid, it makes you imagine your enemy as being more evil than he actually is. Then, because hate turns you into what you hate, it turns you into what you have imagined him to be. And thus the end result is that there is somebody who is the monster you have made your enemy out to be -- but that monster isn't your enemy.

It's you.

And that's why I urge people not to resort to demonization. Paul Krugman's abuse of Bush isn't going to do Bush very much damage. But Krugman himself? Alas, I fear for him.


There's much more to say on the topic of demonization, but I think it's time to stop for a while and catch our breath. The comments are now open for business...release the hounds!

This completes, for now, the series of posts on the rhetorical tactic of demonization. My somewhat awestruck congratulations on your having stuck it out all the way to the end.

On Demonization V: Guilt and Stupidity

This is the fifth in a series of posts whose table of contents may be found here, and it assumes you have read all of its predecessors beginning here.

There's a third way hatred makes you stupid, and that is by setting you up for guilt.

You see, most of us recognize, down deep inside, that hate is evil. Once we have allowed ourselves to hate, it becomes crucial that our target deserve it -- because if he doesn't deserve, that makes us a bad person. Now, if you have been trained by religious discipline to face up to your own sins, confess them, and move on, this is not an insuperable barrier. But that sort of religious discipline is precisely the kind of religious discipline that urges you to be charitable to begin with, even to evil people. If you've managed to rationalize your anger and hatred on the grounds that the other guy deserves it, then you probably don't have the religious training that makes you capable of admitting readily that you have been at fault. Which means you'll cling to your error.

And clinging to your errors, refusing to admit you are wrong -- that's stupid.


See, I told you it would be brief.

There is one last point to be made about demonization. I have not necessarily saved the best for last. But I do believe that I have at least saved for last the discussion of the aspect of demonization that is the most lethal, and the best reason for us to take care that, however much our enemies may indulge in demonization, we do not ourselves follow them on their path of self-destruction.

The last post in the series is found here.

On Demonization IV: Hatred and the Motives of the Hated

This is the fourth in the series of posts whose table of contents may be found here, and it assumes that you have read its predecessors here, here and here.

Very well, hatred makes you stupid in general, because it takes you out of the frame of mind in which you can learn anything -- which is bad news because everybody has lots of stuff he needs to learn, and if he refuses to learn them, his only other option is stupidity. But there's another reason hatred makes you stupid in one particular arena especially, which is to say, human relationships and human behavior, which includes politics:

Hatred corrupts your judgment of other people's motives. ...continue reading...

I don't think I have to work too hard to convince you of this one. Just don't think about politics for a moment. Instead, think of every divorced couple you've ever known. Think about what they were like when they first got married. Did you ever try to convince a man that his fiancee was not a very nice person? How successful were you? You know the old saying: "Love [meaning, the emotion of extreme infatuation] is blind."

Now think about that same man as he and his wife fight their way through divorce court. And imagine trying to convince him that his soon-to-be-ex-wife is actually a fairly nice person. How successful are you likely to be?

Hate, you see, is also blind.

What really happens is that practically everything that most people do could be done out of several different motives, some of them nice, some of them not so nice. In fact, because we human beings are the complicated, non-self-aware, mixed-up people that we are, lots of the time we're working from several different motives all simultaneously, some of them nice, some of them not so nice. You will almost always be able to imagine bad motives for practically anything another person does (have you ever tried to logically prove to a paranoid person that other people aren't really out to get him?). And if you hate the other person -- then you'll usually convince yourself that the bad motives are the ones he's working from.

This is why demonization is so closely linked with hatred. Demonization is most of the time concerned to blacken people's motives -- they aren't "committing torture" because they misguidedly think it is in the best interests of innocent Americans, but because they are consumed by an evil desire to prove that they can do anything they want to do whether the Constitution likes it or not. They haven't set up a welfare state because they are well-intentioned idiots, but because they are "traitors" deliberately out to destroy our nation. What demonization does in rhetoric, is precisely what the hate-filled person does within his heart.

I want, again, to quote Alexander Hamilton on something that everybody with a liberal education used to know, back when a liberal education was actually an education, and back when people in academia still had a clear understanding of what characteristics and thought patterns set good and habitually wise people apart from malicious and habitually foolish people.

I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable--the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

Now, in comparison to that genuinely liberal and generous and wise attitude toward those with whom one disagrees, let me assume a persona that we all will recognize (I mean, just a general persona, not that of any specific real-life person):

"Their agenda is to centralize political and economic power -- government subsidies for big business, tariffs for favored industries, what we call 'corporate welfare.' It's really all Dubya cares about. It's what he's built his political career around. And all these policies he's always wanted to implement, things Republicans had never been able to get away with before 9/11 -- he was able to push them through with 9/11 as an excuse. Since 9/11 it's been about consolidating and using power. He's violated Americans' civil rights using terrorism as a pretext to grab power. He's the opposite of a saint."

I'm not quoting any particular Bush-hater, you understand...but doesn't that sound familiar? Couldn't you instantly point at half a dozen persons of your personal acquaintance, and a countless horde of infuriated commentators on-line and on the Times's editorial page, who would pretty much endorse that whole speech point-for-point?

And before we go further, if you don't like Bush, can I ask you -- in the privacy of your own mind, without having to share with the rest of us -- whether you can imagine yourself saying those things? Just try it and see whether it sounds like you. The rest of us will wait thirty seconds or so...


Okay, welcome back.

Now, let me give you a direct quote from Thomas DiLorenzo, a man who believes (a) that he pretty much knows who the most evil of all our Presidents was, and (b) that it wasn't Dubya -- it was Abraham Lincoln. (The quote is taken from Andrew Ferguson's outstanding Land of Lincoln, which I unhesitatingly recommend to Americans of every possible political persuasion.)

I'd read a lot of economic history, of course, and I started to read a lot about Lincoln as a sort of hobby. And it became clear to me how deeply Lincoln was involved in the Whig economic program of the early nineteenth century. The agenda was to centralize political and economic power -- government subsidies for big business like the railroads and banks, tariffs for favored industries, what we call 'corporate welfare' today. It was really all Lincoln cared about. It's what he built his political career around. He was a railroad lawyer, a rich one. Certainly he wasn't interested in slavery. By his own admission, he didn't even make it an issue till 1854....

This man was not the saint I was taught about when I was going to public school in western Pennsylvania. And it started to dawn on me, the whole Whig platform, all these centralized policies that they hadn't been able to implement by democratic means in the first seventy years of our history -- they were all implemented within the first six months of the war.

And then, once the war began, it was about consolidating and using that power. Lincoln shut down hundreds of newspapers that dared to criticize him. He suspended habeas corpus. He had at least eighteen thousand Americans -- the estimates vary -- he had them thrown into jail on the flimsiest pretexts, or with no pretext at all. He clearly detested blacks and used slavery as a pretext to grab power. He was the exact opposit of what we've been taught.

Now before we go any further, let me just invite anybody who could see himself buying my anti-Bush version of essentially this very same rant, to ask himself whether he really wants to sound like Thomas DiLorenzo. If not, then this should give you pause -- and that's even if you are too abysmally ignorant of American history to know how much more reasonable is DiLorenzo's case against Lincoln than is the modern-day Left's case against Dubya.

To anybody familiar with American history, the Left's hysteria about Bush's "assault on the Constitution and civil liberties" would be hilariously absurd if they weren't in such deadly earnest. You want a man who pushed the United States into a war that exacted an enormous price in American lives and prosperity? You could take Bush's Iraq war, with its 4,000 Americans dead while the economy back home roars merrily along...or you could take Lincoln's Civil War, which resulted not only in staggering loss of American lives but also in the utter economic devastation of half the country. You want a man who violated civil liberties right and left with the war as his pretext/excuse/reason? Nothing Bush (or even McCain and Feingold) has done even remotely approximates Lincoln's thorough-going attack on the First Amendment, not to mention Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus. You want somebody who undermines the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government, or the equally Constitutional balance of checks and balances between the federal and state governments? Try FDR's threat to stack the Supreme Court unless the Court gave in and used the Commerce Clause to effectively toss out the Tenth Amendment; or his and later Democrats' creation of immense federal regulatory agencies that combine the functions of, and thus abolish the checks and balances between, the legislative and judicial and executive branches of government; or the activist Supreme Courts of the mid-twentieth century that ignored the will of the people and the plain meaning of the Constitution in order to usurp the legislative branch's power and impose an extremist political agenda by judicial fiat. You want somebody who took all of the conventional rules for civilized war and the protection of innocents and flushed them down the toilet, to the shock and outrage of the civilized nations of the world? Check out Lincoln and Sherman's resurrection of the primitive doctrine of Total War: the March through Georgia, the destruction of Atlanta, the starvation-inducing blockade of the South. Are you far enough out there to want to try to turn a President into a co-conspirator in an enemy attack on American soil? For heaven's sake, even then, you've got a lot more evidence to work with on Pearl Harbor than you do on 9/11.

See, a thoroughgoing libertarian could make a case that Bush is attacking American freedoms, and a very strict Constitutionalist with a few somewhat questionable premises and emphases could satisfy himself with a certain degree of rationality that Bush is in danger of undermining the Constitional system of checks and balances. But that same libertarian would have a much stronger reaction against the wartime measures of Lincoln and FDR, against the corruption of the Supreme Court under FDR and then even more vigorously under Brennan, against the gargantuan federal agencies and the demise of the Tenth Amendment at the feet of an obscenely distorted Commerce Cause. Is Clarence Thomas (the one modern Justice who still takes the Tenth Amendment seriously) your favorite Supreme Court Justice? Then you genuinely care about maintaining Constitutional checks and balances, and genuinely resent those who undermine them by means other than the amendment process.

But show me a person who, when asked to name our three greatest Presidents, would respond, "Washington, Lincoln, FDR," and yet at the very same time also bitterly accuses Bush of overthrowing the Constitutional system in general and the Bill of Rights in particular, and I will show you somebody engaged in making a spectacular ass of himself. And I know of no such persons...except for those who hate George W. Bush.

Understand that I emphasize this particular example only because Bush Derangement Syndrome is temporarily the dominant form of lunatic hatred in the American system. Ten years ago I would have emphasized the form of lunatic hatred which was most prevalent at that particular time, namely the virus of Clinton-paranoia. Want to drag in La Raza? Feel free. Want to point at Sean Hannity? I won't object in the slightest. Bill O'Reilly? Bill Maher? Maher's former horizontal-bop partner Ann Coulter? Randi Rhodes? David Duke? Cynthia McKinney? It's not like the field of examples isn't rich to the point of absurdity. BDS is only the most temporarily widespread and obvious incarnation of the pattern.

But let's set aside the absurdity of those who manage simultaneously to consider Lincoln and FDR mighty defenders of freedom and Dubya a raving tyrant, and go back to the more reasonable form of the Bush-as-usurper mindset. This would be the strict libertarian view...that is to say, my view, more or less. I do think Sherman's actions were despicable; I do think that insofar as Lincoln's actions turned out to be historically justifiable, they are not justifiable on the motives that probably moved him; I do think that war is, unavoidably, a dangerous time for civil liberties, and a decades-long war against terrorism likely to be especially so; I do think the original scheme of checks and balances encoded in the Constitution was deliberately and thoroughly undermined by FDR and that the scheme with which he replaced the Founding Father's vision was much inferior to theirs.

And yet at the same time I can recognize that both FDR and Lincoln were doing what they thought was best, at a time of national crisis in which no choices were easy and obvious -- and that Bush is as well. As dubious as were the measures Lincoln took and as many bad long-term consequences followed from it, and as disastrous as I think was FDR's effect on the American system of government, I am still not lunatic enough to think that either Lincoln or FDR intended tyranny. "So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society." And if I, who so detest the measures FDR introduced and the methods by which he introduced them, can yet see that he was a man of good intention doing his best in unimaginably difficult circumstances, can it really be so hard to imagine that the Patriot Act is intended (however unwisely) to defend American freedoms, not subvert them?

You see, the picture the Bush-haters paint of Dubya is one that anyone not hate-blinded can see is distorted and unjustifiably uncharitable. But the Bush-haters can't see it, any more than the people who blamed every death within fifty miles of Mena on Clinton-funded hit men could see how they had lost the grip.

And that's because hatred makes you stupid, by turning your discussions into arguments.

The next post in this series is found here.

On Demonization III: Hatred and the Inability to Learn

This post is the third installment in a series whose table of contents may be found here; it assumes you have read its predecessors here and here.

Hatred has two principle effects on the person who indulges in it. First of all, it makes you stupid. And secondly, it turns you into that which you hate.

Let me ask you to do a thought experiment, and I urge you to answer the question I'm going to ask at the end with your first, gut-level reaction. If my Durbin-defending friend the Ghost and I completely disagree with each other about some issue -- say, the comprehensive immigration bill -- and as we go along it becomes obvious that the Ghost is 100% right on every point and I am 100% wrong, so obvious that there's nothing I can do but admit that she is completely right and I am completely wrong...which one of us just won? ...continue reading...

Unless you assumed that this was a trick question and therefore tried to figure out what the trick was -- or unless you've heard this thought experiment before, which pretty much means you've seen it on this or my own blog since I made it up myself -- your answer was something along the lines of, "Oh, man, the Ghost just totally routed you -- she won by a landslide."

But now let me ask you a couple of other questions:

1. In that scenario, which of us has come out looking smarter?

2. In that scenario, which of us has learned something?

3. In that scenario, which of us has just been rescued from stupidity in which he had originally been wallowing?

4. In that scenario, which of us is better off than he was at the beginning of the conversation?

Obviously, the answer to the first one is, "the Ghost," but the answer to all the others is, "Kenny." So before you can answer the question, "Who won?" you have to answer the question, "What was the goal?"

I have, on this and on my own blog and in the Sunday School class I put together on clear thinking, set forth a distinction that I find useful, namely the distinction between debate, argument and discussion. Debate is either about who's smarter or else about who's going to get things done his way. Argument is about which person is morally superior to the other. Discussion is about which ideas come most near the truth. And of those three, only the last is consistently useful in uncovering the ways in which we are uninformed or are deceiving ourselves. If the conversation in my scenario was a debate -- a contest to see which of us could make the other person look stupid -- then the Ghost would win...but how much good would that do her? Basically, she wins, if the only point of having the conversation in the first place was to show off. But if the whole point was to get wiser...well, I got wiser, and she didn't. So I win, not her.

Put it this way: you never get wiser, you never learn anything, without admitting you have been in error. But the only form of conversation in which you can admit error without having to admit that you are a loser, is discussion.

Everybody is frequently wrong about stuff. But let us do another thought experiment. There are ten people, and ten debatable issues, and ten equally intelligent and well-informed persons, each of whom starts off right on five issues and stupid on five issues. One of those people is a humble person who is not interested in argument or debate, and who goes into each conversation with an attitude of, "If I can find out facts or come across arguments that show I've been wrong, that's a great thing." Three go in trying to prove they are smarter than anybody else. Three go in trying to find a way to convince everybody else to do it their way. And three go in trying to prove that the people who disagree with them are evil. And you let them all talk to each other until everybody's convinced that further talking will do no good.

Now, at the end, won't you see nine people who are still right on about half the issues, and wrong on about half the issues -- and one guy who is now right about everything?

You get my point, right? If I am interested in learning the truth, and you are interested in finding a way to avoid having to admit that you are wrong, then on all the points on which I am right, I'll still be right at the end of the day, and you'll still be wrong. But on all the points on which you are right, at the end of the day I'll be right, too. I get to keep all my truth, plus all yours as well; but you're stuck with just yours. Everybody starts out wrong about lots of stuff; but the people who are debating or arguing rather than discussing, are the ones who stay wrong.

Now, the first reason that hate makes you stupid, is simply this, which I want you to say out loud very slowly, two or three times, savoring every word:

Hate turns every discussion into an argument.

You see, if you and I disagree about something, and you hate me, it is all but humanly impossible for you to be eager for me to prove you wrong. And the only state in which you can really learn stuff, is the state in which you are eager to learn -- that is, the state in which you are eager to discover that the person you're talking to, knows stuff that you don't know. When you hate, every discussion instantly stops being about which of our ideas is correct, and becomes about my proving what a son-of-a-bitch you are. And once you're there, most of the time you'd just about rather die than have to admit that I am right and you're wrong. You cling to your opinion as if it were a life preserver in a sea of potential humiliation -- which means, if it happens that on this particular issue you are wrong, that you cling to your stupidity as if it were that life preserver.

In fact, if my hatred sinks its teeth deep enough into me, not only do I cease to be able to learn anything from you, but even conversations I have with other people start turning into excuses for me to prove that you're a son-of-a-bitch. At that point it becomes difficult for you to learn anything from anybody, because you're in argument mode all the time. I am deeply concerned about my friend the Ghost precisely because I have rarely seen anybody in a more advanced state of every-subject-under-the-sun-is- really-just-one-more-opportunity-to-show-
how-contemptible-my-enemy-is, than is the Ghost. Now, imagine that the Ghost were around somebody who couldn't talk about, say, the weather or the National Spelling Bee, without turning the conversation to the question of how evil his ex-wife was. Since she is very far from lacking in natural intelligence as long as the subject isn't Republicans, I think she would rapidly conclude, "Um, this guy's got some mongo personal stuff he needs to deal with and get past," and she'd furthermore figure, "I better take anything this guy says about his ex-wife with whole shakers full of salt." And she'd be right -- but the emotional and intellectual dynamic is no different when the person you hate is a politician, than when the person you hate is a private individual.

There are other ways in which hate makes you stupid; but those are for later posts.

This series of posts continues here.

On Demonization II: The Nature of Hatred

This post is a continuation of the series of posts begun here, and assumes you have read its predecessor.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, two, and only two, essentially involve wanting to see another person be harmed. Pride, Avarice, Sloth, Gluttony and Lust may cause you to desire another person's harm as a side effect; but one may be proud, greedy, lazy, gluttonous and concupiscent without any particular malice toward anyone else.

But Anger and Envy are quite different. The man consumed by Anger believes, emotionally if not intellectually, that another person's harm is his (the angry man's) good. The man consumed by Envy believes, emotionally if not intellectually, than another person's good is his (the envious man's) harm. They are two different sides of a single coin.

That coin is Hatred -- the desire for another person's harm in itself. ...continue reading...

Understand, if I am a greedy man and I want out of my marriage but don't want to pay a divorce lawyer, I may long to see my wife dead. But that just means that Greed can lead one to Anger. And it is the same with the other sins: they can bring you to the place where you want to see another person harmed, but that is because each sin, once it has established residence, has the potential to invite its brothers in as house-guests.

(Okay, a digression here that I can't resist just because I like the joke, as told by the stand-up comic and ukelele virtuoso of the Austin band the Geezinslaws, having as his target the lead vocalist who, other than his singing, remains mute:
Awhile back I noticed that Son was looking awfully depressed; so I asked him, "Son, what's the problem?"

"Well, Sammy," Son answered, "you know my wife's birthday is comin' up? So a couple of days ago I asked her, 'Hon, what do you want for your birthday?' And she answered, 'Well, since you asked, what I'd really like is a dee-vorce.'

"And I said, 'Well, now, I hadn't been plannin' on spendin' quite that much...'"
We now return to the topic at hand. [clears throat and hits the reset-mood button]

I was, before so rudely interrupting myself, emphasizing that hatred, being the habit of indulging oneself in either or both of anger and envy, is what Christianity calls a "sin" -- a term one tends to avoid in talking to the public at large because so few people outside of the Church really grasp what Christians mean when calling something a "sin." If you aren't a Christian, you can just think of it this way: dumping sugar in the gas tank of your car is a "sin" with respect to your car in the same way indulging yourself in hatred is a "sin" with respect to your well-being. In each case, the owner's manual warns you not to do it -- not because the people who wrote the respective owners' manuals want to spoil your fun, but because they know it's destructive behavior that can have devastating consequences for the car in one case and for yourself in the other.

I don't expect anyone who isn't a Christian (or from a similar tradition that also tries to warn its adherents away from hatred) to say, "Oh, well, if it's a sin, then I guess I won't do it." But just as most of us are very sorry to see anybody smoking -- and the more we love them, the sorrier we are to see them ensnared by that vice -- I myself am very sorry to see anyone spouting bile and hatred and anger...though naturally, being much less than perfect, I do it myself from time to time.

But it is important to emphasize that when I speak here of "anger" and "hatred," I mean "anger" and "hatred" in the Christian sense, that is, in the sense in which such things are sins (that is, acts of our will) rather than emotions (that is, states we experience). To feel anger, or to feel hatred, is not in itself evil; and the sort of rant that is meant as venting, and is known to be such by the person doing the venting, can be a perfectly healthy release.

But again, it very much depends on the attitude with which you approach it. If you are blowing off steam because you want to get past the emotion and return to a state of charity, that's one thing. And in that case, I personally find that the more ridiculously exaggerated I can make my accusations, the faster it all becomes absurd -- and, for me at least, laughter and anger have a very difficult time co-existing, especially when I'm lauging at myself. Maybe I'm a uniquely bizarre person in this respect, but it works for me. So, if you're demonizing along the lines of...well, okay, here's an example, referring to an earlier ranting comment I posted on All Things Beautiful.

I imagine it is obvious to anybody who knows me and has read that comment, that Dubya had well and truly pissed me off with his slimeball "defense" of his immigration bill. But also, anyone who knows me will notice that by the end of that rant I managed to get back to, "Well, that's life as a reasonably rational libertarian in modern America," which is my ordinary state of relatively charitable resignation to the habitual folly and dishonesty of the political elites who hold the keys to power in our nation. I was able to work my way back toward charity in part because I went back and previewed the thing, and started deliberately going (mentally) for over-the-top absurdity in my complaints. I didn't type them in because I was making them as outrageous as I could as a sort of private do-it-yourself therapy...but I'll give you one example here:

Original version: "And I can't imagine the slightest reason for anybody at this point to believe that George W. Bush will ever be willing to enforce, for real, any law that closes the border to illegal immigration, for real."

Mentally over-the-top version: "Dubya and the Rovester have no more intention of enforcing any law that stops the flow of illegal immigration than they have of personally impregnating every male prostitute in San Francisco."

And after you've come up with something grotesque like that, then unless you're one of the denizens of the Democratic Underground (who would saying something like that with a perfectly straight face and no sense of hyperbole), you can take a deep breath, say, "Okay, Pierce, you are now officially out of control," and break the mood. Or, at least, I can.

But if you come up with exactly the same sentence for the purpose of inflaming your own rage, of whipping it up into a hurricane of fury, or even just for the purpose of telling yourself that it's fine for you to hate Dubya because after all the bastard deserves it -- well, that isn't just the emotion of hate. It's a deliberate choice to hate. And to make that choice, my friends, is to begin to participate in your own destruction.

See, the intent makes all the difference: if you've recognized that you are swamped with the emotion of rage or hatred, and you are employing a tactic that you have found is effective in breaking the emotion's hold over you and allowing you to return to a state reasonably close to charity, then that's fine, it seems to me. But if you are revelling in the state of anger or hatred and you are trying to rationalize it, or excuse it, or inflame it, or worst of all to induce that same state in others, then you are in effect saying, "Let me die with the Philistines."

There's one other exception to the principle that what we in English call "anger" is self-destructive and therefore a sin. Sometimes the emotion of anger is aroused because somebody we care about is being harmed, and we are angry at the person harming them. Now, insofar as that anger is driven by concern for the innocent person's good -- and insofar as we have wisely identified what is really good for him -- it's an emotion that has its root in love. And insofar as we use our anger to motivate us to protect the innocent, that's okay. But we have to keep in mind something Sheldon Vanauken (the Sixties activist who coined the term "sexism") realized late in his life about his own self-righteousness back in the day. He drily says someplace (I think in A Severe Mercy) something along the lines of, "I failed to realize that loving one's neighbor, and hating the oppressor of one's neighbor, were not precisely the same thing."

The real question is: if you're angry about what a bad person is doing to an innocent person, then by all means show your love for the innocent person by stepping in to protect them. But you have to keep loving the bad person all along, too. To moderns who take it for granted that you can't love the sinner while hating -- and even punishing -- the sin, this distinction may seem nonsensical. I can only assure you that it is a distinction that a great many of your devout fellow men know personally through direct experience. When you understand this distinction, you can understand that it is not hypocrisy to say to a convicted murderer, "...and thence to the place of execution, and may God have mercy on your soul." It's the inability to comprehend this distinction as an emotional reality that causes so many would-be ethicists to be incapable of distinguishing between retributive justice and "revenge," or to be able to make sense of Dorothy Sayers's observation that any system of public justice that does not have as one of its central aims, getting the criminal to recognize, if possible, that he deserved the punishment he was receiving, is an unjust and un-Christian and ultimately less-than-effective system of public justice.

So, if you don't already see exactly what I'm talking about with this distinction, my chances of getting the light bulb to appear over your head are quite slim, and I'm not going to keep trying. But, if you can just agree that anger or hatred that doesn't result in corrective action, or that goes beyond the degree necessary to accomplish corrective action, has all the destructive effects of anger and hatred without a sufficiently offsetting corrective benefit...if you can accept that premise, then that's enough agreement for us to go on with.

In the next couple of posts, we'll talk about the effect hatred has on one's intellect and good sense.

This series of posts continues here.

On Demonization I: The Tactic

The following was written almost a year ago -- that is, before my marriage finally and irretrievably disintegrated -- and posted here. I very much recommend that you peruse the long discussion that followed in the comments...I can't tell you how much I miss the salon Alexandra used to run, though God knows I understand better than anybody how much work running that unique and astonishing blog must have been and how private life can rise up and drive you from the scene for a few months. At any rate, that post was intended to be the first in a series of posts that Alexandra was never able to publish, and which I'm going to go ahead and publish myself here. So here's the first installment, which provides an essential foundation for the posts that follow.

And Alexandra...I sure do miss you and the gang.

From debate on the Senate floor about interrogation tactics at Guantanamo: ...continue reading...
When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here -- I almost hesitate to put them in the record, and yet they have to be added to this debate. Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold....On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

-- Senator Dick Durbin
I recently wrote a post expressing my concern about the prevalence of hate-speech and hate-rhetoric in modern American politics, in which I used Senator Durbin's demonization of the Guantanamo interrogators as an example of objectionable rhetoric. (UPDATE: My friend Jim justly points out that I ought not use Durbin's outburst as a bad example without doing him the justice of observing that a couple of days later -- admittedly only after he had been absolutely roasted for a couple of days by people complainingly about the outrageous demonization represented by his comments, but still -- Durbin apologized. And it was a real apology, if I remember correctly, not a weaseling, "If anybody was offended, then I apologize for offending your ears with the truth" kind of thing. Jim is absolutely right; I should have mentioned that to begin with.) Well, a good friend of mine, who happens, like Durbin, to detest Dubya and to consider Guantanamo to be an indelible stain on our national honor, had a response that interested me very much. She couldn't understand why I would have a problem with Durbin's rhetoric; well, okay. But then, even more interestingly, she in the very same conversation complained about conservatives' referring to liberals as "unpatriotic" and as "aiding and abetting the enemy." That is to say, she thinks that sometimes it's okay to demonize, and sometimes it isn't, though she's vague as to how one is supposed to tell what is good demonization and what is bad demonization.

Fairly deep into the conversation she got somewhat plaintive in her frustration over my (to her) incomprehensible take on Durbin's rant:
Why must [Durbin's contention] be put nicely? Why is not this remark evaluated on the basis of the truth that underlies and causes the occasion?

Why, Kenny.... why, why, why? :)
The conversation petered out shortly thereafter and we've since moved on to other topics. But the more I think about her question, the more I think it's a question worth a careful and detailed answer. The problem is, there are several reasons to say that responsible people do not, except under exceptional circumstances (if ever), resort to that particular rhetorical tactic. So I think what's called for is a series of posts, each one examining in detail a single reason that demonization is a bad thing, something which we as individuals should not engage in and which we as a culture should not deem socially tolerable. My time constraints being what they are, I may not be able to finish the series (I usually don't manage to finish long series of this nature, because the family-of-eleven things, and the job-that's-demanding-enough-for-me-to-be-paid-enough-to-support-a- family-of-eleven things, tend to rise up and derail me). But I can at least make a start, beginning with what I think is most important; and perhaps other people can pick up the baton when I wind up dropping it.

Now, the very first thing to observe, is that my friend gets upset when demonization is aimed at the people she agrees with and likes, but not when it's aimed at the people she disagrees with and dislikes. This would seem to imply that she objects to demonization because she wants to protect the people who are targeted thereby. But this, I think, means that between her perspective and mine there is a great gulf fixed, right from the first step. For by far my biggest reason to urge people not to indulge in demonization, is the damage I believe it does to the person who is doing the demonizing. When I urge Senator Durbin or Paul Krugman not to demonize President Bush, that's not because I'm worried about Dubya's reputation or feelings. It's first and foremost because I am worried about Durbin and Krugman.

In order to understand why I'm concerned on their behalf, we have to make sure we understand exactly what demonization is. It isn't just calling somebody evil, because the whole implication is that you're rhetorically making the person out to be worse than he really is. For example, it isn't demonization to say, "Satan is the devil." That's just the literal truth. Nor is it demonization to say, "Hitler was Hitler," or, "Stalin was Stalin," or, "Pol Pot was Pol Pot," or, "Dubya is Dubya," or, "Teddy Kennedy is Teddy Kennedy."

In other words, demonization involves some form of exaggeration. It is a subspecies of hyperbole, which is exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

Furthermore, demonization has a particular rhetorical effect in mind. I recently criticized Dubya's stubborn refusal to alter tactics in Iraq until long after it should have been obvious that the tactics required changing (as tactics, in wars, always do). And I expressed the basic idea of, "Dubya stubbornly insisted on trying to win the war on the cheap," by accusing him, tongue-in-cheek, of having thought that he could establish a stable and just society in Iraq with "six Marines, a K-9 unit, and some high-tech weapons," or something to that effect.

Now, that's actually not demonization, for two reasons:

1. It's intended for comic effect, i.e., it's intended to amuse, even though I was in the middle of making a serious point.

2. It's meant to be impossible to be taken literally -- nobody with an I.Q. higher than an oxygen-deprived cocker spaniel would really think that the U.S. has fewer than ten military personnel stationed in Iraq.

Demonization, on the other hand, is intended to evoke or to rationalize outrage (which of course the demonizer and his partisans will describe as "righteous" anger); and it is intended to be something that at least a great many people will think can be taken literally or almost so. The two are related because if the exaggeration is so over-the-top as to be absurd, the initial reaction is likely to be laughter rather than anger, and laughter is most certainly not the reaction the demonizer intends to evoke. Indeed, most of the time demonization isn't just intended to evoke anger -- it's usually intended to inculcate hatred.

Now, let's look again at Senator Durbin's outburst on the Senate floor. Unless we want to consider the Senator a liar, we must presume that he is not trying to convince people of anything that isn't true. Furthermore, unless we want to consider him a complete idiot, we must presume that he is aware of several facts:

1. Honest people can disagree with the Senator about whether the actions of the United States at Guantanamo are unethical. Honest people can further disagree about whether those actions are a wise and acceptable means of protecting the American people. It is therefore entirely possible that the President means well and is trying to protect the country against terrorists, acting perhaps foolishly, but with the best and most honorable of intentions.

2. If what the Guantanamo detainees have undergone qualifies as "torture," then the bar that constitutes torture has been lowered very far indeed, as their treatment is only by the most expansive definitions comparable to the actions that most English-speakers imagine when you pronounce the word "torture." Indeed, nothing Durbin describes is as severe as what our armed forces commonly put our soldiers through in training exercises; and you would not be able to find a prison anywhere in Europe or in America in which the inmates are cared for as well. Great care is taken to ensure that no permanent physical harm is incurred (even when the inmates are trying to hurt themselves); nor are there "mock executions;" nor anything that produces pain remotely comparable to that caused by the rack, or by branding with hot irons, or by suspending somebody from handcuffs until their arms pull out of their sockets, or by starving them to the point at which they eat the grass in the prison yard out of sheer desperation, or by yanking out their fingernails with pliars, or by lashing them with a cat-o'-nine-tails, or by forcing them to work an eight-hour day ditch-digging in waist-deep water in winter. It would, I think, be very difficult for Senator Durbin to explain how forcing somebody to listen to loud rap music can qualify as "torture" unless the imposition of pretty much any degree of physical discomfort whatsoever is now to be defined as "torture." So, if we take out the buzz-word "torture" and replace it with an accurate description of the behavior to which Durbin objects, I think the worst description we can honestly manage is "significant but purely temporary physical discomfort."

3. No country in which the putative "despot" can be vilified in the nation's leading newspapers with the venom and frequency with which Dubya is vilified, is remotely a "despotic" nation. No nation whose "concentration camps" involve the extreme measures for ensuring the health and religious freedom of the inmates that is evident at Guantanamo, is remotely a nation that denies the humanity of its enemies.

Yet Durbin thinks that Stalin and Pol Pot are somehow relevant to discussions of Guantanamo. I can't read his mind, but my best guess is that he wants to posit a sort of slippery slope: if we allow "torture," we put ourselves on a path that will ultimately lead to our being no better than the worst and most inhumane regimes of the twentieth century, even if we step onto that path out of the best of intentions.

Therefore, unless Durbin is a fool or a liar, what he intended to say was something like this:

"I know the President means well and is trying to protect the country against terrorists, but his policies are foolish, because if we allow our interrogators to cause significant but purely temporary physical discomfort to their interrogees, this will set in motion a chain of events that ultimately will cause the United States to be engaging in deliberate genocide and operating slave labor camps and death camps that will result in the deaths of millions. Therefore the President should change his policies and cease causing physical discomfort to the prisoners at Guantanamo."

But instead of saying this, the Senator chose, for purely rhetorical purposes, to say that if you were to show an observer a prisoner under interrogation at Guantanamo and another prisoner under interrogation in Stalin's Lubyanka Prison, the observer wouldn't be able to tell which interrogation was which.

So now let us ask ourselves whether the Senator's rhetoric was intended to stir up anger (at the very least) against the President. What do we see when we examine the possibilities?

1. As Senator Durbin well knew, a great many people both in the United States and out were already either enraged about, or predisposed to be enraged about, the subject of Guantanamo; and furthermore, he knew perfectly well that the majority of the enraged were people who had a well-established, settled tendency to hate the President, and specifically to identify Bush (in all grim seriousness) with Hitler.

2. Nothing in the Senator's tone of voice, nor in his phrasing, even hints at any humorous intent.

3. The Senator could not possibly have phrased his accusation in a way that would have made it sound more as though he believed his accusation was literally true. If someone were silly enough to found a belief on the word of a politician, and that someone were to lack the antecedent knowledge of Nazi and Stalinist interrogation techniques necessary to see for himself the absurdity of the comparison, then the Senator would have every opportunity to convince Mr. Gullible that the U.S. guards at Guantanamo really are quite literally equivalent to the K.G.B. interregators at Lubyanka -- and the Senator's audience was an American people whose history knowledge is overwhelmingly gained from the notoriously disastrous American public education system.

4. The Senator's rhetoric and line of attack could be nothing but counterproductive if it were intended to change the mind of the President's supporters, or to win the good will and good opinion of persons who were well-educated, well-informed, and undecided as to the which of the two sides had a better case. Therefore whatever else the rhetoric might have accomplished, it most certainly would not persuade anybody not already predisposed to hate Dubya -- which is to say, it would not persuade anybody who didn't already agree that Guantanamo was an American gulag. If persuasion was the Senator's intent, then the Senator is quite possibly the stupidest person in Washington, D.C., which is saying quite a lot indeed.

5. The Senator's use of demonization does not clarify the issue; it clouds it. Imagine a straightforward explanation of what the detainees were experiencing, one that avoids special pleading by including information (such as the detainees' average weight gain while in Gauntanamo) that the Senator leaves out because it would interfere with his attempt to portray Dubya as a monster, and one that does not implicitly or explicitly impute malicious motives to Bush. (I already imagined one and suggested it, of course, but mine probably doesn't capture exactly what he would say if he were not trying to demonize.) Without knowing for sure exactly what such an explanation would look like, we can at least be confident that it would have laid out the reasons Durbin felt the policy was wrong without attempting to distort the facts by exaggeration. It would, in fact, have made Durbin's point quite a bit more clearly and accurately than Durbin did himself -- and then we wouldn't be sitting here trying to imagine a straightforward version of what Durbin really (on the assumption that he is neither a liar nor a fool) intended to say.

My liberal friend says that "rhetoric such as this is intended to make ideas politically understandable in a less-nuanced way." Now, I don't know exactly what she means by "politically" understandable. If what she means is that the rhetoric was intended to make people feel agreement with Durbin's politics by clouding their understanding, then I think she's quite right, though I think it does a certain amount of violence to the English language to describe someone who is deliberately distorting the facts in order to cloud judgment with emotion as "making ideas understandable." But if she means that Durbin's intent in turning to demonization was to see to it that his hearers had a clearer, more accurate understanding of the behavior he was criticizing and the principles involved, then clearly she is wrong. Rhetoric such as this does not clarify; it muddies.

In other words, the only effect any sensible person could expect the Senator's rhetoric to have, was to take the people who were already convinced that our interrogation techniques were bad, and whip up their anger and hatred against Bush on that account. And I submit to the candid reader that this is always the primary function of demonization as a rhetorical technique.

So either the Senator was doing this on purpose, or else the Senator is an extremely stupid man with no idea of how voters are affected by rhetoric. Now, you may wish to believe that an extremely stupid man who does not understand even the most elementary dynamics of rhetoric upon voters' emotions, could nevertheless manage to campaign effectively enough to win repeated election to the U.S. Senate. If so, why then you may adopt the charitable view that Senator Durbin had no idea that his rhetoric would cause people to be angrier with Dubya than they already were and to hate Dubya more ferociously and unappeasably than they already did. Personally I think such a premise very much strains the boundaries of the believable, but you may see it differently. Alternatively, you may think that Durbin was himself sufficiently ignorant of the actual details of Nazi and Stalinist and Khmer Rouge atrocities, or sufficiently blinded by his own presettled disposition to think the worst of Bush, to have actually talked himself into believing that his statement was practically true on a literal level. This, like my former suggestion, is a way of saying basically that Durbin said what he said because he was a fool.

But if you don't think Durbin was pretty much an idiot, then I think you have to accept that Durbin's rhetorical purpose was to encourage as many people as possible to feel anger and hatred toward Republicans in general and Dubya in particular.

In order to save space, I will proceed with the rest of the post under the assumption that Durbin was not just being an idiot. Frankly, I think idiocy is the most likely explanation. But my friend who wishes to defend him rejects the idiot hypothesis, yet wishes to justify his tactics; and besides the point of the present post is to explore the deliberate use of demonization and whether, and when, it is justifiable. So let's proceed with the assumption, for the purposes of illustration, that Durbin knew exactly what he was doing and did it anyway, and to save space and tedious repetition, I won't keep saying that I myself am not actually prepared to level that accusation in literal fact.

Okay, so Durbin's presumable purpose was to stir up outrage, anger and hatred; and I think we also will assume that he knew that his intended audience would think that his statement was almost literally true. Those two characteristics of demonization are thus both present, leaving us with the question of whether Durbin's speech involved any exaggeration.

Now, there are several different kinds of exaggeration that you can make use of if you wish to demonize. The first, and least objectionable, is to exaggerate in degree only, on a topic in which the question of whether some particular behavior is bad, is not itself a question of degree. Thus, let us say that a person has "lied" to his wife, in that he has told her, "I think you're the most beautiful woman in the world," when in fact he thinks Halle Berry is prettier. If you say that the man ought not be given a position of responsibility at work because, "I happen to know that he has repeatedly lied to his wife," this creates a false impression, even though you could argue that it is literally true.

With such exaggeration we are looking at a fuzzy-logic kind of thing: that is, if there is only a little bit of exaggeration, we might say that demonization was involved, but only mild demonization. If the exaggeration is a whoppin' ol' blue whale of an exaggeration, then we have extreme demonization. One might argue that when Clarence Thomas accused his accusers of attempting a "high-tech lynching," he was indulging in a relatively minor degree of demonization (he wasn't in the least danger of winding up dangling from a tree, though one sees what he was getting at). When Rush Limbaugh refers to "feminazis," we might consider the denomization to be more extreme. And when a teenager complains that his parents' home is "a police state," then he is...well, actually, he's just being a teenager. So, um, bad example. Moving right along...

Slightly more serious is exaggerating the degree of an offense in order to pretend that the target has crossed a critical moral threshold that he did not in fact cross. If you happen to know that a man has fantasized about Halle Berry, and you then say he ought not to be given a position of responsibility because, "I happen to know he's committed adultery," then this is an exaggeration that reaches into the realm of outright falsehood.

Now, the Democrats' view would presumably be that Durbin committed the first type of exaggeration -- that is, that American soldiers have been, strictly speaking, torturing Guantanamo detainees, but that admittedly they weren't torturing them quite as badly as the KGB and the Gestapo and the Khmer Rouge tortured their victims. (Considering that statistics so far would seem to show that it is infinitely less dangerous to be interrogated at Guantanamo than it is to be driven home by Teddy Kennedy; considering that literally millions of people starved to death under both Stalin and Hitler while the average weight change for Guantanamo prisoners, last I heard, was a gain of eighteen pounds; considering that when it comes to inflicting pain and suffering the Guantanamo "inquisitors" strike me as being rather farther from Spanish Inquisition Version 1.0 than they are from Spanish Inquisition Version Monty Python...well, the exaggeration involved here is spectacularly extreme. But the Democrats' premise is that while the degree may be extreme, all the same the exaggeration is still only a matter of degree, not essence.)

Trouble is, you have to be pretty much insane to think that to inflict any physical or emotional distress at all upon another human being counts as "torture," because otherwise you wouldn't even be able to put your child in time out without being a "torturer." Therefore the question of whether a person is a torturer or not may very well be a matter of degree, which means that a person who exaggerates in degree without first having been very careful indeed to address the question of the ethical boundary conditions, is very much in danger of committing the second, and more objectionable, type of exaggeration. There are probably a hundred million people in America who, if they knew exactly what sorts of interrogation techniques had been used at Guantanamo, would say, "Wait a minute, that's not torture." So at the very least, Durbin's technique is meant to make something that is grey look pitch-black.

But let's assume that Durbin (in emulation of Dubya) hasn't bothered to listen to the people who disagree with him, and therefore the Senator thinks that no reasonable person could doubt that what has gone on at Guantanamo is properly described as "torture." In that case, he would not intentionally be committing the second form of exaggeration -- though we could certainly make a case that he was committing the second form of exaggeration and was just too much of an ass to realize it.

This brings us to the third form of exaggeration, which is by far the most commonly used, and by far the most slanderous, destructive, and -- in my opinion -- evil and contemptible. This is the form of exaggeration in which you project upon your target motives that are not in fact the motives that are truly in his heart. The essence of the exaggeration is to take something that you believe he is doing, but that he does not think that he is doing, and implicitly or explicitly accuse him of doing it on purpose.

I pause here to point out, by the way, that if you were to go back over the last several years through all the utterances of the Daily Kos and the Democratic Underground and remove everything they have said that imputes to Bush, without remotely good evidence, evil motives, what you would mostly hear in the aftermath would be the sound of silence. So if this form of exaggeration is bad, then there are a whole bunch of Bush-haters who have a whole lot to repent of. (Not, I hasten to add, that there aren't similar haters on the conservative side as well.)

Now, the most common way to say something like, "Bush is doing all this on purpose," is not to do a Paul Krugman and come right out and accuse Bush of being an evil man who loves evil for its own sake. (The link is to a comment in which my liberal friend quotes Krugman approvingly; as I think Krugman's comment went way beyond the line I refuse to increase his traffic by linking to it myself.) By far the most common way to work this slander in rhetorically is by the following tactic:

1. Find a notoriously evil person who did something that you can claim is in the same class as what you say your target was doing, but who knew exactly what he was doing and did it on purpose. For example, I am a Libertarian who is very clearly aware that everything the government accomplished by law, the government accomplishes by means of violent coercion. So I in all sincerity believe that the use of government coercion to make people think twice before uttering in public sincerely held but politically incorrect beliefs (by, for example, defining "sexual harassment" to include "saying publicly that homosexual behavior is a sin" and then making "sexual harassment" a tort in law), is the same class of behavior as using government force to make people afraid publicly to teach a variant of Christianity other than the officially approved one. Now, if I wanted to inflame passions against persons who were promoting the idea that people ought to be sued if they engage in sexual harassment at work, I might not want to remind people that a lot of the people who support sexual harassment laws are people who mean well but who -- like most Americans -- simply haven't thought through all the implications of their position. So I could use the tactic of demonization and say, "If you didn't know you were in America, you could imagine that you were back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition and its war on heresy."

Do you see what I mean? Torquemada knew absolutely clearly that he was out to use fire and sword and brutal force to drive the people who disagree with him out of Spain, into hiding, or down to the grave. But many people who vaguely support laws about "sexual harassment" because they think people ought to be nice to each other, aren't consciously aware of the fact that what they are really doing is trying to use the government's power to hurt people in order to frighten into silence people whose views they personally find objectionable. For me, then, rhetorically to identify them with the Spanish Inquisition, is a slander and a lie -- for while I might be able to say that their actions resemble, in certain significant aspects, the actions of the Inquisitors, it is pretty much a lie for me to say that their conscious motives are the same as the conscious motives of the Inquisitors. But the whole rhetoric of association is intended to access the emotions that people feel toward the Inquisitors based on what we popularly presume to have been the motives of the Inquisitors and encourage the gullible to feel those same emotions toward other people who do not act from those evil motives.

Let me put it this way: Neville Chamberlain did a lot more to allow Hitler to overrun Europe than did the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII). But the Duke was an actual Nazi sympathiser; Chamberlain was not. You could call the Duke a "Nazi," and while you would be exaggerating, it wouldn't be a grotesque exaggeration. But if Churchill had attacked Chamberlain as a "Nazi" on the grounds that Chamberlain's policies were likely to lead to Nazi control of Europe, that would have been an appalling slander.

Or again, you may believe that, objectively speaking, abortion is a form of murder. But that doesn't make it right to refer to women who have gotten abortions as "murderers." For the overwhelming majority of those women (at least in America) have honestly not believed themselves to be arranging for another human being to be killed, and are therefore not on remotely the same moral plane as a mother who in cold blood kills a two-month-old baby. They are at most on the moral level of a clueless and careless deer hunter who shoots what he thinks is a deer and then discovers that he has killed his buddy by mistake. There is a big difference between being a fool and being a deliberately evil person; and when a demonizer equates a well-intentioned person with somebody who willfully and deliberately engaged in evil, the demonizer is himself committing an evil act.

That this is what Durbin was in fact doing is, I think, quite clear. I see no good reason to believe that Bush or the Guantanamo interrogators believe that what they are doing is torturing people in the relevant sense of the word; they do not believe that they are doing anything wrong, and they take all sorts of measures at Guantanamo that demonstrate that they do not, in fact, "have no concern for" the human beings under detention. When you feed your torture subjects better than you feed your own soldiers, and when you go to extraordinary measures to respect their religious sensibilities even though it's in the name of that very religion that a significant number of those detained intend, if given the chance, to kill your innocent countrymen, then clearly nobody involved in the chain of command has toward the prisoners an attitude that denies their humanity, or that demonstrates a Stalinesque or Hitleresque utter absence of conscience. I realize that it is very difficult for most Democrats to accept that a person of good conscience might disagree with the Democratic party line about what is moral and what isn't, but the fact that Democrats are notoriously narrow-minded and self-righteous, doesn't change the fact that nobody in the Guantanamo chain of command from Dubya on down is in fact engaging in the sort of willful evil that the Nazis and the Communists and the Khmer Rouge engaged in. (Okay, I admit I'm amusing myself with a little chain-yanking there.)

But people just don't hate the well-intentioned but confused, with the enthusiastic hatred they are willing to direct at the willfully, knowingly evil. So the demonizer, whose point is to stir up anger (at a minimum) and hatred (more often than not), will whenever possible imply that his target's motives are evil. And the easiest and most common way to do this is to slap on his target a label taken from persons whose motives are known to be evil, rather than to try to give any actual reason to think that the target's motives are anything but well-intentioned.

We know how truly vicious this tactic is by simple experience: how does it feel when other people do it to us? Do we like to have our motives misrepresented? Do we like to be painted as thoroughly black at heart when we know that our intentions at least were good? Of course not.

In fact we like it so little that, when even ordinary, simple descriptive words start to take on negative connotations, we start objecting to being called those words. I originally wrote that it is no demonization to say, "Teddy Kennedy is a liberal Massachusettes Democrat;" but then I remembered that, since a lot of Americans now have negative connotations with the term "liberal," liberals appear to be trying to rebrand themselves as "progressives." So I went the safe version.

Do you see what I mean? Take, for example, the fact that (much to the fury of old-school feminists) young women are notoriously reluctant to call themselves "feminists," even when they support gender-based affirmative action, Title IX, abortion on demand throughout pregnancy, and the Equal Rights Amendment. But this is easily explained: the term "feminist" now conjures up, for most people, not a list of political goals, but a kind of person -- among other things, a person who not only hates men, but even hates other women who choose not to hate men. Therefore young women who support the feminist agenda, but do not hate men, reject the label "feminist," because they reject the implications that term has about their motives rather than about the political policies they support.

Here is where the real power of demonization lies. Human beings are notoriously bad at figuring out other people's motives, and if there's anything that experience teaches us, it's that when people try to ascribe motives to people they don't like, they almost always ascribe to them motives that (a) aren't at all what the real motives were and (b) are much worse than the real motives were. You see it in estranged husbands and wives and parents and children: once you get angry with somebody you get very bad at figuring out what their motives are, and once your anger settles into permanent hatred you can be all but guaranteed to get it wrong. If, therefore, I were to attempt to spell out what I thought were the motives of the person I wished to demonize, I would be likely to come up with something as patently absurd as Krugman's utterly-bereft-of-sanity wild-assed speculation about the near-Satanic motives of The Evil That Is Dubya:

Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

Now anybody who is not himself blinded by hatred of Dubya will, upon reading that, simply say, "My God, Krugman has lost it," and go on about his business. The danger of specificity, you see, is that the more specific you make a charge, the easier it is for your opponents -- or, in Krugman's case, your readers' simple common sense -- to show the absurdity of your charge, thus destroying its effectiveness: instead of hating your target, people merely laugh at you. So you see, it is far more effective simply to slap on some label that drags in the connotation of evil motives, without ever providing an explicit accusation of evil motives against which your target could defend himself. Specifics can be refuted. Vague connotations cannot.

You could, for example, call Republicans "fascists." Not one Democrat in a hundred could tell you what makes a particular system of government "fascist," nor would those hundred Democrats really care. In modern American language, "You fascist," means, "You're a Republican, plus I hate you." Similarly, to call someone a "fundamentalist Christian" now means nothing much more than, "You think that there's a single moral code that applies to everybody and in particular to me, even if I happen to dislike its requirements, plus you are uneducated and probably toothless and at most a short walk from the trailer I hate you." "Liberal" is rapidly coming to mean something similar on the other side, and of course I've already pointed out what has happened to the term "feminist."

That's the beauty (from the demagoguic standpoint) of labels. And that's the power of demonization.


Okay, but that still leaves us with our original question: why is this a problem?

It will take five more posts for me to make even a beginning at answering this question...and the first of those may be found here.