Monday, September 04, 2006

Some Bias with Tea

Noah takes issue with my taking issue with this article about Rumsfeld's Speech to the American Legion last Wednesday. Specifically, he doesn't buy my argument that the failure to directly quote Rumsfeld's speech constitutes a subtle character assasination that in turn marks this article as an example of liberal media bias.

Well, I don't buy his argument that my argument is a bad purchase.

Noah writes:


First of all, the first article is about an election year stunt to garner support among the Democrat's base ... The article in question only mentions his [Rumsfeld's] speech twice...


In fact, this is not true. The speech is mentioned once in the opening paragraph, once in Barabara Boxer's take on the resolution, and once in a direct quote from Howard Dean (which means, incidentally, that it is mentioned in both the opening and closing paragraphs of the article). It is specifically cited by Boxer and Dean as among their reasons why Rumsfeld should resign (and is apparently chief among Boxer's complaints, though arguably secondary for Dean). Further, the opening paragraph gives the reader the impression, accurate or not, that it is the trigger for the latest round of calls for Rumsfeld's head:


A resolution demanding the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after he compared
Iraq war critics to Nazi appeasers has strong support among U.S. Senate Democrats, a senior Democrat said on Sunday.


It is therefore difficult to substantiate Noah's assertion that:


The speech is omitted because it's not central to what's being reported on.


Whether or not it is central in reality can, of course, only be verified by reading a larger number of accounts of the issue, but that it is indeed central to how this particular article has chosen to report the story doesn't seem to me open for serious debate.

That is, in fact, the entire point. The article gives the reader the impression that Rumsfeld's latest comments are the last straw for many Democrats, who (understandably) take issue with being compared to Nazi appeasers. Not putting the comments in their proper context leaves the reader with the impression that the Democrats are justified in their outrage.

In any case, it is difficult to see how it can be good or even neutral reporting to note that two major Democratic power brokers cite among the reasons they want Rumsfeld to resign that he made certain offensive comments without quoting the comments in question. We are asked to take Boxer and Dean at their word that Rumsfeld insulted them in the way they imply with no source given. Surely there is no definition of "fair reporting" that allows someone to report someone's offense at an alleged insult without also quoting the insult!

Next, Noah doesn't want to let Rumsfeld off the hook himself. Rumsfeld's comments, he says, do indeed compare opponents of the Iraq War to Nazi appeasers. But again, it's hard to see how. Noah quotes the following passage from Rumsfeld's speech:


I recount this history because once again we face the same kind of challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism.

Today, another enemy - a different kind of enemy - has also made clear its intentions - in places like New York, Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, and Moscow. But it is apparent that many have still not learned history's lessons.


And then writes in response:


But what is it ignorance of, if not the dangers of appeasement? Now, either the "many [who] have still not learned history's lessons" are, in fact, guilty of advocating appeasement, or there is no one who actually advocates appeasement of the new fascists.


This is true as far as it goes, but it misses the point of what's being asserted here. Rumsfeld is indeed accusing his opponents of not having learned the appropriate lessons about appeasement from WWII. What he is not doing, but is being accused of doing, is saying that his opponents are the kinds of people who would have appeased the Nazis in the buildup to that war. (One can, for example, understand the Nazi threat in historical context without realizing that he finds himself in a similar situation today - which is the charge, I believe.) He is further not even implying that one has to support the War in Iraq in particular in order to escape charges of appeasement. All that is required is that people be willing to confront the "new fascists." Someone who supports the War in Afghanistan but not necessarily the one in Iraq, therefore, qualifies. (It is telling that Noah has to drag in a quote made elsewhere to establish the idea that the Bush Administration considers opponents of the War in Iraq across-the-board weak on militant Islam. If Rumsfeld had indeed drawn this connection in his speech, Noah could have saved himself the trouble.)

I will be accused of splitting hairs on the issue of the distinction between drawing a moral equivalence between present opponents of the War on Terror and appeasers of the Nazis on the one hand and accusing people of not learning the lessons of history on the other, so I should say more about this. The reason there is a difference is that the former argument is a classic reductio ad hitlerum, but not the second. The first would amount to a hand-waving dismissal of one's opponents' opinions on merely associative grounds. The second does not. The second, unlike the first, is a cogent argument.

There can be little doubt that the lessons of history are "on the table" as justification for any political policy, foreign or domestic. We hope, in fact, that our leaders learn more from their study of history than just who fought what battle when. Trying to establish the root causes of historical evils and avoid them in future policy is arguably the most beneficial use to which the study of history can be put. It should therefore be a permissible rhetorical tactic to accuse one's opponents of having failed to learn the lessons of history as one believes history to pertain to the issue under discussion. This is a wholly different thing from taking a villain from history and directly comparing one's opponent to said villain (or coward, as in this case) in a cheap attempt to manipulate a crowd into opposing him on the basis of a superficial surface similarity. Rumsfeld is doing the former, but his opponents accuse him of the latter. That is something that could have been cleared up by the quote, and yet the quote in question is nowhere to be found in the article.

Now, all that said, Noah has a point, and there are two things I'd like to concede.

First, I probably should have made it clearer that I understand that this single article does not constitute a case for liberal bias in the media. That there is liberal bias in the media is a point I don't feel I have to defend: it is - or rather, should be - obvious to anyone who regularly reads the papers. However, I am aware that many people disagree with this impression, and I'm sure they have their reasons. Attempting to make the case to them would obviously require many more data points than this single article and would probably not be something anyone could achieve in one post. I intended this article to be taken as a supporting example for liberal bias by people who already believe in it. It was never meant to bear the burden of proving the case and will, therefore, be unconvincing to people who don't already see it as a problem.

Second, I agree, having read Noah's post, that my focus is probably in the wrong place. The bigger story here, really, is the low threshold for insult in political discourse in this country. Whether or not we all agree that this article is an example of liberal bias in the media, I think everyone would have to say that the Democrats' reactions to Rumsfeld's statements are as whiny as they are opportunistic. For reasons outlined above, Rumsfeld is absolutely allowed to make historical comparisons of the kind he made; it's a legitimate argument for his position. The Democrats' response, however, is a cheap shot, substituting faux moral outrage for a cogent counterargument. In fact, such an argument is available and should have been used. The Democrats were free to say that they have indeed learned the lessons of WWII, and that radical Islam simply isn't a threat of the same magnitude as the Nazi threat, for example. Or they might have countered by saying that it was the Administration that hasn't read its history, and that invading Iraq to beat radical Islam is a bit like firebombing Madrid to break Hitler's will. Better still, they might have pointed to obvious differences between radical Islam and Nazi Germany (absence of a central leader and government structure, absence of a nation of governed civilians, etc.) that make historical comparisons of the kind Rumsfeld made inappropriate. But they did none of these things. Instead, they chose the underhanded tactic of mischaracterizing Rumsfeld's arguments.

That the article dutifully reported their position without the easily-documentable other side of the story constitutes evidence for bias in my book. Regardless, I think we can probably agree on the broader issue: that political actors ought to be able to say the kinds of things Rumsfeld said and expect a better response than the petulant, emotive answer he got. Everybody loses when our political parties can think of nothing better to say than "He hurt my feelings! Off with his head!"

(It goes without saying here, I trust, that both major parties are guilty of this sin - the present example happens to implicate the Dems.)

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