10 December 2013

Lamar W. Hankins : Right-Wing Rants and the Abominable Straw Man

The abominable Straw Man argument. Image from Linda's Bees.
Frosty the Straw Man:
How right-wing rants 
poison political discussion
If we could have civil discourse about our disagreements and try to understand why we have differences of opinion, perhaps we would have fewer rants from all sides of the political divide.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / December 10, 2013

The Internet is a marvelous tool when used honestly and correctly, and with recognition of its limitations. Not a week goes by that I don’t find in my email inbox ridiculous and false political narratives about some atrocity or other going on in Washington or directed by Washington. Our politicians are purveying plenty of nonsense without anyone making up stories about what they do.

The most recent nonsense I received is an email angrily claiming that under the authority of Obamacare, the administration is setting up gasoline stations to provide free gas to low-income people:
According to a report in The Detroit News this morning, the [Obama] administration is using its authority under the Affordable Care Act to “improve transportation routes to hospitals” to dispense gasoline free of cost in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The $2 billion-a-year program aims to distribute 40 million gallons of free gasoline each year through 70 new gas stations constructed in major metropolitan areas. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) will be responsible for operating the network, whose first station opened yesterday in Detroit...

“Supposedly access to the station is determined by income,” says Ebony Jackson, manager of the first Obamastation. “But it’s pretty unrealistic to do an income check on each and every driver. So what we do is basically let all the black people pump for free, and charge all the white people the market rate.”
A simple Internet search reveals that factcheck.org explained weeks ago that this information started its life as a piece on a satirical site, The Daily Currant. There are many satirical sites on the Internet, including the better-known publication The Onion, where patently ridiculous material gives some of us something to laugh, or -- at least chortle, about.

But the free gasoline story was sent to me as fact, and it had morphed from being about gasoline for poor people into “Government Opening Free Gas Stations in Poor Black Neighborhoods.”

There may be a bit of racial animus in that evolution, but I’ll let you judge that. I mention this point only because my source for the gasoline story regularly sends me racist material about Obama and continues to question where Obama was born. Readers of my column know that I am no Obama apologist and have been as critical of his presidency as I was of George W. Bush’s.

Some of the latest right-wing drivel comes from sites I read regularly or magazines to which I subscribe. The latest offender in the “just making stuff up” category is the respected Biblical scholar Robert M. Price. Price is an avowed atheist and political conservative.

In two pieces recently, he has taken on what he calls liberalism. The problem is that he posits liberal positions that exist mostly in his imagination and then proceeds to knock them down, acting like he has refuted a liberal position. This practice is referred to as the “straw-man” argument, because it is easy to tear down. But it is the kind of deceit that undermines honest, rational discourse.

In a blog entry, Price says that the supporters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) promised that it would “leave no one uninsured.” Unfortunately, the best the ACA was intended to do is reduce the 45 million or so uninsured by about half, leaving 23 million Americans uninsured in 2023 when the ACA would be fully functional.

While reducing the uninsured by about half is better than nothing, it is a far cry from assuring that all Americans have health insurance from birth to death, as every other western industrial country has accomplished. But the ACA never promised health care for all. It was always an incremental step toward providing all Americans with a product as vital as water to a full life.

Further, in Price’s world, the “mainstream media” (because of political correctness) refuses to identify the race of perpetrators of a “new” type of criminal assault -- the “Knock Out Game.” Price claims that this kind of assault is one carried out by African-American youth against Jews, mainly for the amusement of the attackers, who don’t commit any other crime, such as robbery.

A review of on-line reports makes clear that such an assault was perpetrated against a Norwegian exchange student as long ago as 1992, followed by more recent attacks in 2005 in Britain and France; attacks in Illinois and Missouri in 2009; in Missouri again in 2011; in Chicago in 2012; and in Connecticut, Britain, New Jersey, Syracuse, and Brooklyn in 2013.

These attacks have been perpetrated against minorities, members of ethnic groups, and whites by African-American youth and others who were not African-American. At least one such attack was carried out by a 35-year old man with drug or mental problems, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Eight victims in Brooklyn were Jewish and the attacks were linked to Jewish-Black tensions by several news reports as a result of a statement by a newly elected council member.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a public statement charging that the attacks there targeted Jews and lamented the comments of the council member-elect for spreading a false justification for such attacks -- that Jews owned the rental housing that Blacks lived in and were threatening them with eviction. At least one attacker was charged with a hate crime under New York law.

Many politicians and organizations have spoken out about the attacks, which have been reported in the mainstream media, including the New York Daily News, CBS, CNN, ABC, and the New York Post. Otherwise, I would not be able to read extensively about them. Some media sources, mainstream and others, have found these attacks to be limited in scope, while some disagree. However, I could not find evidence that the mainstream media is not reporting the attacks accurately and fully, as Price alleges.

Another claim by Price is that he can’t make certain statements blaming “Islamofascism on Muslims” without being seen as insensitive. Perhaps it is hair-splitting to suggest that the very name “Islamofascism” carries with it the implicit criterion that to be an Islamofascist means that one is Muslim. That is not the same as suggesting that all Muslims are Islamofascists, but Islamofascism has to be blamed on those Muslims who fit that description.

I do think it is important to be careful not to blame all Muslims for the transgressions of some Muslims. We might argue about how many Muslims are to blame for the fascism in their midst, but that’s a different discussion.

No one that I have heard has blamed all Methodists for homophobia in their midst, though the official policy of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is to remove any UMC minister who performs a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. I know many Methodists who disagree with this official policy, so I know that the homophobia involved cannot be blamed on all Methodists.

The problem with Islamophobia may be that Price and most Americans know so few Muslims that they are willing to engage in group blame for the actions of relatively few terrorists out of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

Price also takes on Americans who favor reasonable gun control. He claims that “Our culture...thinks it best to take guns away from law-abiding citizens so they can’t commit the 'crime’ of self-defense...” Of course, he offers no evidence for this claim, but it gives him an opportunity to blame this state of affairs on liberals.

That should come as news to all nine members of the Supreme Court who seem to agree that reasonable regulation of guns is permitted under the Second Amendment, even while it struck down too much regulation in Washington, D. C. v. Heller five years ago, abandoning an understanding of the Second Amendment that had stood since 1939. But straw men are so easy to knock down, Price can’t stop.

I was amused to read Price’s claim that liberals embrace “the unscrupulous, amoral power tactics of Saul Alinsky.” As I remember, it was the right-wing Tea Party types in 2010 who used Alinsky’s philosophy and practices (especially his book, Rules for Radicals) to develop new tactics to oppose the ACA and fight other issues and candidates who displeased them.

Whatever Alinsky was, he was a patriot who believed completely in democracy. He was often criticized for being too focused on ends to worry about the propriety of the means used to achieve them. In 1966, at Union Theological Seminary, he addressed this charge:
Life and how you live it is the story of means and ends. The end is what you want, and the means is how you get it. Whenever we think about social change, the question of what and how, or means and ends, always arises. The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms... He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work... He knows intuitively that the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”
Alinsky further explained in Rules for Radicals: “Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed. He who fears corruption fears life.”

The same argument Price makes against Alinsky was made also against Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight for civil rights in Birmingham. King addressed such criticisms in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, written 50 years ago. The letter was addressed to clergymen who criticized King for using the wrong means to end segregation: creating immense tension in Birmingham with the demonstrations he led, taking these actions at the wrong time, being an extremist, and violating the law.

King responded that creative tension was needed for growth in the hearts and minds of whites in the community. Without such tension, change would never occur. Those who support the status quo always want to wait for change to come, but King quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote in an opinion in 1958 that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

King supported violating unjust laws as a moral responsibility and argued that civil disobedience is justified in the face of such laws. As to the charge of extremism, King wrote that Jesus and others revered through the ages were called extremists, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?"

Whatever one thinks about Saul Alinsky and Martin Luther King, Jr., neither belongs just to liberals or right-wingers. Alinsky was a man for all seasons and political viewpoints. But he was not an ethics teacher or philosopher; he was a man of action in the quest for social justice.

Likewise, King fought for social justice his entire adult life, never willing to sit on the sidelines when social injustice needed to be corrected. His example inspired many across the spectrum of political opinion. While Alinsky’s tactics were often dramatically creative, both he and King supported nonviolent means to achieve their ends.

Finally, I’ll deal with one other claim of Price, though he makes enough false claims to write a small book. Price complains that he can’t use the word “Christmas” because non-Christians may be offended. I don’t know what universe Price lives in, but Christmas is ubiquitous in this culture. None of my Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist friends and acquaintances can possibly escape it unless they wrap themselves in a cocoon between Halloween and New Year’s Day. Only on Fox News is Price’s complaint about Christmas part of the real world.

The only Christmas complaints I hear usually concern the government’s promotion of Christmas as a religious holiday. Manger scenes at city hall sponsored by a city council have usually been prohibited by the courts. But Christmas itself is predominantly secular, focused largely on giving and receiving gifts and selling lots of merchandise. This secular Christmas is woven into the culture as much as Thanksgiving or July 4th.

While the materialistic aspect of Christmas has been criticized by ministers and other religious people, it has also been fodder for thoughtful comments by poets. My favorite is a poem written in the 1950s by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck crèches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings
If we could have civil discourse about our disagreements and try to understand why we have differences of opinion, perhaps we would have fewer rants from all sides of the political divide. I have dedicated this column to arguing my positions based on evidence and reason. I’m sure I have not always succeeded in that goal, but I will keep trying. And with a little luck, I may be able to avoid reading any more rants from any political perspective.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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