Just Above Sunset
June 6, 2004: Rhetorical Flourishes and Imaginary Friends

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

See Making Hay Out of Straw Men
Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A21

Milbank is bothered by the same thing that bothers me in discussions with my conservative friends.  It’s this straw man mode of argument. 

And Bush does it well.  As Milbank says, it’s an ancient debating technique: Caricature your opponent's argument, then knock down the straw man you created. 

Here’s the problem, in one example:


In a speech on May 21 mentioning the importance of integrity in government, business and the military, Bush veered into a challenge to unidentified "people" who practice moral relativism.  "It may seem generous and open-minded to say that everybody, on every moral issue, is equally right," Bush said, at Louisiana State University.  "But that attitude can also be an excuse for sidestepping life's most important questions."

No doubt.  But who's made such arguments?  Hannibal Lecter?  The White House declined to name names. 


Yep, I’ve been there.  Many of us have had this thrown in our face. 

Much of the idea that it might be wise to understand the root causes, justified or not, of hatred of America, of the Palestinian hatred of Sharon’s tactics, or of Israel in general – all that sort of thing -- is met with being accused of granting that perhaps our enemies are NOT wholly evil, of granting perhaps they MAY have a grievance they feel deeply, justified or not, that it might be wise to address.  We are told that we are really saying they’re as right and justified as we are.  And we are sternly reminded we are good and they are bad.  No more, no less.  Being generous and open-minded, as Bush puts it, is simply disregarding the facts.  But who is being generous and open-minded?  We just want to know what’s happening and why? 

The why is that they are just, well, damn it, evil. 

Ah well, maybe they are just evil.  All of them.  Everyone of them.  Even the toddlers. 

Milbank notes a few more straw men.  Kerry recently suggested we halt, or at least slow, oil shipments that are replenishing emergency petroleum reserves.  Might help with the high prices. 

And yes, Bush replied by saying we should not empty the reserves. 

But Kerry didn’t say that.  Oh well.  "The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror.  We're at war."

No one said to do that.  Doesn’t matter.  Most people will assume Kerry said it. 

Then there is the issue of why we went to war in Iraq.  As least Bush isn’t saying it was to prevent gay marriages in Haiti.  But Bush, as Milbank notes, has a really cool routine.  No weapons of mass destruction like we said we had to destroy? 


… Bush explains the prewar intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein had such weapons, and then presents in inarguable conclusion: "So I had a choice to make: either trust the word of a madman, or defend America.  Given that choice, I will defend America every time."


Yes, but that wasn’t exactly the choice.  Milbank says the real choice was to support continued U.N. weapons inspections, or go to war. 

Heck, maybe there were third or fourth options. 

And on it goes.  I like this one:


On May 4, Bush was discussing the war on terrorism, when he said: "Some say, 'Well, this is just a matter of law enforcement and intelligence.' No, that's not what it is." On May 10, he posited: "The natural tendency for people is to say, oh, let's lay down our arms.  But you can't negotiate with these people….  Therapy won't work."

It is not clear who makes such arguments, however.  All but a few lawmakers in both parties support military action against al Qaeda, and Kerry certainly has not proposed opening talks with Osama bin Laden or putting him on the couch. 


Yes, Bush is having debates on psychology and the philosophy of terrorism with imaginary people who say the funniest things.  But they aren’t there. 

Bush was, in support of the Leave No Child Behind reforms that were enacted, arguing with those who say "it's racist to test" students.  Huh?  No record of anyone saying that. 

Milbank points out that some folks who usually like George, are calling Bush on this:


On April 30, for example, Bush was discussing Iraq when he said: "There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern.  I reject that.  I reject that strongly.  I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern.  I believe that people whose skins … are a different color than white can self-govern."

The columnist George Will asked who Bush was talking about, then warned of the "swamp one wanders into when trying to deflect doubts about policy by caricaturing and discrediting the doubters."  There are some, including in the State Department, who are skeptical about the ability of the United States to spread democracy in the Arab world, but that is a far less sweeping argument than the one Bush knocked down. 


Well, yes.  I don’t believe it is the position of the State Department that people of color don’t get this democracy business and can’t ever get it, because of their race.  Hey, look who heads the State Department. 

Bush is arguing with his imaginary friends again.  I would guess this race and democracy counterargument to an argument no one made causes Colin Powell to bang his head against a wall, or drink heavily

But it is good theater. 

Milbank also covers Bush on healthcare and on the economy, particularly outsourcing and tariffs and all the rest.  Try the link and read it all. 
Find a wall.  Drink heavily. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....