The Nation's Pulse

Egypt and the Death of Argument

When a Rep. Jan Schakowsky is the best you can hope for in an opponent.

By 2.17.11

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Frontier storyteller Louis L'Amour sometimes referred to trusted companions as people with whom you'd want to "ride the river." For every man or woman who fits that evocative description, however, there are others whose talents run more toward "poisoning the well," and some of them practice their alchemy of animosity on Facebook pages.

I know a man who thinks almost anyone with a critique for the progressive agenda must be "hate-filled" or "brain-dead." Were you to mention to him that Rush Limbaugh sometimes calls himself a "lovable fuzzball," he would snort in disbelief. He fancies himself a "live and let live" kind of guy, but entertains friends with pointers to what they MUST READ (all caps his). In his free time, he lards anti-conservative screeds with descriptions of Republican lawmakers like Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan as "hideous," "horrible," and "insane." Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter drive him bonkers, but they're not the only ones who do. By his lights, there are so many Republican and right-wing outrages taking place that it's impossible to catalog them all. I've slowly come to realize that this invective points to something more serious than lack of perspective, namely, the death of competent argument among self-described progressives.

My Facebook foil wrote recently that he was inspired by the revolution in Egypt. Certainly Hosni Mubarak was a despot, and the generals who replaced him seem to be acting with restraint. That said, more than a few reporters have quoted Egyptians praising their military as the "backbone of Egyptian society." Neither that attitude nor the darker side of mob psychology bodes well for the likelihood of adding to the number of democracies in the Middle East, unless "democracy" is defined as "two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch." There are good reasons why Eric Hoffer's 1951 look at "true believers" still resonates for us today, and good reasons why the United States is a representative republic.

It was a progressive essay that got me thinking about the sorry state of argument, so I should have seen the twist coming: In what might be called a "Year of the Rabbit punch," praise for huddled masses yearning to breathe free turned out to be a setup. What my progressive muse really wanted was a stick with which to beat the Tea Party. Fortunately for his purposes, the bat marked "Made in Egypt" just happened to be on hand. 

The author needed something other than another calming trip to the opera, because the CPAC meeting had set his teeth on edge in ways that ACORN or SEIU meetings never will. At any rate, he's certain that questions about patriotism still dog Barack Obama "both because he is our first President of color, and because he represents everything good about this country."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of the ad hominem fallacy and the unsupported assertion. Having ascribed racist motives to Tea Partiers on the basis of hearsay and careful cherry-picking, my correspondent would only be contemptuous if you pointed out that most Tea Party members esteem "people of color" like Herman Cain, Thomas Sowell, and Allen West (R-Florida). Their differences with President Obama have much more to do with economics and civics than with race. You could also point out that righties typically treat neighbors of any hue with more respect than lefties do, but you wouldn't get a hearing.

As for the assertion that our president embodies everything good about this country: when did narcissism and indecision become national virtues? Assuming for the sake of argument that there is such a thing as a quintessentially American politician not named Sarah Palin, would this person have voted "present" more than 100 times in the Illinois State Legislature, as Barack Obama did, or bestow self-aggrandizing gifts on other people, as Barack Obama does? The collection of Obama speeches downloaded to an iPod for the Queen of England is well-known, but little political hay has been made of the fact that Press Secretary Robert Gibbs left that post clutching his own tie and some photos of his former boss.

Protectiveness about our president would be easier to understand if it confined itself to defending his character, but many progressives are equally protective of the policies that President Obama has chosen to champion. With my muse again in mind, I can only say from experience that it's hard to reason with someone who thinks that Planned Parenthood is "one of the best non-governmental organizations in the history of mankind."

Were ignorance of Tea Party inclusivity or Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger's enthusiasm for eugenics peculiar to one or two Democrats, it would hardly be worth commenting on, but a conspicuous lack of fact and logic hobbles more than its share of progressive thinkers. My Facebook foil you've already met, albeit behind a cloak of anonymity meant as a sop to his dignity. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and columnist William Rivers Pitt represent the progressive breed more publicly: In a column for the Huffington Post, Schakowsky assured readers that budget savant Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) answers only to the "super rich." Perhaps wealthy Ryan opponents like Arianna Huffington and George Soros never got that memo. Schakowsky also claimed that the idea of privatizing Social Security had been discredited, which is a pretty good trick, considering that such privatization hasn't yet been tried.

For his part, William Rivers Pitt dismissed the Tea Party movement as a figment of the "rich fantasy life" on the political right. Where neutral observers see grass-roots political involvement, Pitt sees only Republican re-branding. Pitt offers deliberately contrary thought about foreign affairs, too, writing that "Ronald Reagan and his people basically created the Taliban."

Had Pitt done his homework, he might have found this more compelling explanation for the birth of the Taliban in Eric Blehm's widely praised book, The Only Thing Worth Dying For (HarperCollins, 2010):

"[Mullah Mohammed] Omar's Taliban movement was sparked by the rape and murder of two young boys at a checkpoint on a road outside Kandahar in June, 1994. Mullah Omar, then the imam of a mosque in the Maiwand District west of Kandahar, led a band of armed students from his small madrassa to the checkpoint, where they killed the checkpoint commander and his men. He became a national hero, and his students of Islam, or Taliban, grew into an organized fighting unit."

It's hard to be any clearer than that, right? Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with the rough justice of the sordid episode that midwifed the Taliban into existence, but some people just don't care. If those people also believe that trillion-dollar debt is okay when incurred in the name of "the greatest good for the greatest number," then they probably call themselves progressive, and some of them are going to think I've "demonized" them by pointing that out.

But that's just what "brain-dead" conservatives do, isn't it?

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.