WASHINGTON — Ever since the Cato Institute fired syndicated columnist Doug Bandow over the revelation that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had asked and paid him to write articles favorable to his clients, the Left and some in the media have launched a witch hunt against conservative writers with links to private industry. Yet, during this burning time, no one is asking the question: What are opinion pieces for? The question has not arisen because some on the Right, by acquiescing to the Left’s desire for blood, are building the pyres themselves. The question needs to be asked, and the Left will hate the answer.
An opinion piece — whether an individual op-ed or a column — exists to promote a point of view by argument. It does not seek to establish a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion. Therefore, the strength of the argument is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of the piece. A sloppily constructed, poorly thought-out argument will convince no one — while a tightly constructed, coherent, and well-written argument can sway minds. That is why opinion pieces are considered intellectual ammunition in the war of ideas.
The only valid response to a persuasive argument is an equally persuasive argument towards a different conclusion. Yet the witch hunters’ central argument has nothing to do with the virtues of the arguments presented by Bandow and others. Their argument is, essentially, that because the writer has not disclosed information about his income, he is essentially untrustworthy and his opinions should not be given the time of day. This argument is flawed enough to make it invalid. In logic, that’s called a fallacy.
The argument is fallacious for three reasons.
First, it has nothing to do with the views expressed in the articles. Instead, it dwells on characteristics of the author. In logic, this is called the ad hominem (or ad hom.) fallacy. It should have no effect on the evaluation of the views expressed in the article. So, if someone writes in favor of drug legalization but it is then revealed that he has been paid to write the article by George Soros or another proponent of drug legalization, his argument cannot be validly dismissed on that ground alone.
The argument that full disclosure of any financial interests would solve the problem should be seen in this light. The ad hominem argument cares nothing for transparency. If a writer does not disclose his income source, he is untrustworthy for not being transparent. If he does disclose his income source, he is a paid shill. Yet neither formulation speaks to the actual arguments.
Second, to unpack the fallacy further, another fallacious argument arises: that those who are untainted by private sector money are inherently more trustworthy. This is a form of the fallacy of appeal to authority — “Look at me, you can trust me!” A writer’s argument does not gain any more validity through the author’s lack of financial ties.
Finally, because of the general applicability of the charge, a third fallacy arises. By broadly asserting that anyone connected financially with private industry is inherently untrustworthy, the Left has engaged in the fallacy of poisoning the well: No writer who has ties to industry deserves to be listened to — their arguments need not even be heard, never mind addressed. The Left’s case for transparency relies on poisoning the well for its effectiveness: Once a writer has declared his or her ties, they believe, the reader will not give their arguments credence.
FOR MANY YEARS NOW, opinion pieces have been the main vehicle by which conservatives have taken their philosophy to the American people. It was the Austrian economist and enemy of socialism F. A. Hayek who first spelled out to conservatives that they were engaged in a war of ideas. Since the rise of Reaganism, conservatives have been winning this war and the opinion pages of newspapers are one of the chief battlegrounds.
It is therefore in the Left’s interest to deny this ground to their enemy. A campaign waged against private financial ties serves not only this purpose but has proved beneficial in other ways. The acquiescence of editors and news services has enabled a sustained witch hunt. The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice.
One of the reasons why leftists cannot win the war of ideas is that their philosophy has become almost a matter of faith rather than of reason. Those who do not subscribe to their dogma of redistribution of wealth, public direction of industry through regulation, and welfarism are to be cast out. Decades of economic analysis have shown these tenets of leftist faith to be unworkable and positively harmful. Yet leftists, defeated in the war of ideas, regard any expression of these truths with paranoia and hatred.
The term witch hunt is not inappropriate here. Such was also the position of dogmatic Christians in the 17th century towards any form of deviation from dogma. Writers with ties to the market are viewed as abnormal, much as 17th century witch finders regarded old women who lived alone with black cats. The witch-finders developed tribunals in which they could secure the guilt of their accused, as traditional courts were unlikely to rule against them. Trial by ordeal was one such practice. The modern version is to accuse a person of something that is not in itself wrong, secure his or her firing by an organization more concerned with perceptions of rectitude than the merits of the case, and thereby derail that person’s career as an opinion writer without ever having to contend with his or her arguments.
AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE IS the recent case of Michael Fumento. One of the few fact-checking investigative reporters writing from a conservative viewpoint, Fumento was fired from his job with Scripps Howard after writing a column that pointed out the good being done by biotech company Monsanto. Fumento’s alleged sin in was that he had solicited a grant from Monsanto for his think tank employer, the Hudson Institute, to contribute to his pre-established salary while he wrote a book about biotech (Fumento received no additional money as a result of the deal). That was in 1999. The argument was made that Fumento had sinned in not revealing the grant in his 2006 column, and his firing was secured. Yet the argument is once again fallacious; the money did not lead Fumento to be forever adulatory towards Monsanto — he even called them “chicken-hearted” in a column soon after the grant was received when Monsanto bowed to anti-biotech pressure and stopped development of a potentially valuable technology.
The Left will continue to do this as long as they are successful at it. In all cases of witch-hunts, a perception of moral righteousness is a necessary psychological element that enables rationalization. The actions of the Cato Institute in firing Bandow and of Scripps Howard in firing Fumento have the witch finders smelling blood (or ashes). The McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s ended when the attorney for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, asked the Senator, “Have you no shame?” A similar moment, not supine cowering before the witch hunters’ zeal, is required now.
There may be such a moment available. According to a column by Los Angeles Times writer Cathy Seipp, who has sadly written in approving terms of the actions of the witch-finders, relates that one of them, New York Times Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman, threatened to “burn” a source for such a story if he told anyone she was asking about it. As Seipp says, “When journalists go from keeping secrets about sources to expecting sources to keep secrets about them, something in the media has begun to stink with self-importance.”
The self-important witch finders blazing with moral righteousness have only one goal in mind: to deny the public access to the ideas advanced by the writers they target. This is not about trust, or ethics, or any other moral consideration. It is about suppression of free speech and public debate. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It is neither illegal nor immoral to write about something while having financial ties to private industry. By inventing new social rules to forbid such an act, the leftist witch finders are showing once again just how hostile they are to the ideals on which the American republic stands. Opinion is opinion and should be treated as such. Any other approach to it is fallacious sophistry.
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