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Monday, September 13, 2010

How the Right and the Media Save Us from the Straw Man

Straw manIf you ever needed a real-world demonstration of the term "straw man," I give you Dinesh D'Souza's "How Obama Thinks." Any article that actually comes right out and says, "Now here's a mindreading act," in the title deserves all the respect you'd give the most obvious and ham-handed charlatan. Leaving behind even the pretense of logic, D'Souza engages in supposition disguised as fact and engages in a political hit-job masquerading as some sort of deep psychological analysis. I won't bore you with the details, but the broadstrokes are that Obama hates America because his father supposedly did -- the end. It is truly a loathsome piece editorial malpractice -- even for the editor of the National Review -- and the editorial board of Forbes should immediately begin a decade of self-flagellation to atone for ever allowing it to be published in their pages. Seriously, it's just that stupid/transparently dishonest. It makes a Sarah Palin Facebook entry look like something out of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that Newt Gingrich is a big fan of the piece. Gingrich went completely off the rails some time ago and now spends his time ranting on news shows, where he's inexplicably a frequent guest.

Actually, on second thought, it's not so inexplicable; Newt Gingrich is no more mad than any other "conservative"  these days, so I suppose he's just as good as any other. They all say pretty much the same things, so they're nearly interchangeable. Like D'Souza, they all love to hate the straw man.

What gets me about the abuse of the straw man on the right is what a crutch it's become for them. It's the very first place they go. And it's especially infuriating in Newt's case, because he's doing a much better job of describing himself. In an interview with National Review, Gingrich actually said this: "I think Obama gets up every morning with a worldview that is fundamentally wrong about reality... If you look at the continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane."

This from a man currently pushing a "documentary" that argues that Muslims want to destroy the world. Not in some hyperbolic rhetorical sense, but literally. They want to kill everyone in a big nuclear fireball that Gingrich is more than happy to illustrate on video. And he has the guts to call someone else "factually insane?"

Steve Benen:

I care about this, not because Gingrich is a lunatic, but because Republicans and the media establishment continue to treat Gingrich as a sane, credible visionary. I think it's fair to say most reasonable people would charitably describe his attacks on America's leaders as idiocy, but the problem is, it won't make any difference.

Given the way the political establishment is "wired" for Republicans, there simply aren't any consequences for this kind of abject stupidity. In the first year of the Obama administration, the most frequent guest on "Meet the Press" was Newt Gingrich. Despite having left office more than a decade ago in disgrace, he remains a leading figure welcome in polite society.

By "polite society," Benen means the press. As William Kristol demonstrates so well, you can be consistently wrong, perpetually boneheaded, and eternally ridiculous and never have your pundit card pulled. It's nearly impossible to get kicked out of this club.

If you want another example of the right beating up a straw man, take a look at Media Matter's timeline, "Nine months of the right's anti-Muslim bigotry." In this, the unfortunate Pam Geller goes from backwater hate-blogger to "expert" on Islam in general, while other media darlings hop on for the ride. And, at every press stop along the way, our national conversation gets a little more stupid, a little more hysterical, and a little farther removed from reality.

I'm tempted to say that you can't really blame the Gellers and the Gingriches and the D'Souzas for this; after all, they're just taking advantage of a media whose job seems to have devolved into repeating verbatim whatever a certain group of characters says -- our media has become a horrible, horrible useless mess of disinformation and opinion pretending to be fact. But, of course, you have to blame them. The guilt for the act logically falls to the actor, not the medium.

But in a press universe that limits itself to "he said, she said" reporting, he and she are going to say whatever the hell they want to, because they can get away with it. They are just going to whip the living hell out of that straw man and there will be cameras and microphones and keyboards and printing presses waiting to record every lash for mass distribution. "Gingrich tears into Obama" becomes a story, when Newt Gingrich is, in fact, no one of any particular significance anymore -- he stands no chance of becoming President, he isn't in any position to speak officially for the Republican Party, he doesn't represent anyone other than Newt Gingrich. As Benen points out, he should've been allowed to slink off to obscurity in disgrace. Yet here he is, Mr. Bigtime Expert on All Things Newsy, getting his nose powdered and his hair fluffed in every green room, waiting to be interviewed by every talking head.

And this is the way things are going to stay until the media gets its act together and starts reporting facts again. Until then, there's really no reason to tune in. If you want to watch some idiot tear apart a straw man, that's your business. But don't pretend it's serving you in any way. It's not news anymore, it's gladiatorial spectacle. And the people in the coliseum are there because they're exciting and ready to fight, not because they have anything particularly useful or informative to say. The news media feeds off itself now and this hour's interview is designed to generate the next hour's headlines.

But at heart, these gladiators seem to be cowards. They won't fight their real opponents. Instead, they'll dress up a scarecrow in their rivals' clothes and bat that around for awhile.


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