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Jargon 101: Pardons and Punditry

By Bryan Keefer
April 9, 2001
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A disturbing trend in political dialogue has emerged in the last few years. While politicians and pundits have always presented slanted arguments, we are now witnessing something more pernicious: a conscious assault on the rational basis of political debate. Instead of arguing the merits of their cases, some pundits have adopted sub-rational techniques, often borrowed from the world of public relations and advertising, to defame and discredit political opponents and opposing arguments.

The Clinton pardon scandal provided the occasion for a particularly brutal piece by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online. Goldberg attacks articles on the mess by of two other commentators, Joe Conason of Salon.com and E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post. Goldberg's piece is a classic example of these sub-rational techniques, which Phil Agre has called the "new jargon" of political punditry. Full of aggressive ad hominem attacks, powerful linguistic associations, and deniable presuppositions, Goldberg's column never address the merits of his targets' arguments.

Slamming Dionne

Goldberg begins with an attack on Dionne's piece. Dionne argues that the pardon scandal is being used to discredit Clinton's policy legacy. Goldberg opens:

I swear, E. J. Dionne's books are really good. . . . So why his columns so often read like they were dictated by a volunteer envelope-stuffer at the DNC I have no idea.
Sometimes I wonder if he secretly thought the Gore administration was going to crown him America's intellectual Pope and the Florida mess just drove him over the deep end. Other times I wonder if he's sand-poundingly angry that Bill Clinton's policies were deeply informed by his book, Why Americans Hate Politics, but Clinton's personality was deeply informed by the Porkys [sic] film series.
Who knows?

The first paragraph not only belittles Dionne's intellect, but uses one of the chief tricks of the new jargon: Goldberg linguistically associates Dionne with the Democratic National Committee, an organization he knows conservative perceive negatively. The next paragraph rhetorically associates Dionne with Bill Clinton - another negative connection for conservatives (and even some left-leaning readers). Never mind the fact that Dionne is not directly connected to either Clinton or the DNC; their inclusion in the same sentence with Dionne is enough to damage the columnist's credibility in the eyes of Goldberg's readership.

The second and third paragraphs use two other canonical tactics of the new jargon. First, Goldberg frames his statements so that they become deniable assertions, using phrases like "Sometimes I wonder", "Other times I wonder", and "Who knows?" In this way he can allege things he has no evidence of without taking responsibility for what he says. Second, Goldberg imputes motives to Dionne: he wanted to be an "intellectual Pope," he's "sand-poundingly mad." By inventing motivations - framed by phrases making his allegations deniable - it is easy to dismiss Dionne's argument without addressing its merits.

Potshots at Joe Conason

In the next few paragraphs, Goldberg applies the same tactics to Joe Conason. Conason's article details Bush Sr.'s pardons (a few of which were ethically questionable). Goldberg writes:

Conason made a name for himself defending Bill Clinton by attacking the people who attacked Bill Clinton . . . Conason always claims he's doing real reporting, just-the-facts variety. That's fine, and I'm sure it's true. But it seems the only facts he ever comes back with are the ones best suited to help Bill Clinton. He's like Yosemite Sam as a castaway in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Stuck on an island with nothing to eat but coconuts . . . Yosemite Sam eventually gets fed up and yells "I hate coconuts!" But Conason's appetite for creating Clinton-defending concoctions is inexhaustible.
Why Joe is like this I don't know. He does seem like a generally grumpy, sit-in-the-dark and throw-whiskey-bottles-at-late-night-reruns-of-Hardball kind of guy. And it's got to be a lonely business always, always, always being so, so right.
Sometimes I suspect he's just pissed that a like-minded Clinton journalist-apologist [Sidney Blumenthal] thought of signing a contract with Lucifer before he did . . .
Again, who knows?

The motivations for Conason's reporting are debatable - but Goldberg's tactics in attacking Conason are inexcusable. In just four paragraphs, Goldberg smears Conason four times: sarcastically attacking Conason's reporting, using a derogatory analogy comparing him to a cartoon character, alleging he's a grumpy, alcoholic insomniac, and rhetorically connecting him with the devil. All of this hyperbole is, of course, framed with "who knows?" so as to make these pronouncements deniable. Nowhere does Goldberg address the substance of Conason's column.

Projecting and paraphrasing

Goldberg shifts back to attacking Dionne for the next few paragraphs:

[I]n a veering column which seemed to assert everything and its opposite, Dionne valiantly made the case for Bill Clinton's politics but not his personality. 'The goal,' of the current pardon brouhaha, wrote Dionne, 'is to discredit not just Clinton's moral legacy (wasn't that done long ago?) but also his policy legacy . . . The hope is to bury the successes of the Clinton years beneath a pile of bad pardons and turn his years in office into a totally unusable past.'

The quote from Dionne's column is perfectly fair, but Goldberg frames it in such a way as to make Dionne appear confused and contradictory (try reading the quote without Goldberg's commentary, and it seems perfectly reasonable and consistent). This is another linguistic tactic of the new jargon: twist your opponent's words in such a way that they fit your assertion.

The next paragraphs provide more examples of assocationistic rhetoric and unfair paraphrasing:

This is an interesting assertion considering it is the New York Times editorial board that is clamoring for hearings and investigations. . . . Indeed, it seems to me that Barney Frank and Bill Daley and that whole gang agree with Dionne on Bill Clinton's policy legacy, but they also think the pardon thing is a big deal . . . [Dionne] just thinks everyone else is denouncing Clinton too much and that it's the conservatives' fault.
This is a fundamentally dishonest argument. Dionne . . . creates a straw man out of conservatives and then says 'there they go again.'

Goldberg begins by dismissing Dionne's argument because a liberal editorial board is calling for investigations into the pardons. The New York Times was not, of course, the only organization clamoring for an investigation. But the paper - along with the names of Bill Daley (Gore's campaign chairman) and Barney Frank (a liberal Congressman) - carries a negative association for conservative readers.

The last sentence of the first paragraph combined with the second constitute a completely disingenuous argument. Dionne's piece never comes close to "creat[ing] a straw man out of conservatives". In fact, Goldberg is the one setting up a straw man, then knocking it down while he ignores the arguments both Dionne puts forward. This, too, is typical of the new jargon: it projects onto its opponents its own forms of sub-rational argumentation.

Confusing Dionne

Goldberg continues his attacks two paragraphs later, quoting Dionne:

'If there's news on the pardon front,' he writes, 'it should be reported. If prosecutors and investigative journalists shed new light on the pardon madness, God bless them for their work.' So wait, why is E.J. writing this column in the first place?
Again, it's a mystery.

Never mind the fact that Goldberg has explained Dionne's point that critics of Clinton are using the pardons to discredit Clinton's policy legacy earlier in the column; because Goldberg refuses to deal directly with the argument, he tries to discredit Dionne by making him appear inconsistent. And again he uses the "it's a mystery" trope - a way of deniably asserting Dionne is confused, despite having already explained what he thinks Dionne's motivations are.

Nor is Goldberg finished with Conason, saving some of his most vitriolic attacks for the final paragraphs.

. . . Conason simply employs the perniciously cynical and amoral arguments that Clintonistas have mastered over the last eight years.
When your guy does something awful and indefensible, just scream as loud as you can that everybody does it. . . .From attacking Ken Starr to exposing Henry Hyde to making insinuations about George W. Bush, this approach is what paid the light bills for Paul Begala and made James Carville a hero in the Democratic party. And, it is what passes for Joe Conason's reporting.

Here is an obvious case of projection: Goldberg is attacking Conason using exactly the "insinuations" he rails against Democrats for using. Goldberg is not defending the actions of George Bush, Sr., against Conason's criticisms, he is simply attacking the messenger.

And once again, Goldberg associates Conason with various code words with pejorative connotations for conservative readers (Begala, Carville). In the same sentence, he talks about Democratic "attacks" on conservative figures with positive associations for conservative readers (Starr, Hyde, Bush). This is argument by association, and it is precisely this type of sub-rational attack that is so harming our national political dialogue.

Unhappy endings

Goldberg concludes:

[Conason and Dionne] both strive to change the subject, but Dionne wants to divert attention to policy arguments and high-principled debates. Conason wants to point fingers and, if possible, stick thumbs in other people's eyes. If he succeeded with his eye-for-an-eye approach he would leave the whole world blind to moral distinctions, because it is only in that world that Bill Clinton can do no wrong.
Dionne's approach is well-intentioned folly while Conason's is cruel-intentioned mischief. And I hope that with Clinton gone from public view - one day - we won't have to listen to either kind of argument anymore.

Here is the culmination of all the techniques of the new jargon. First, the continuing association of both Dionne and Conason with Clinton. Second, projection: Goldberg says Conason wants to "stick fingers in other people's eyes" - exactly what Goldberg is doing throughout his column by attacking the messenger rather than the message. Third, the misstatement of the opponent's arguments: Conason concludes with the point that "The political influence of money and access in politics is always troubling . . ." - not exactly an attempt to "leave the whole world blind to moral distinctions."

Goldberg's column is just one particularly gross example of the new style of political attack that is harming our collective political discourse. And unless we arm ourselves with the tools to understand and combat the linguistic tricks of this new breed of punditry, our political culture will only degenerate further.

Sources:
-Jonah Goldberg, "Smokey Joe Conason". National Review Online, February 28, 2001.
-E. J. Dionne Jr., "Pardon Me, But Clinton Is Over". Washington Post, February 27, 2001.
-Joe Conason, "The Bush Pardons". Salon.com, February 27, 2001.

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