Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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The John Walker Attack on Liberalism

by Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
December 17, 2001

The case of John Walker, the 20-year-old American recently discovered fighting for the Taliban, has fueled rhetorical excesses by the conservative commentariat. While most debate focuses on how he should be punished, a number of right-leaning pundits have played cultural psychologist, making sweeping and simplistic arguments condemning liberalism based only on Walker's actions. This is yet another example of how pundits make broad arguments based on scant evidence if it happens to reinforce their biases.

Walker's case: an opportunity to generalize

Walker's story is an easy target for right-wing pundits who specialize in stereotyping liberals. He was raised in an affluent family in culturally liberal Marin County, California. His mother converted to Buddhism, and his parents generally supported his travels to the Middle East to study Islam after he graduated from an alternative high school. Walker eventually came to hold radical Islamic beliefs and ended up training at a camp for supporters of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan before joining the fight against Northern Alliance forces. He was captured as a prisoner of war and later discovered amongst Taliban prisoners after a revolt.

As Richard Cohen of the Washington Post and Scott Rosenberg of Salon (Premium subscription required) have already argued, some conservative pundits has made ridiculous generalizations based on the facts of Walker's case. Shelby Steele, for instance, stated in the Wall Street Journal that Walker "was prepared for this seduction [by the Taliban] not just by the wispy relativism of Marin County, but also by a much broader post-'60s cultural liberalism (more than political liberalism) that gave his every step toward treason a feel of authenticity and authority."

Cohen points out that while Walker's upbringing is surely an important influence, it's totally unreasonable to hold the "relativism of Marin County" or a broader post-60s liberal movement responsible for his decision to fight with the Taliban. After all, Walker is but one single person, the only American yet found fighting against his country, while thousands of young people who grew up in the same era as Walker, some even with similar upbringings, are now part of the US military. Millions more support the war. Arguing that an individual is representative of his generation or area can be revealing, but it becomes absurd when no one else from a similar background has followed the same path.

Steele is not the only writer to take this tack. Andrew Sullivan wrote on his website that "the connection between a certain leftist relativist subculture (e.g. the New Age parenting of Walker) and actual treason is now no longer an abstraction. It's real. It's called John Walker." (Sullivan later partly retracted this view, saying "it's much more complex and interesting than my original impression.") Claudia Rosett made a similar argument on OpinionJournal.com, writing, "What jumps out is a sorry sketch of the real world colliding with American culture at its most neurotically all-validating no-fault New Age nadir of nattering nonsense." John Walker's case has clearly turned into another political Rorschach blot of vague facts that pundits interpret according to their predilections.

Assuming facts we don't know

Pundits haven't just been constructing a broad, stereotypical arguments, however. They've also been assuming facts we don't have in order to construct what seems like a coherent narrative. Jeff Jacoby does this expertly in a Boston Globe op-ed in which he writes that Walker's parents "never [his emphasis] drew the line with their son."

How can Jacoby know this? The reality is he can't possibly know whether Walker's parents ever objected to their son's choices -- he simply assumes that Walker's parents never "drew the line" based on a few news reports. Reports have indicated that Walker's parents supported what they called their son's "spiritual journey", but this is not enough evidence to assume that they encouraged him in every choice he made. We only know they were unwilling or unable to prevent him from making them, just as many parents of teenagers and young adults are. If Jacoby wants to argue parents should intervene more forcefully in their children's lives, that's fine. But he assumes he knows what Walker's parents were thinking based on what he would have done (with the benefit of hindsight) and then uses these constructed people as stand-ins for liberal culture.

This becomes even more apparent as Jacoby takes the dissembling a step further, stating that "Only once, it seems, did Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker actually deny their son something he wanted" and "Lindh and Walker appear never to have rebuked their son or criticized his choices. In their world, there were no absolutes, no fixed truths, no mandatory behavior, no thou-shalt-nots."

Stating that Walker's parents only once ever denied their son something he wanted (they refused to address him by his adopted Arab name) is almost certainly untrue and, regardless, unknowable to Jacoby. Nor does he know for a fact that the two believe there are no absolutes. He does frame these assumptions with the qualifiers "it seems" and "appear," but this is no excuse for simply assuming he understands their moral belief systems. And even worse, the qualifiers disappear when Jacoby draws his conclusion from his assumptions, stating that "If [Marilyn Walker] and Frank Lindh had been less concerned with flaunting their open-mindedness and more concerned with developing their son's moral judgment, he wouldn't be where he is today."

Grant complexity, then ignore it

Another tactic used in the debate over Walker has been to feign an appreciation of the complexity of his case in order to make what looks like a rational argument, then go on as if those facts don't matter. This way, a pundit can appear to address other issues and blunt likely criticisms, without actually granting anything.

Steele does this near the end of his piece, when he writes, "Yes, alone in Yemen and later in Pakistan, [Walker] may have been seduced by charismatic people." Steele then goes on, however, to continue to focus solely on Walker's upbringing and American liberal culture as the reasons for his actions. How does Steele know that the influences Walker faced in Yemen and Pakistan were so much less important as to be inconsequential? He never tells us. He simply acknowledges an important logical possibility, then ignores it as inconvenient to his argument.

Simply irresistible

John Walker proved to be an irresistible subject for some conservative pundits. Using factual dissembling and tricky pseudo-logic, they made his upbringing in Marin County and conversion to Islam the basis for broad cultural and political indictments of liberalism. Thus did one emotionally charged case become a classic example of the pathology of a punditry that makes sweeping statements based on isolated examples and limited information.

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