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Posts - August 27-September 1, 2001

9/1 - Ben: Norah Vincent invents and indicts Clinton defenders / Condit haters (permanent link)
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Calling politicians "illusionists and prevaricators of the first order," as Norah Vincent does in an LA Times op-ed yesterday, fits into a tradition of mixing criticism with over-the-top satire. Thus, we won't take her to task for her argument that politicians are selfish liars because the American people are too. Everyone knows the truth is a tad bit subtler.

We will criticize Vincent, however, for a logical trick she pulls in an attempt to indict those who dare to criticize Congressman Gary Condit. Vincent wants to argue that people shouldn't be upset over Condit evading many of Connie Chung's questions in last week's interview because we're selfish and at election time don't ask politicians for honesty. "The candidates who get themselves elected are illusionists and prevaricators of the first order," she writes. "We expect this of them." In order to drive this point home, she makes a comparison to former President Clinton, whom she argues was given a pass despite comparable deceptions:

So, for example, when it came to Clinton's lies, both under oath and not, there were a great many people who defended him in unabashedly cynical terms, saying: "So what if he lied? All politicians lie. He just got caught." Well, well. A perversely honest answer at last.

"So why is Condit not granted the same leeway in the court of public opinion?" Vincent then asks. Her answer is that Condit is simply not as good a liar as Clinton. "He doesn't equivocate as seamlessly as Clinton or as self-effacingly."

Note how Vincent's argument relies on a mysterious "great many people" who defended Clinton and are now presumably not defending Condit. Who, exactly, are these people? She never tells us. Of course, it's quite possible that many people who are upset about Condit's interview were also upset about Clinton's lies. It's also not at all clear that there were anywhere close to a "great many people" who excused Clinton's lies so easily. Vincent merely tells us what some vague segment of the population allegedly thought, and then constructs her argument as if they are the same people who are now criticizing Condit.

But Clinton is not Condit, and Clinton's defenders are not necessarily Condit's critics. Vincent would be well advised to stick to her over-the-top criticisms and avoid subrational arguments in an attempt to indict the general public.

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Related links:
-Coulter just won't give up on Clinton-Condit association (Bryan Keefer, 8/30)
-Pruden is at it again (Brendan Nyhan, 8/24)
-Pruden takes his dissembling straight up (Brendan Nyhan, 8/15)
-Continuing the Condit spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/31)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)
-Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard (Brendan Nyhan, 7/16)


8/31 - Bryan: Coulter just won't give up on Clinton-Condit association (permanent link)
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Rule one of punditry: If you hammer at something often enough and loudly enough, people might start to believe you - even if what you're saying is completely irrational. So it is with Ann Coulter, who seems determined to link Rep. Gary Condit to President Clinton and allege some sort of "liberal" pathology.

Coulter isn't exactly subtle about her message. In her column yesterday she makes the following claims:

All this is a long-winded way of saying what the entire country recognized instantly after watching Condit's interview: The man is Clintonesque.
"Clintonesque" is an adjective meaning "oily dissembler, shunned by decent society." It first entered the American lexicon circa Jan. 21, 1998.

In the first sentence, she claims "the entire country instantly" linked Clinton and Condit in the most negative light, a way of drawing a comparison without taking personal responsibility for it. Having labeled Condit, she then proceeds to define that label, this time under the guise of defining a word "already in the American lexicon."

Coulter continues:

And no one can seriously believe that if Monica had gone missing, Bill Clinton would have rushed to the public with information about his sleazy affair. Liberals are beginning to sound like the dissembling congressman: They're giving us a lot of long speeches about Condit, but short, curt replies on the difference between Condit and Clinton.

Let's follow the logic closely: Having linked Clinton and Condit through an analogy in the first sentence, Coulter then erases the some/all distinction by asserting "liberals" can't make a case that there is a difference between the two men. Coulter (like Wes Pruden) also genericizes the charge, blaming all liberals for "long speeches about Condit." Finally, Coulter, rather than building a case that Clinton and Condit are similar, rhetorically places the burden of proof on those who claim Clinton and Condit are different - a rhetorical trick implying the fallback assumption is that Clinton and Condit are alike.

This isn't an argument; it's a simple attack on liberals through an appeal to emotion. Coulter's column simply assumes its conclusions (Clinton and Condit are alike, and liberals have to prove otherwise) and supports them with nothing more than nasty labels and spurious logic.

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Related links:
-Pruden is at it again (Brendan Nyhan, 8/24)
-Pruden takes his dissembling straight up (Brendan Nyhan, 8/15)
-Continuing the Condit spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/31)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)
-Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard (Brendan Nyhan, 7/16)


8/29 - Ben: DuPont uses selective specifics to tilt Social Security debate (permanent link)
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Credit former presidential candidate and OpinionJournal.com columnist Pete DuPont with what we at Spinsanity like to call "selective specifics." That is to say, when it comes to analyzing their opponents' policies, certain pundits are more than happy to throw statistics at you - the worse, the better. But when it comes to their preferred alternative, well, no worries. You can just trust them that it all works out.

DuPont's column today entitled "Pension Tension" is a case in point. His argument is that a privatized Social Security system can not only eliminate the looming deficits the current system faces, but pay for the transition costs of switching to a privatized system.

DuPont starts off by pointing out all of the gloomy measures that would be required to ensure the solvency of the current system: raise payroll taxes from 12.4 percent to 18 percent; raise personal income taxes 17 percent; reduce benefits 32 percent; and so on. In all, DuPont presents five alternatives, and then discounts them as untenable or at least highly unpalatable.

What about the privatization plans, most notably one from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), that DuPont focuses on? (He also happens to be Policy Chair of NCPA) "[T]he NCPA plan, for example, would repay the one-time transition cost by 2060 and run a very large surplus after that," DuPont assures us.

The only explanation DuPont gives for this is what he, following Albert Einstein, calls "the most powerful force in the universe": compound interest. There are, however, a host of related questions: Under what economic assumptions would the NCPA plan fully fund Social Security and pay off the transition costs of privatization? What sort of benefits would people get relative to the current Social Security system? How much money would we have to borrow to fund the "one-time transition cost?"

DuPont's comparison essentially allows readers to look at one plan with a microscope, while the other sits 20 feet away. Who knows which one is better? We certainly can't from the column - because DuPont's use of selective specifics leaves us with no fair way to compare.

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Related links:
-An APB for intellectual honesty on Social Security privatization (Brendan Nyhan, 8/22)
-Both sides play pin the tail on the Social Security surplus (Bryan Keefer, 8/22)
-Novak's welcome-back gift for Congress: Social Security spin (Ben Fritz, 8/20)
-A useless Social Security stalemate (Brendan Nyhan, 8/9)
-Mitch Daniels spins the Medicare Trust Fund (Bryan Keefer, 7/16)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)
-Krugman predicts shortfalls, Bush spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/6)


8/28 - Brendan: Scheer propaganda on a claimed recession (permanent link)
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Even Democratic spin doesn't go far enough for syndicated columnist Robert Scheer, a would-be liberal Aesop who spins a ridiculous morality tale about President Bush and his failings in his latest column.

Scheer repeatedly concocts exaggerated claims of Bush's malfeasance. For example, Scheer takes Bush's recent statement that the diminishing overall budget surplus will be a "fiscal straitjacket for Congress", and turns it into an intent to "bankrupt the national government".

Scheer's most outrageous claim, though, concerns Bush saying that "the only reason we should use Social Security funds is in the case of an economic recession or war." Scheer writes that, in this statement, "[Bush] blithely offers a recession he helped create and a war he's not yet managed to find as a rationale for stealing from seniors." (Later in the column, he again refers to "the recession" as if it is a known fact.)

Beyond the insinuation that Bush is looking to start a war and the accusation that he is "stealing from seniors", Scheer is pretending that we know that the US is in a recession. This is not established according to current statistics - and not even the most partisan Democrats have made such a claim. The fact is that a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. There is a current economic slowdown that could very well become a recession (last quarter's positive economic growth is expected to be revised soon to zero or negative growth), but to pass off the claim that we're in a recession as a fact is wildly irresponsible.

Moreover, how did Bush help to create the supposed recession? The slowdown began at the end of the Clinton administration (clearly Bush could not have created it then), and Scheer offers no direct evidence that the current administration has deepened the downturn.

The lesson of this fable: If the facts don't fit, make them up.

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Related links:
-Scheer propaganda (Brendan Nyhan, 6/12)
-Both sides play pin the tail on the Social Security surplus


8/27 - Bryan: TomPaine.com hit with barrage of jargon-filled email (permanent link)
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TomPaine.com has unwittingly demonstrated how the new breed of aggressive political jargon is being picked up by the grassroots.

On August 23, Fox News Channel rebroadcast an episode of "The O'Reilly Factor" where host Bill O'Reilly interviewed TomPaine.com editor John Moyers. Moyers discussed an ad TomPaine.com had placed in the New York Times criticizing Fox News Channel as, among other things, "a cadre of blustering partisans." O'Reilly and Moyer had a relatively uncivil exchange on the program, which included O'Reilly attacking Moyer as "either a liar or a moron."

In response to the replay of the interview, TomPaine.com received an email in-box full of aggressive, jargon-filled missives both attacking and praising the site. The emails are surprisingly similar to those Brendan Nyhan received to his column dissecting the techniques of pundit Ann Coulter.

The letters include repeated assertions that either TomPaine.com or "the left" are Communists and socialists. One of the less vulgar responses read, in part, "I do not even watch ABC, CBS, NBC or the Clinton news network, CNN. Why do you on the left want socialism and communism? Go back to Russia."

Other letters turned the ideological bias criticisms that TomPaine.com mounted against Fox News Channel back on the site, another tactic typical of the new jargon:

Your articles suck. You put spin in your articles so bad it's not funny. Smokin' mirrors, Smokin' mirrors. It's not working here. Try it on the urban smart people, and socialists. As for me this is a republic, you communist.

The most vicious posters made assumptions about Moyers's sexuality and attacked him based on that:

...do you have a sexual attraction for bill o'reilly. i hear your on the prowl and seeking to explore your deviated sexual attractions

Yet TomPaine.com supporters were only slightly less vitriolic in their letters. One drew an metaphor comparing O'Reilly to a domestic abuser, while an other used this emotionally-laden Biblical analogy:

... These [Fox hosts] are the most hateful, Holier than thou christians I've ever seen. They remind me of the Pharisee's. They are perfect people who never make mistakes. They are quick to point fingers. Jesus forgives they don't. But contantly preach morality. Bigotry, hatred, judging others are also immoral...

While nasty letters to the editor are nothing new, we are witnessing a quantitative leap in the level of aggression and politically-charged jargon, fueled at least in part by the rhetorical shenanigans of today's pundits. The attacks on TomPaine.com provide more evidence of the damage they are doing to our collective political dialogue.

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Related links:
-The response to my Coulter column (Brendan Nyhan, 7/19)
-Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard (Brendan Nyhan, 7/16)
-Polarized Partisans Sling Jargon Like the Pros (Ben Fritz, 7/9)
-Race and "Racial McCarthyism," (Brendan Nyhan, 4/23)

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