Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Spinsanity exposes and analyzes the increasingly pervasive use of manipulative and subrational rhetoric in American politics.

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11/27 Brendan: Don Feder's anti-liberal war jargon (part one) - exaggerated evidence

In his syndicated column yesterday, Boston Herald columnist Don Feder brings together several strands of anti-liberal jargon related to the current war into a vicious broadside that deserves close scrutiny. Today I'll look at the exaggerated example he uses as the basis for a broad attack on liberals.

Feder attacks "sensitivity storm troopers" who are "vigilant against 'offensive' expressions of outrage over September 11." He cites as evidence an email sent to Brent Vann, the president of the College Republicans at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), by a university administrator, Patricia Harris, who was upset with the club's posters advertising a pro-war rally. In the email, Harris criticizes the posters and suggests they may have violated required campus organization bylaws by creating a climate that would cause emotional harm to students of Middle Eastern descent. Feder reports no further details, instead launching into a tirade directed at Harris.

Here's how this press-friendly anecdote was created. Soon after Vann received Harris's email, the savvy College Republicans distributed a press release citing the email and associated controversy related to its posters. The release generated an article largely recapitulating their spin on the conservative website WorldNetDaily. Feder clearly read the WorldNetDaily piece since he repeats its quotation of Vann's twisted statement calling Harris's email "tolerance for terrorists".

From there, it was grist for the jargon mill as Feder turned out yet another example of cut-and-paste punditry. But the evidence falls short of justifying Feder's claim that the College Republicans are "under fire" from the "multiculturalist mujahedeen" he decries. Harris's email, which he cites, could certainly chill speech (even if she meant to express a personal opinion rather than an official adminstration position), but this is hardly evidence of "sensitivity storm troopers". (Note: Feder fails to cite Vann's claim of off-campus harassment in the WorldNetDaily article; the club has also posted scans of vandalized posters. The harassment claim is clearly much more serious but unverified, and in any event Feder does not cite it.)

Moreover, while a campus group did approach an administrator to complain about the posters, they were rebuffed. The Mustang Daily at Cal Poly newspaper reports the the administration said that "even though College Republicans may have contradicted campus club by-laws, the posters were protected under the First Amendment and free speech and no one could take them down." Moreover, the Republicans held the pro-war rally the posters were advertising without incident (and with the logistical support of the administration).

When all the facts are considered, Feder's rant about "sensitivity storm troopers", the "multiculturalist mujahedeen" and the College Republicans "under fire" seems exaggerated and deceptive. Regrettably, however, this is just par for the course in the modern punditry.

Tomorrow: Part two - Ben on Feder's attacks on opponents of military tribunals and critics of the detention of suspects in connection with the 9-11 attacks.

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Related links:
-Suppressing Dissent At Home, Fighting for Freedom Abroad? (Brendan Nyhan, 9/24)

11/28 Ben: Don Feder's anti-liberal war jargon (part two) - invented agendas

As syndicated columnist Don Feder transitions in his Monday column to defend the detention of about 1000 people in connection with the September 11 attack and President Bush's order allowing military tribunals to try terrorists, he brings out one of modern punditry's favorite tools. Done with his gross exaggerations of liberal "sensitivity storm troopers" examined by my co-editor Brendan yesterday, Feder inaccurately describes the motivations of the ACLU and other liberal critics of the tribunals and detentions, and then attacks them based on these invented agendas.

Feder begins by distorting a statement by Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington National Office, on the tribunals. Murphy states that "the President's decision is further evidence that the Administration is totally unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that are so central to our democracy." Murphy is clearly saying that "checks and balances" are central to our democracy, but Feder twists this by saying "The ACLU ... claims such courts would contravene values "central to our democracy." While it is true that the ACLU opposes the establishment of such tribunals, Feder distorts their reasoning to make it appear much more fierce and simplistic.

With his accomplished, Feder continues with a jargon rampage. He invents motive after motive to explain liberals' alleged objections:

-Wouldn't it be tragic if bin Laden or one of his henchmen weren't able to invoke the exclusionary rule? (Were they properly Mirandized by the special forces that collared them?)
-Not to let some slick lawyer get the architects of the Manhattan massacre off on a technicality would threaten the very foundations of constitutional liberty, [the ACLU and its allies] complain.
-That trying suspected terrorists in open court would compromise intelligence sources and turn the proceedings into a media circus doesn't concern [self-styled civil libertarians].

In the first two cases, Feder picks the least popular aspects of U.S. courts, exaggerates their importance, and accuses the ACLU of supporting them, offering no evidence beyond his own rhetoric. It is both unfounded and offensive to allege that the ACLU wants the perpetrators of the September 11 attack to be released on a technicality. Furthermore, contrary to Feder's accusation, the ACLU has expressed specific concern about compromised intelligence. In Murphy's statement, she argues that the Classified Information Procedures Act allows national security to be protected in the context of a jury trial.

Feder uses a similar tactic in his dismissal of opposition to the indefinite detention of over 1000 people in connection to the terrorist attacks. Here is his description of liberals concerned about the potential racial profiling of these people: "It's so unfair to concentrate on jihadland nationals, instead of arresting random Scandinavians and Fiji Islanders to achieve a comforting diversity."

The term "jihadland," of course, is a crude and offensive term for the Arab states from which many of the jailed hail. Aside from this jargon, however, notice how Feder alleges that liberals want the government to arrest "random" people for the sake of "diversity." Once again, this is a wholly inaccurate description of liberals' motives. There have been no calls to arrest random people of any race, nor have any liberals actually proposed arresting more people to achieve diversity. Such a crude description of these liberals, however, allows Feder to dismiss them without taking on their actual concerns that many people of Arab descent are being detained based primarily on their race and without any publicly presented evidence.

Invented agendas are perhaps one of the most dangerous tools in the modern pundit's arsenal, as they allow him or her to simulate actually engaging the arguments of an opponent. In reality, however, these arguments are straw men, created by pundits unable or unwilling to make a fair case.

Tomorrow: Part three - Bryan on Feder's comparison of liberals and terrorists and his place in the pantheon of modern punditry.

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Related links:
-Don Feder's anti-liberal war jargon (part one) - exaggerated evidence (Brendan Nyhan, 11/27)
-OpinionJournal's convenient quoting (Ben Fritz, 8/16)
-ACLU fund-raising letter crosses the line (Bryan Keefer, 7/12)
-Identity politics insanity (Brendan Nyhan, 6/26)

11/29 Bryan: Don Feder's anti-liberal war jargon (part three) - tricks of the trade

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks we have witnessed some outrageous rhetoric, but syndicated columnist Don Feder's Monday column stands out for its suggestion liberals deserve the same fate as Osama bin Laden. In the third part of our series on his column, we'll look at how Feder attempts to justify his aggressive assertions using the psuedo-logic characteristic of modern punditry.

Here is Feder's vicious conclusion to his rant against liberals:

In a column shortly after Sept. 11, I called liberalism America's homegrown suicide cult and the real threat to our nation's survival. Osama bin Laden isn't the only one who deserves to be hiding in a cave, cowering every time he hears a jet overhead.

Looking closely at Feder's column, we can see how he builds to such an inflammatory conclusion by relying on labels and stereotypes twisted into broad generalizations rather than logic or rational argument.

First, Feder provides two examples of how liberals "continue to sleepwalk through history": the treatment of College Republicans who posted pro-war signs on the campus of California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) and a speech by Howard Zinn. The examples are rather tenuously related, so to help the reader connect the dots, Feder uses a series of labels such as "Ho Chi Zinn" and "sensitivity stormtroopers." Both of these labels play to pre-existing stereotypes about liberals. Feder also exaggerates the facts of the Cal Poly case in order to make the incident seem more serious than it is. Finally, Feder generalizes his first two examples into "the Cal Poly mentality" and claims they are "froth on the sea of liberal inanity."

Next, Feder use the ACLU's position opposing military tribunals for alleged terrorists to justify a broad set of allegations against the motivations of all liberals. As Ben showed yesterday, by distorting the ACLU's statement and using a series of rhetorical questions and exaggerated stereotypes of the ACLU and US courts, Feder discredits such positions without ever addressing their merits. Finally, he segues into an attack on all liberals, not just those he has specifically criticized: "When not combating anti-terrorist hate speech, liberals agonize over the post-World Trade Center detention of 1,100 suspects from nations with terrorist ties."

From there it's an easy rhetorical leap to his conclusion that liberals "are America's homegrown suicide cult and the real threat to our nation's survival" and "[deserve] to be hiding in a cave, cowering every time [they hear] a jet overhead." This is a direct and aggressively irrational threat against millions of Americans. Note how Feder has not bothered to make a logical argument to demonstrate that even the liberals he cites are a "threat to our nation's survival," let alone that liberals in general are such a threat.

Feder's column is typical of a new breed of political punditry that relies on manipulating the emotions of readers in order to lend credence to exaggerated and destructive generalizations about political opponents. Using a few shreds of evidence, most of which is distorted, he builds to broad, unsupportable allegations about all liberals. Feder simulates a rational argument by using the conventional structure of arguments supported by evidence, but twists that evidence and laces his argument with labels and emotional jargon. By priming his audience with both a traditional structure and deeply negative emotional language, he makes his absurd conclusion seem like the natural extension of his phony logic. Such tactics form the core of the new generation of aggressive, irrational political punditry.

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Related links:
-Don Feder's anti-liberal war jargon (part one) - exaggerated evidence (Brendan Nyhan, 11/27)
- Don Feder's anti-liberal war jargon (part two) - invented agendas (Ben Fritz, 11/28)

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