Lieberman in WSJ: A Study in Sleaze

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As the saying goes, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Thus many years ago, when I had the opportunity, I developed an upper-level undergraduate survey course on qualitative communication analysis. In everyday English, that would be “all about crap detection.” I figured it was a small service to humanity, and students made the course quite popular. There just isn’t enough crap detection training going on.

If there were, Senator Joseph Lieberman’s op-ed of four days ago wouldn’t have made the Wall Street Journal. It would have made the Sand Lake Advertiser, but only because the latter journal, as I recall it, generously published most anything.

Sen. Joe Biden has written a strong rebuttal in the same WSj. But rebuttals take the original argument on as a serious argument. Joe Conason has called out Lieberman on his hypocrisy, because he was the very kind of anti-Vietnam War protestor he decried in his article. Well and good, but I believe, in the service of crap detection, more of us should call out the op-ed for what it is.

In fact, I found Lieberman’s op-ed more than hypocritical. It also was ridiculous in its grasp of history but sly in its use of rhetorical subterfuges — which implies to me that Lieberman gives us a case study for a rhetorical analysis demonstrating how mendacity, manipulation and self-righteousness work together to compose a style of persuasion. It’s taken a little while to do this. Hope you enjoy the ride.

To begin, Lieberman uses the history of America’s confronting Nazis and Soviets as modeling “a foreign policy that was principled, internationalist, strong and successful.” There are two pieces to this thought: the action (confronting), and the object (Nazis and Soviets). A rhetorical subterfuge would be to emphasize the action so as to make the object fuzzy. Concretely, this would involve playing up red-blooded, courageous, muscular Americanism, ever ready to defend the oppressed by warring against the oppressors, while oversimplifying the context and nature of the oppressors whom red blooded Americans are supposed to attack. This is an old demagogue’s trick — name virtues in a specific context, extract them from that context, apply them to the context you want your audience to agree to, and call them equivalent. The point is to set up opponents of your current position as lacking the virtues you’re upholding.

Sure enough, Lieberman does exactly that:

“This was the Democratic Party that I grew up in – a party that was unhesitatingly and proudly pro-American, a party that was unafraid to make moral judgments about the world beyond our borders. It was a party that understood that either the American people stood united with free nations and freedom fighters against the forces of totalitarianism, or that we would fall divided.”

Also notice the implicit straw man argument building here — who are the people who are anti-American, globally amoral, indifferent to freedom? We don’t have to wait long. They are people who believe in blaming America first:

“This worldview began to come apart in the late 1960s, around the war in Vietnam. In its place, a very different view of the world took root in the Democratic Party. Rather than seeing the Cold War as an ideological contest between the free nations of the West and the repressive regimes of the communist world, this rival political philosophy saw America as the aggressor – a morally bankrupt, imperialist power whose militarism and “inordinate fear of communism” represented the real threat to world peace.

“It argued that the Soviets and their allies were our enemies not because they were inspired by a totalitarian ideology fundamentally hostile to our way of life, or because they nursed ambitions of global conquest. Rather, the Soviets were our enemy because we had provoked them, because we threatened them, and because we failed to sit down and accord them the respect they deserved. In other words, the Cold War was mostly America’s fault.”

I lived through the sixties (and actually do remember them!) Lieberman’s take is blatant poppycock, as if the anti-Vietnam movement were composed entirely of Jerry Rubin on a bad acid trip. Come to think of it, I don’t know that Jerry Rubin ever lionized the Soviets, but I may have forgotten that much of the sixties. In any case, Lieberman’s is a straw man argument as bad as any of the sixties bashing common on the lowbrow right, yet rises to a level of kitsch I’ve rarely seen!

But there’s a purpose to making up attitudes that never were there at the time, especially “and because we failed to sit down and accord them the respect they deserved.” As we’ll see, there is a prominent politician who this very day wants to sit down with our adversary, and he is guilty — guilty! — of just those destructive attitudes from the sixties Joe Liberman made up.

By now, Lieberman has set up his argument, which boils down to this:
Americans who want to kill people and break things (and say they’re doing it for freedom) are red blooded, pro-freedom Americans; Americans who don’t want to aren’t.

Of course, to make this argument hold up in the present context takes some doing. And lying.

“Today, less than a decade later, the parties have completely switched positions. The reversal began, like so much else in our time, on September 11, 2001. The attack on America by Islamist terrorists shook President Bush from the foreign policy course he was on. He saw September 11 for what it was: a direct ideological and military attack on us and our way of life. If the Democratic Party had stayed where it was in 2000, America could have confronted the terrorists with unity and strength in the years after 9/11.”

The “unity and strength” began to unravel, of course, when the Bush administration, in a bizarre non sequitor of historic proportions, shifted its attention from al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. This shift ironically began to accomplish exactly what Osama bin Laden hoped would happen — at least as he expressed it in an interview with ABC in 1998 — the United States would get bogged down and destroy itself as the Soviet Union had destroyed itself by invading Afghanistan. But for Lieberman, historical accuracy is not only not necessary (i.e. Bush changed position, not the Democrats), discerning it not desirable:

“Instead a debate soon began within the Democratic Party about how to respond to Mr. Bush. I felt strongly that Democrats should embrace the basic framework the president had advanced for the war on terror as our own, because it was our own.”

Having laid out his context-free virtues and historical distortions, Lieberman goes on to distort recent history:

“But that was not the choice most Democratic leaders made. When total victory did not come quickly in Iraq, the old voices of partisanship and peace at any price saw an opportunity to reassert themselves. By considering centrism to be collaboration with the enemy – not bin Laden, but Mr. Bush – activists have successfully pulled the Democratic Party further to the left than it has been at any point in the last 20 years.”

Peace at any price? Since when is not wanting to support an unprovoked invasion and/or oppressive occupation demanding “peace at any price?” The timing of Lieberman’s op-ed, coming on the heels of President Bush’s raising “appeasement” in the Israeli Knesset, is more than coincidental.

This is exactly the immorality of extracting virtue from context — in this case, 1938 virtue (i.e. Churchill’s) from 1938 context. What has the Sudetenland to do with Baghdad? Nothing! Yet when the rhetorical gambit Lieberman, Bush, and their allies use succeeds, who cares?

Lieberman also dissembles when he hides the present context under shopworn ideological labels. Ideology is relevant when presuppositions trump real-world consequences. (A classic example in ethics is the case of whether to apply Kant’s categorical imperative to always tell the truth to a World War II era Dutch homeowner, who happens to be hiding a Jewish family, being asked by Nazis if there are any Jews in his home.)

Left wing ideology may well tend against wars such as Iraq, but one does not have to be a leftist to oppose the Iraq War. Ask Jack Murtha, or Chuck Hegel, for crying out loud! Ideology has nothing to do with the perception of colossal waste, death, destruction, corruption, and America’s decline.

A rhetorical tour de force such as Lieberman’s would naturally build its peroration with ad hominem fireworks, and so it does.

“Far too many Democratic leaders have kowtowed to these opinions rather than challenging them. That unfortunately includes Barack Obama, who, contrary to his rhetorical invocations of bipartisan change, has not been willing to stand up to his party’s left wing on a single significant national security or international economic issue in this campaign.

“In this, Sen. Obama stands in stark contrast to John McCain, who has shown the political courage throughout his career to do what he thinks is right – regardless of its popularity in his party or outside it.”

Lieberman hopes we overlook the fact that Sen. Obama has been consistent in his position on the Iraq War since 2002. Lieberman is free to believe Obama is wrong, but he is not ethically free to say that Obama is kowtowing (or, as noted above, repeating destructive attitudes that didn’t really exist in the sixties).

Writing as if the fact that one can’t be sued for libeling a public figure is a license to do so is the lowest from of ad hominem attack. Of course Lieberman goes on to equate diplomacy with “embracing” despots, but enough of Lieberman.

I offer this exercise especially to any still active in the teaching game. I hope you can make use of some of it.


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