Torturing the Straw Man

by SheriAllan on May 5, 2009

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It’s ridiculous, incredible! What the Democrats want to do now (in the narrative of conservatives) is absurd, laughable! Reading Miranda Rights to terrorists? Giving government bailouts to Starbucks?   Regulating bovine flatulence? It’s a national farce!


Actually Democrats are not for any of these things, and that is really the point. The size of the conservative minority is contracting, but more importantly so are their arguments. It is not fair to say that conservatives have nothing important to say, but in the time they get on television interview shows – not to mention the shows that are simply designed to be conservative rants – they spend a lot of their minutes explaining their opposition to policies that no one is advocating.


It does not matter who you believe is the real leader of the Republican right, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, they all are relying more heavily than ever on the rhetorical trick of beating the “straw man.” Faced with serious questions about policy alternatives, they invent an absurd policy position that they claim the Democrats support — and rant against that. It’s an old device, but suddenly, it seems to be the only talking point available to today’s loyal opposition.


Here are just a few recent examples:  


Terrorists’ Miranda Rights?

Facing tough questions about who authorized the CIA to torture US prisoners after the release of more memos penned by the Bush White House lawyers, Former Vice President Richard B. Cheney sat down for an interview with Sean Hannity, about the least likely person on the planet to ask Cheney a tough question.   Hannity’s first question was, “How do you like this retirement thing?” but eventually they got around issues.


When Cheney himself turns the conversation to the topic of “robust interrogation program on detainees” Cheney’s answer is that changes from the Bush Administration policies say “to the world out there that this is no longer a war, this is law enforcement. And our most important obligation, responsibility is to read their rights to the people we capture, that we’re going to treat them — we’re going to Mirandize them before we do anything else.”


Actually, the talking point has been part of Cheney’s response to questions about Bush torture for quite some time. For example he said the same thing in an interview with Politico’s John F. Harris, Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei back in February, “When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.”


Perhaps our internet connection was down when President Obama suggested that terrorists captured on foreign soil deserve Miranda Rights. In fact, in response to the Cheney, President Obama made a clear statement to Steve Kroft on 60-Minutes” that he does not believe prisoners of war deserve Miranda Rights. It is more than a little embarrassing that the current President would have to answer such a suggestion coming from such a high level member of his predecessor’s administration.


Bailout Starbucks?

Texas Republican Congressional Representative Jeb Hensarling, does not make it into the national news very often, but he did a couple of weeks ago with a clever sounding question during a hearing with Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. “[The T.A.R.P.] is now being used to aid the automakers, which leads to the question of ‘who’s next?’ The airline industry? The trucking industry? At what point does Starbucks get in line for a bailout?”


Rep Hensarling may not have come to this example completely through his own creativity. Google the words “Bailout Starbucks” and you get a lot of hits. It seems a piece originally written last summer as satire “reporting” that Nancy Pelosi had introduced legislation to bailout Starbucks was quoted in a lot of blogs as if it were news and this has continued to bounce around the blogs and comments on right-wing sites. This one really is a joke, but not everyone who repeats it knows that.


Regulating Bovine Flatulence

All George Stephanopoulos wanted to know in his interview with House Minority Leader, John Boehner on “This Week” a couple of weeks ago was “What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?” a question he repeated several times.


Boehner dodged the question several times. “George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”


Why is the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives talking about cows and what they do? It would seem he is again tapping into a stream of conservative ridicule of the left. Here is the same suggestion in an opinion column by David Harsanyi of the Denver Post.


“You might find the thought of regulating food intake and livestock flatulence a bit bizarre, but hey, if it means saving the Earth, why not? … Since the EPA can now regulate CO2, it can have a say in nearly everything we do with little regard for silly distractions like economic tradeoffs.”


The suggestion of “regulating food intake” is a closely related Straw Man. Harsanyi does not provide a reference other than “the recent story about a group of scientists who are wagging their scrawny fingers at our rotund brothers and sisters for contributing to the planet’s demise by relentlessly stuffing their pudgy faces.” We can assume he is referring to an article in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun (UK) that is linked to by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project Blog and The Drudge Report: “Fatties cause global warming.”   The jump from researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine linking body weight to carbon footprints to anyone in a position of authority in America suggesting regulation of food intake seems to be entirely in the author’s imagination.


The pattern here is well established. As “Trees cause global warming” is replaced by “Cows cause global warming” and then “Fatties cause global warming” casual followers of the news may conclude global warming is not serious, but the leap to the suggestion that liberals in the government want to regulate food intake and cow output amounts to no more nor less than a calculated lie.


This tactic is little different than the repeated false suggestion that illegal immigration is responsible for swine flu, or in the debate about health care reform, Karl Rove’s inability to distinguish between the terms “universal coverage” which Barack Obama supports, and “government run health care” which is not Obama’s plan.


It is a little hard to believe Karl Rove is confused about this when he writes in the Wall Street Journal:   


“From Mr. Obama’s Denver acceptance speech through the campaign, Mr. Obama did not publicly utter the phrase “universal health care.” Instead, his campaign ran ads attacking “government-run health care” as “extreme.”  Now Mr. Obama is asking, as he did at a townhall meeting last month, “Why not do a universal health care system like the European countries?” Maybe because he was elected by intimating that would be “extreme”?


You see, in Washington policy circles “Universal health care” means everybody is covered whether it is through, private insurance they buy themselves, through a plan provided by their employer, or through a government plan. Barack Obama as a candidate and as President has consistently supported the goal of making health care available to all Americans. As candidate and as President he has opposed the idea of replacing all health insurance with one government -run plan. In policy circles this is also known as “single-payer” and in conservative circles as “socialized medicine.”


There are very serious questions to be asked about how to manage the economy away from the brink of disaster, how to deal with the terrorists and others (including some innocents) in captivity in Guantanamo and other off-shore prison camps, what causes global warming and what should be done about it. Clouding every issue with silly suggestions and charges of “socialism” does not help us reach answers to these questions.


As the fictitious President Andrew Shepard says near the conclusion of the Aaron Sorkin penned movie, The American President “We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people to solve them.” Admit it; you want to see that speech again right now don’t you?


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