Saturday, May 12, 2012


In a fictional setting, I wrote:

    "Strength is an advantage, but not the only advantage. Speed trumps strength, and so does mental agility. You have to have a wide range of tools, and they have to be available all the time. A lot of people who think of themselves as ace fighters have one or two tricks that they use exclusively. Whatever else they might have learned once is gone. If you've got two moves, you can beat anyone who has just one. If he's got two, all you need is three. When I'm done with you, you'll have about a hundred."
    "How many do you have?"
    He smirked. "About a hundred and one."

The context, of course, is (for the purposes of simplification) a martial-arts instructor speaking to a student. But the underlying principle applies with equal force to every other form of human interaction.

There is a caveat. If your opponent's one trick is irresistibly hypnotic -- that is, if it seduces you into responding to it, rather than essaying a move of your own -- his one technique can throw you onto the defensive and keep you there. Very few contests are won by playing only defense.

And so we come to politics.

* * *

Columnist Jonah Goldberg, whose first book Liberal Fascism excited widespread hosannas of praise and hurricanes of denunciation, has repeated his triumph -- perhaps surpassed it -- with his new offering The Tyranny Of Cliches. The book is immensely readable and entertaining. As usual, Goldberg's style is impeccable, and well suited to his subject matter. But infinitely more important than anything else about it, Goldberg has invoked the principle in the segment above and commanded those of us who are serious about freedom to pay attention to it.

The political cliche, as Goldberg puts it, is "a placeholder for an argument not won." This pithy summary is so good that it deserves a place in the Rhetoric Hall of Fame. Let's take a moment to analyze it:

  • placeholder: The cliche occupies a position in a political exchange that implies that it stands for something larger and more complex.
  • argument: An argument, in Western society, is a series of statements that employ objective evidence and logical implication, building to a conclusion that can only be refuted by debunking the evidence or finding a flaw in the logic.
  • not won: The argument (if it ever occurred) for which the cliche is a placeholder either has never been settled to general satisfaction, or was won by the other side!

Clearly, the political cliche, in this view, is a fraudulent tactic: a specimen of rhetoric intended to deceive as it deflects. But then, quite a number of political tactics are intended to do those things. In our amoral age, the question most frequently asked about such a tactic is "Does it work?"

And with that, we return to the caveat in the opening segment of this tirade.

* * *

Exchanges between Left and Right nave never been more vituperative. Argumentative substance has given way to accusations of low motives. Ironically, those who are most strident about those accusations usually possess the lowest motives in the gathering. As Louis Nizer once noted, when a man points an accusing finger, four of his other fingers are pointing back at him. This is tragically commonplace in political exchange.

Consider a few examples:

  • racist: The Left's obsession with race, and with bestowing differential privileges on Americans on the basis of race, should require no further comment.
  • sexist: Instances of the Left's savage misogyny toward women -- especially conservative women -- are beyond counting.
  • homophobe: If we go by the most recent developments, the true homophobes are on the Left: Leftist mouthpieces are forever gay-bashing conservatives, and Leftist politicians are afraid to offend the powerful and well-heeled homosexual lobby.
  • heartless: Usually leveled at persons advocating limited government, this attempts to slide past the corrosive effects of welfare on individuals, their families, and society generally.
  • warmonger: (Alternately: "Violence never solves anything.") The most devastating wars in history have come about because a previous war, launched for good and sufficient reasons, wasn't fought all the way to a genuine conclusion. Concerning the alternate formulation: a comedian whose name I've misplaced noted that "professional, well thought out, competently-executed violence" really does solve a disagreement, because when it's over, "all the other guys are dead."

I consider the responses above to be beyond reasonable dispute. More, virtually everyone on the Right side of the political spectrum knows all the facts required to establish them for himself. So why are the vilifications they refute still so common...and so effective?

Because they're mesmerizing.

When Smith calls Jones a "racist," or any of the other cant words above, Jones's immediate reaction is almost always to defend himself against the charge. This is wrong. Indeed, it collaborates with the charge, for the only "defense" involves accepting Smith's criteria, according to which Jones can never get out of the dock.

The appropriate rejoinder is a full-scale counterattack:

  • Dismiss the cliche;
  • Present a compact argument for the duplicity and villainy of the accuser;
  • Sit back with a satisfied smile and enjoy his sputtering.

The Leftist's use of such vilifications marks him as a one-trick fighter. Anyone not hypnotized into a defensive stance by his cliches can easily defeat him. He doesn't want to argue substance because he can't. He might be an ignoramus. Alternately, he knows the evidence and the logic it supports are against him. Were it otherwise, he would offer a true argument, which is always more persuasive than a slander. Something resembling an actual exchange of ideas would be taking place.

Herein lies the major impact of Goldberg's book.

* * *

One of the critical skills one must master to become a rhetorical black belt is the ability to recognize and comprehend the meta-argument: the landscape of assumptions and rules on which the overt argument is being conducted. If there's an all-important rule embedded in the meta-argument, it would concern whether the contestants are genuinely arguing -- that is, whether they're open to one another's arguments, if adequate -- or are fixed in their positions and merely trying to defeat one another.

In politics, the contestants' positions are almost always fixed. They are perfectly convinced of their positions and determined to prevail. This is the reality of the thing. There's no profit to be had in trying to deny it...and a great deal of latitude available from accepting it.

Blinding Flash of the Obvious Ahead!

If your opponent's position is fixed, you will not convince him of yours. Therefore, if you make convincing him your aim, you have pre-defeated yourself. The effort you put to the contest will be wasted. You will come away weary, disheartened, and with nothing to show for your exertions.

(Do please remember that "obvious" really means "overlooked.")

In such a case, your principal need is to know whether there's any point in having the argument. If there is -- if there's an audience of potentially reachable persons -- then it might be worthwhile. If not, refuse to engage! Ignore the sallies of the Martin Bashirs, the Piers Morgans, the Soledad O'Briens, the Ed Schultzes, and the Chris Matthewses! Ignore invitations from quicksand-filled sinkholes such as MSNBC and NPR! Save your energy and zeal for a time when it does matter.

Knowing whether to enter the arena is a neglected survival skill, quite as much in political interchange as in violent combat.

* * *

In summary:

  • Recognize the "one-trick fighters" of the Left for what they are.
  • Refuse to be hypnotized into a defensive cringe by their slanders.
  • Be fearless about counterattacking -- and be just as personal as the attacks leveled at you.
  • Above all, know who's fencing with you, whether there's any point in replying; it will save you a lot of unnecessary breath and agita.

It's all about who has more moves. Be on the right side of that metric.

1 comment:

lizp said...

"The appropriate rejoinder is a full-scale counterattack:

Dismiss the cliche;
Present a compact argument for the duplicity and villainy of the accuser;
Sit back with a satisfied smile and enjoy his sputtering."

It looks like you might have left off one more: Laugh out loud and walk away.

"Mesmerising" only works on those who are susceptible to such tactics. (But, you already knew that, anyway.)

Excellent piece. The book is at the top of my queue for kindle downloads, too.