Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On the Tea Party

I recently read Glenn Beck's book, Common Sense. He trashes Bush, McCain, Clinton, Pelosi, T.R, and Progressives. I agree with many of Beck's ideas re: fiscal responsibility, but he delivers almost all of his ideas in sound bites, using extreme examples. He's the flip side of Al Sharpton, so I'm not surprised that Sharpton and Beck had competing rallies in D.C. on the same day.

At the same time, I get very disappointed when people try to discredit the Tea Party using irrelevant information, such as their alleged funding sources. Below are excerpts from an online discussion I had re: the Tea Party's alleged connection with the libertarian Koch family:

Lawyer: It is really necessary to look behind Beck to see where the money for Beck and the Tea Party is coming from.

Me: I don't approve of ad hominem attacks. I prefer to look at ideas and the people involved in a movement. If you want to discredit the Tea Party, you should refer to polls showing that 50+% of the Tea Party approves of George Bush II. One can't be pro-fiscal responsibility and pro-Bush II.

Also, arguing that the Tea Party movement is bad because of its association with pro-business billionaires is like saying Obama is bad because Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to his campaign, or that Obama is anti-American because of his association with Jeremiah Wright. Lawyers ought to eschew "associational arguments," which divert attention from substantive issues.

Lawyer: I am not sure what you mean by "ad hominem"--I use it to mean an irrelevant fact that has nothing to do with the discussion. Clearly the Tea Party discredits themselves as you point out; just as clearly they are disorganized and we cannot always impute the beliefs of some of them to all of them. BUT we can look at the source of their funding (which goes to all of them) from Fox News to Dick Army to right-wing businessmen. This is the same group that spent millions attacking Clinton and funded the "Whitewater Investigation," as well as the various sexual allegations and the impeachment.

Me: absent an employee or contractor relationship, what direct bearing does someone's funding source have on his/her ideas? For example, I have a blog. If Glenn Beck started paying me 1000 bucks a month to advertise on my blog and diverted traffic to my blog, how does that change the legitimacy or integrity of my ideas? At most, you could argue that my funding sources make it more difficult to criticize my financial backers, but when you also say the Tea Party is "disorganized," you cannot reasonably rely on the "conflict of interest" argument.

Lawyer: Well yes and no. But you did not START your blog with a grant from Glen Beck and yes IF you want to keep getting the money you would have to compromise your principles. And I only say (correctly) that the Tea Party is disorganized because I don't want to say that they are all racist dogs because some of their gun-loving redneck wackos are in fact racists and proud of it. BUT, clearly there is a struggle on the right for control of the Tea Party types. Look at what has happened in Nevada and in Kentucky where the GOP is now controlling the Tea Party and moving it into the mainstream. That is why I look to the money, because money is all about control. The Tea Party gets about 500% more publicity than they deserve. The Media is all hyped up on "change" and anti-incumbent feeling, when in fact reality does not bear that out. The money (and help from Fox in particular) keeps them in the spotlight when an objective analysis would tell they they have very little political power but do have a lot of media and money power. I predict they will die out and/or be irrelevant by this time next year, because the money people will be moving away from the radical right and back into the traditional GOP.

Me: I guess we'll see in a year if you're right about the Tea Party. For the record, I think the Tea Party will eventually become a viable political third party. I, for one, would be happy to see someone break the monopoly of the Republicrats.

Lawyer: You know I hope you are right. I would love to see the U.S with at least three real political parties as in the UK and Canada. I would even more love it see the U.S. with 5 or 6 real parties. The French talk about voting with your heart in the first round and with your head in the second round. I would like that.

Corporate Attorney: I think I agree with "Lawyer" about revealing the source of funding (which, from my understanding, has come in significant amounts from the Koch brothers, two oil billionaires). I don't see this as an ad hominem attack; instead, it is an examination of these ideological leaders.

Entities with large sources of funding their agenda's interests have proven their ability to shape the political discussion in this country. We saw it with the healthcare debate, where many of these people didn't even know why they opposed it, and those who did were factually misinformed about specifics of the bill (recall "death panels", "jailtime for lack of insurance", "it's socialism!", "keep government hands off my Medicare!", etc etc.). To me, the fact that this opposition grew so large is not because of the factual nature of the claims, its because of the big money behind the claims. This impacts our democracy. I don't mean that we should criminally go after these financial backers, but they should be exposed.

Another example is the ability to get such large numbers of the lower 95% of income earners to advocate the interests of the upper 5% of earners when it comes to taxation. I don't believe this is coincidence, I believe that it comes from the scripts handed down by the financial backers of this movement.

I think exposing the influence behind the Tea Party message is important to exposing the lies and insincerity as well. Just my opinion.

Me: any argument that relies on showing your opponent lacks free will and is being led on by the nose will fail to convince the other side and will harden your opponent's stance. The only thing such an "argument" will accomplish is to make the proponent of the "argument" feel better and self-satisfied about his own position. The inefficacy and counter-productiveness of charging someone with special interest bias instead of arguing the merits of his position is why lawyers (and gentlemen) should avoid making subtle ad hominem attacks.
Corporate Attorney: I don't propose that this financing is a negation of arguments that have merit. I propose that it is an exposure of the sources of misinformation and lies. Also, I don't believe that many of the Tea Party movement is actually going to be convinced by a discussion that is founded upon logic and facts. I personally don't believe that many of them (not all, of course) are sincerely expressing their motives. I believe many of these people are the same people who were chanting "TERRORIST!" "KILL HIM!" "N-WORD!", etc at the McCain rallies. They simply found a home, and continue this type of attack under the guise of "issues".

I don't say this as an ad hominem attack, I say this because I am unable to debate such claims as "death panels", the "bill pays for illegals", "there will be jailtime for those who don't buy insurance", "Obama is a Muslim", the birther movement, etc. I strongly believe all of these movements are connected by their sources of funding. Its not cheap to make a substantial part of America believe that a man who sat in a Christian church for 20 years, whose "spiritual mentor" was a Christian, married a Christian woman, baptized his children Christians and eats swine is a Muslim (I guess the larger question is "so what if he is? Is it a crime?"). This takes a lot of money.

Again, to me the source of money is more about finding the source of misinformation, which cannot be debated beyond demonstrating those facts to be false (although the message is usually lost by that time, see ACORN and Sherrod videos), it's more about finding the source of propaganda and misinformation.

Me: stupid people exist in every movement and in every large group. You cannot discredit an entire movement or large group by pointing to the idiots in the group. To do so is like arguing that Islam and all Muslims are evil because of the 9/11 hijackers, or all Jews are dishonest because of Madoff, i.e., specious and irrational.

Most reasonable people understand that it is unfair to ascribe the idiocy of some members of a group to the entire group. Thus, until you can prove that a majority of Tea Party members believe that Obama is a Muslim, etc. you are merely speculating, and speculation has no place in an honest, fair discussion.

The Philosopher: Nonetheless, there is no more valid directive in politics than to "follow the money." Following the money leads to the conclusion that the "Tea Party" is far from a spontaneous uprising of grassroots citizens; in fact, It is as clear as an example of Astroturfing as you'll find.

Koch-financed "Americans for Prosperity" delivered 40 busloads of "independent protesters" to Washington, D.C. for a march. Note especially the signs the paid staffers made for their passengers to carry, bearing AFP slogans, made with a media producer's knowledge of how colors and letters will appear on camera and (better yet) handprinted so as to lend to the illusion that an angry citizen made it rather than a PR flack. Best line is the AFP PR rep to his "protestors": "We've got donuts and everything for you guys!" (Note also that this is only AFP buses; this doesn't include all of the crowds that were bused in by Dick Armey's "FreedomWorks," also originally funded by the Koch brothers.

Of course, this is nothing new. During the Clinton era, billionaire industrialist Richard Mellon Scaife spent hundreds of millions in his efforts to destroy the Clintons, with such allegations as Hillary murdered Vince Foster after a liaison at their secret love nest, then had his body dumped in a park and framing it as a suicide because Foster "knew too much;" that the Clintons' Christmas tree was decorated with cocaine spoons, that Clinton personally oversaw cocaine smuggling from Nicaragua to a small airport in Arkansas, and of course let's not forget the Whitewater investigation, etc.

There is no doubt many Americans are sympathetic to the "Tea Party" cause, but they must realize that there really *is* no "Tea Party." It's Astroturf, and it's brilliantly evil Astroturf at that: it convinces a certain type of poor and middle class Archie Bunker/Joe Sixpack American to rage in the streets for fear that the Republic will be destroyed and America crumble into a pre-1989 Eastern European Communists concrete wasteland, should the multimillionaires and multibillionaires funding the "Tea Party" be subject to a 2% tax increase (which is *still* less than the rate the ultrawealthy paid under Ronald Reagan.)

Me: all you've done is portray the Tea Party's arguments in the least nuanced, least flattering light possible in order to knock them down. This is called "making strawmen." Anyone can do it.

As for the idea that Tea Party members are willing to accept the support of PR people, what does that have to do with the substance of their beliefs or opinions? Are you saying that if I let a rich woman tell me what to wear to a party, the opinions I share at the party are somehow automatically invalid? Aren't you being just as bad as Glenn Beck by not evaluating the Tea Party's arguments on their merits and by painting the other side in the worst possible light?

The Philosopher: The invective has grown so fierce (...and I'm as guilty as anyone!) that it's rare to find room for reasonable discussion of politics and policy. And it is all too easy to scream at the TV and extrapolate the beliefs of those we've never met, be they hippie or redneck or centrist; that hurts us all.

I know what you mean about ad homs and strawmen. I wish we could conduct the nation's business in the manner of Atticus Finch, but I fear we're doomed now to live in a Karl Rove world, where anger, volume, and specious/falsified data rule the day.

It's so hard to rely on reason, especially when there is so much rage. If we are to survive, ultimately, then reason must again supplant that rage. We all have souls, we all hunger, and we all thirst; what unites us is greater than that which divides us...

I don't like using absolutes, but there really *are* no merits to Tea Party arguments. It's just a yet more populist redo of Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz' "Contract with America" of 1994. It's a new veneer on Reaganite trickle-down economics, now newly repackaged as tri-cornered hat/puffy shirt/Gadsden flag cosplay for those who really know absolutely no history of the Founders beyond out-of-context quotes trumpeted on FreeRepublic, Drudge, FOX, e-mail chain letters, et. al. Beck is the single worst offender. He fetishizes the Founders, so much so that he appropriates the "Common Sense" title from Thomas Paine, then devotes over half of "his" book to a reprinting of it. This pads his book out like a high school kid looking to stretch out a term paper while simultaneously wrapping himself in the cloak of the Founders. And hey, it doesn't hurt profits that Paine's work is in the public domain.

Another example: consider healthcare. 17 years ago we were told by a massive, extremely well-funded alliance of insurance corporations and Gingrich Republicans that Clinton's "pay or play" health plan was the dark, wicked heart of socialism that would cause America to crumble into ash; the Republican alternative at that time was the "Individual Mandate," or requiring every American to purchase private health insurance.

So, now in 2010 we've passed the 1993 Republican plan, but now the right has redefined it as the road to serfdom.

A professor of mine once played us Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" from Woodstock. After the song, the professor told us in his calm and measured manner, "The Vietnam protestors were right. It was a pointless and unwinnable war. But you don't win people to your cause by telling them they are a bunch of schmucks." That was a moment of great clarity for me.

And yet, it's hard to see the vast majority of the Tea Party crowd as anything but [schmucks]. They believe their income taxes have gone up under "that socialist Obama," when in fact they've gotten a tax cut. They decry spending a few hundred million repairing American roads and bridges that have been been neglected for decades, but multiple trillions of dollars spent on fabricated, counterproductive wars in which thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqs/Afghans are killed don't even cause them to bat an eyelash. They blame Obama for TARP, when it was a Bush initiative, and the root of the problem was Sen. Phil Gramm's 1998 repeal of New Deal banking laws (signed by Clinton) which had prevented such a crash for over 60 years. Less than ten years after the deregulation, the financial system suffered its 2008 crash and the American taxpayer was put on the hook for $2 trillion; and yet Obama, who would not take office for another 4 months, is blamed.

How can you employ reason with people who not only lack it, but are scornful of it as an academic affectation? The Tea Party has nothing but anger. It's no different than the 10-15% that backed George Wallace in 1968, or (even more accurately) that 20% Ross Perot garnered in 1992 and 12% in 1996. Remember how Perot pledged that "restoring America" was now his life's calling, and though (of course) it had nothing to do with him as an individual, he would now fund his dream, the "U-nited We Stand, America" 3rd party, in perpetuity? He's been MIA for 14 years now.

Nonetheless, I hope you're right about the Tea Party becoming a valid 3rd party. This will cause a crucial portion (10%-15%?) of the Conservative base to slip away from the Republicans, thus ensuring that more reasoned voices will direct the debate. I know it's rude and wrong to paint this subset of the electorate as dimwits, but frankly they've done nothing to convince us otherwise. Being purely pragmatic about it, I wish them well, because the Republicans who have exploited their allegiance for the past 30+ years cannot win on a national level without them.

Insofar as knocking over strawmen, many strawmen need to be knocked over! A better description might be "knocking over scarecrows," scarecrows erected at great expense by self-interested Titans of Finance in order to scare people into voting in direct opposition to their own best interests. If they are kept in a constant state of fear ("socialism!" "czars!" "illegal Mexicans!" "anchor babies!" "terror babies!" "they hate us for our freedom!" "terrorists!" "Social Security is bankrupt!" "liberals!" "taxes!" "mushroom clouds over Washington and DC!" "yellowcake uranium!" "flag-burning!" "weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we know exactly where!", et cetera, ad nausea) they won't notice they've been screwed ten ways to Sunday, and then vote for the very people who whipped them into the paranoiac frenzy in the first place under the guise of "we'll keep you safe."

Public Defender: Bush, McCain, Clinton, Pelosi, T.R. (seriously, he trashed Teddy Roosevelt, the president who gave us the national parks?), the Progressives. So everyone is wrong except for Beck. I'm sure that's accurate.

Me: if Beck believes that Congress is inefficient and corrupt, it's not unreasonable for him to blame everyone there.

The Techie: a public figure's funding is not entirely an ad hominem argument. If the argument is that someone is receiving money because it is good for those giving the money, that is not a logically flawed argument.

"Follow the money" is valid for politicians as no one gives them money for nothing. There is always a trade or expectation of support for any sufficiently large expenditure.

For instance, if several senators are supporting an "environmental" bill but are being payed large sums by big oil, it is not logically flawed to assume you need to dig deeper into the real effects of said legislation, and that it might not be what it seems, despite their arguments being sound.

The same logic applies to those who make their money off being a public personality such as Beck and Limbaugh. For instance Beck makes a lot of arguments which on the surface seem non secular but are very much aimed at promoting specific religious ideals.

Me: I agree Glenn Beck doesn't respect separation of church and state, but why not discuss his ideas directly? Examining someone's funding sources may reveal conflicts of interest, but alleging a conflict of interest is not an argument. At most, it's like character evidence, i.e., making a personal attack, which draws attention away from the content of his ideas.

The Philosopher: The larger question is "how do you employ reason, measure, and balance with those who would seem to lack all three?"

If they are not willing to return mutual civility and insist on clinging to obvious fabrications (birth certificate conspiracy theories,) what is their due in public discourse?

Obama has to his infinite credit remained Lincolnian.

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