Monday, October 27, 2008

Discussion, or Demagoguery?

In my most recent post, I shared a letter that I had written to my parents and close friends endorsing Barack Obama for president. I got a lot of positive feedback about the letter, especially from my friends, including one person who remains "on the fence" and found it persuasive. A number of my friends sent it around to THEIR friends, which is gratifying. I'll be happy if it helps to convince even one person to choose Obama over McCain.

From my family, I got a variety of responses. My younger brother sent me a private email saying simply "I'm wid ja Bro!". Very glad to hear that. My older brother never responded. (Typical.) My mother also wrote privately to say that she's leaning toward Obama (Yay!) and that she appreciated receiving my thoughts. (Mom is definitely an "independent" in her political leanings, having voted in the past for both George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. The fact that she's leaning Obama says a lot about the campaign Barack has been running in comparison to that of McCain.)

My mom's sister responded with a very nice familial email in which she said that she and my uncle "will vote for the Republican candidate because we just cannot support Obama. If the polls are correct, he may well be our next President, but not because of our vote. Let’s hope the better man wins and can turn around this trend toward an economic abyss our country is heading for." The "just cannot support Obama" part is a bit vague, although I suspect it has to do with Obama's position on a woman's right to choose an abortion, since they are pretty strongly Catholic. I hope it's not because Obama isn't white.

My father (who has been divorced from my mother for 20 years) responded to "all" (that is, all family, not my friends, who were BCC'd), taking advantage of my "public" endorsement to argue publicly and vociferously against Obama and for a conservative viewpoint. He included at the end an exchange that he and my younger brother had been having, and responded to both of us.

You have to understand that my father has in all likelihood NEVER voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. His strongly Republican views come through loud and clear in his response. Indeed, I think one could say that he epitomizes the secular right-wing viewpoint on most issues.

Here's his email, which is as classic a statement of conservative political views as there ever was:
First, I lean to the right because I believe in human rights and the belief that our Constitution upholds those rights. I believe fully in the Bill-of-Rights and will vehemently fight to preserve them, especially the right to speak freely and the right to carry arms, both of which the left is against - more on that later. This discussion couldn't take place in most countries. This discussion doesn't take place in the leftist parlors either because the left is aligned with socialist principles; meaning, more government, more regulation, and more "spreading the wealth."
[I am not really sure what "socialist" has to do with the absence of free speech, but there it is.]
Second, I lean to Republicans because of what I said with the First reason. Most Republicans support free speech. Democrats do not! Democrats want to pass the "Fairness Doctrine" This is a great sounding bill that has a communist undercurrent to control the free press as well as the "free" radio and TV media. The Doctrine says that all media that is licensed by the Federal Government MUST present the issues fairly and evenly to all points of view. This means that: Unless the Federal Government approves of what is said on a TV or radio station, it can shut the station down or fine it severely until it complies with what Government feels is fair or that it presents it's point of view. Also most Democrats want gun control. There are great arguments for controlling the issuing of licenses for carrying guns and I concur with most of those, but the kind of argument that will take guns, of any kind, away from private citizens is not OK. The Courts overturning of the gun control in Washington DC was a victory for the Constitutionalist and the Right-wing.
[Of course, Obama also supported the recent decision regarding the Washington DC gun-control law, although he believes that stronger measures need to be taken to remove illegal guns from the hands of criminals.]
Third, - the economy: I firmly believe in laissez-faire capitalism. I know, we have never had a fully capitalistic economy; government has not allowed it to happen. Anytime a company has become "too" successful because of its so called "greed" the congress has reeled the company in by overtaxing it or brought it's executives before a left leaning congressional committee to ask it to explain its profits. Folks, please, I appeal to you, it is precisely because of profits that have helped this country to grow to the stature it has today in the world. I give you China - most people don't know that the tremendous growth over the last few years in China is because the communist regime understands the principles of Capitalism and has poured all company's profits, (that's right, I said all,) back into the companies and into China's economy. Obama does not understand that and McCann does.
[My dad misspells McCain's name consistently. That's okay...he often misspells MY name. In this last paragraph we see very clearly that my Dad has a black/white view of political issues. If you don't believe in laissez-faire capitalism, you don't believe in profits. And Chinese capitalism--hardly laissez-faire!--is good regardless of the human rights issues that might be involved.]
Since the bailout was passed by a Congress bought with "Pork," and Obama has promised to "Spread the Wealth," the "Market" has taken a nosedive. Investor's belief in our economy is at an all-time low. Is that because of the Bush policies? I think not. I think, as long as Obama is ahead in the polls, the Market will not improve, and, I believe that if Obama gets in office, we are in for a very, very long recovery, especially when he gets his tax plan passed to increase taxes in all categories, in an unopposed Congress, especially capital gains. Folks - we do not need more taxes, anywhere, in this economy - taxes of any kind will kill any economic growth. Also, the World Markets stand to lose as well, because of the Democrat's position on trade protectionism.
[Evidence that the stock market decline is due to Obama's lead in the polls? None...but here it is taken as prima facie evidence. Did Obama promise to "Spread the Wealth"? Well, yes, he did, and it's been taken as proof of a secret agenda.]
Fourth, trust: I do not know Obama. Craig, I know that you have a personal relationship with Obama and I'm sure that the liberal circles you live and breath in has tainted your perception of him, yes, I said tainted, I didn't want to use brain-washed. Your appeal to us to accept your perception of him, by your leftist views, just doesn't appeal to me. I do not know Obama, but I DO NOT trust him, or his judgment. I agree with Biden that he will be tested and I don't trust his instincts to do the right thing for this country. I don't want to place our economy in the hands of someone that has said that he "wants to redistribute the wealth." This does not represent, to me, a fresh approach for America. This is not the kind of "change" I want. It's the Hoover, FDR, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and our present congress with tax increases, New Deals, Great Societies, all of which have never made this country better economically or improved our stature in the world. You can, as every Obama supporter does, blame the present administration for all of our present troubles in the economy, but if you're a student of placing the blame, your argument doesn't hold any weight. If you are open to learn where the blame really lies, it always turns up with the Democrats and their "Great" plans to help the poor and the "little" people and raise the taxes on those who earn their money by being creative and working hard.
[Wow. "Tainted." When I called him on this in a response, he offered this: "I'm sorry I called you tainted. You're not a piece of rotten meat. I wish I knew of a better word to describe our "Liberal" education system beyond high school. Persuaded? Brain-washed? Hammered with principals that teaches you that the "individual" is not as important as the "collective." That corporations are essentially and inherently bad and do evil things. That the word "Capitalism" is not something that is good in it's principals. That there is some good in everything - that somehow you can find charity within a dictatorship, that somehow a system that is based on socialist values is good for me and America. That the lower class of people (liberals definition, not mine) are needy and that as long as we continue to take from the wealthy and give to the needy, it's OK. Your generation and newer now have the idea that you deserve a hand out from the government.

[Again, it's the black/white thinking. Because I think "laissez-faire capitalism" is a myth--even he admitted it's never happened--I think "capitalism is not something good"?!?! That I'm willing to find good in many different forms of government, I "somehow find charity within a dictatorship". And I "deserve a handout from the government"!!!?! What?]
Fifth, being an American first: Obama says that he is a Citizen of the World. What does that mean to me? It means that he isn't going to put America first. He says that the symbol of the American Flag in the "World's" eyes has negative connotations and he doesn't wear it for that reason. I will not vote for a man or woman that doesn't feel that it is their patriotic duty to salute or show off the American Flag as a symbol of Freedom and the American dream and ideal. I will never put my well-being and my trust in someone that doesn't feel that America is their country to defend and to uphold in every situation. Craig says that he is: "Barack is as pro-American as any American." I believe that it is precisely why nations hate us; it's because of the freedoms we give our citizens and the way we continue to promote freedom wherever we can. It is the socialist governments and it is the Islamic ideals that wish to crush America and what we stand for. It is the countries that have a slightly higher growth rate in the population of Muslims that hate America. Radical Islamist are very active in those countries where they reside to move the rest of the population to hate America. (I wish I had the time to place my references in this.)
[Wow. we go from Obama is a "citizen of the world" to hating America. Again, there's no subtlety here.]
I, like Craig, hope all of you vote. But, unlike Craig, I want you to vote for the Republican ticket. I want my Grandchildren to have choices in their future. The problem is: our children are being taught that the government will provide them a free lunch which is what Obama is offering. I want children to have the freedom to chose whatever they want and to be taught to assume responsibility for their own welfare. I believe that it's governments responsibility to protect us, providing an environment to succeed at whatever we want to pursue within the cover that our Constitution provides us.
Like you Craig, I have studied the issues from both the left and the right, not for a few months, but for most of my adult life. I must admit to leaning to the right in my thinking, but only because it serves my views on politics and the way I want to leave this country for my Grandchildren. I must say that the McCann' ticket doesn't excite me very much and I wish that there was a real conservative running against Obama for a clearer choice. I will vote for McCann, however, because he is a Neo Conservative and will make the correct choices in foreign policy. (see my take on the neocons below in [your brother's] email thread.)
My Dad and I went back and forth on a few of these issues in a few more emails, but never really got anywhere. I tried to argue that "liberal" means--in part--understanding that any viewpoint on any topic reflects the particular perspective of those who take it, and that we should recognize that one can hold positions at various points on the political spectrum and still be "pro-America," and that progressive taxation isn't "socialism." But I should have realized it was all for naught: my Dad wasn't going to change his views, and I wasn't going to change mine.

Meanwhile, my dad's sister chimed in in response to his first long email. This aunt lives in a rural southern state, where she has embraced what I (being the urbane liberal that I am) might call a rural southern mentality. Her input takes on a different flavor from my father's, because she doesn't discuss core political issues:
Very well said my brother! I could not have stated my position any better.
Craig, I have to agree with my brother. He has stated my views, feelings about this election very well. I acknowledge that you "know" Barak [sic] Obama and that you apparently circle the same "neighborhoods". But my gut does not trust the man. The issues that [my brother] has mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg for me. There is something that gut wrenches me every time I hear the man speak that tells me he is not ringing true. He is very eloquent in stating his agenda in a way that says to me he is trying to make me believe that he is on my side and all will be well, but my gut tells me that it is not all above board. Why will he not come forth with all the documents that the public has asked for?? I cannot put trust in a person that will not show all that is asked of him. If he has nothing to hide, why doesn't he provide the birth certificate, college records and medical records that have been asked of him? He blames everything on the present administration - what about the Democratic congress that has been in "power" the last four years??
I will close for now, since [my brother] has stated my beliefs very well. I do not trust Obama, I do not agree with his agenda or ideas, and I do not feel he has the judgement needed to lead America and make the right decisions for America in the global theater presently or the future. He will be tested and he has NOTHING to help him, including his party.
I will vote for the Republican ticket. I do not agree with and cannot support the left wing Democratic Party. I pray that Americans will wake up and really hear what Obama is offering before they vote for him.
Sigh. Here, we have something more than political disagreement. We have "gut wrenches" that tap deeply into emotional undercurrents. Perhaps it's fear; perhaps it's anti-intellectualism; perhaps it's a deep distrust of people who appear to be rootless; perhaps it's racism. One cannot tell. In any case, this aunt isn't really considering whom to vote for; she "knows" intuitively, and isn't interested in the issues.

But what really caught my attention here was the innuendo. She asks "why doesn't he provide the birth certificate....that [has] been asked of him." I hadn't heard that Obama hadn't provided his birth certificate. So I did a little research. I discovered that yes, on June 13, 2008, the Obama campaign had released his birth certificate, but that this did not satisfy many on the right, who want to believe that Obama is really a Muslim, or an Arab, or was really born in Kenya, or Indonesia, and that somehow if he became president he would be illegitimate because he wasn't born in the United States.

It's quite amazing, really, this speculation. Go ahead, do the Google search. In addition to the and refutations of this speculation, and the St. Petersburg Times' detailed investigation of the authenticity of the birth certificate that the campaign provided (more here), you get all sorts of claims about how it is an "absolute forgery" because, again entirely speculatively, it appears to have been printed on a laser printer, and doesn't show a signature or seal, and includes the word "African" under "Father's Race" when clearly (!) Obama's father was an "Arab."

So I read through some of this stuff, and sent an email back to my aunt (copying everyone in the family) saying that in fact Obama HAD released his birth certificate and it had been found to be authentic by a variety of investigations, and that this allegation undermines the credibility of anyone who uses it as a "reason" for not supporting Obama. I even included an image of the released birth certificate.

My aunt, not too surprisingly, didn't respond to that email. (I think she just finds my responses to be liberal rants.) My Dad responded with this:
There are some who say [emphasis mine] that this birth certificate is not real. That it was/is produced on a modern laser printer which did not exist in 1961, and why is the certificate # blacked out - what's to hide here? This appeared on the LA Times Blog. Obama didn't produce this as required. I'm not saying that he must personally produce it, but it's odd that when he registered to become President two years ago that he didn't produce it then or was asked to produce it. This is all conjecture on my part [emphasis mine] because I don't have first hand knowledge of whether this is Obama's Birth Certificate. Problem is, no one else knows for sure that it is either.
BTW, Obama's mother - was she a US citizen the required number of years to produce a natural born American child. Does anyone know? I do know that Obama's father was Kenyan, an Arab [!!!}, not African as the certificate says. Is Africa a country; I thought it was a continent?
Wow. "There are some who say" and "All conjecture on my part"--but he's going to make the allegation anyway. "Arab"?!??!? What? So, I responded with some specifics:

The more you and your sister talk about this, the less credibility you have. Indeed, it merely serves as evidence that you will believe anything as long as it serves to buttress your political beliefs.

Why would the candidate of a major political party base the legitimacy of his campaign and possible [i wrote "pregnancy" here, but clearly meant "presidency"] on a lie that could be EASILY disproved through medical records?!??!?!

Since I have been taught to use evidence to back up my claims, here’s some proof:

I already sent you the Snopes link, which debunks this myth. Did you read it?

How about this one:

About Our Mission “We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit "consumer advocate" for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.”

And Obama’s father was African, NOT an Arab.

“Arab, Arabian (a member of a Semitic people originally from the Arabian peninsula and surrounding territories who speaks Arabic and who inhabits much of the Middle East and northern Africa)”

Obama’s father was Muslim, but not Arab. He was a member of a Kenyan tribe, the Luo. “They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family spoken by other Luo-speaking peoples such as the Lango, Acholi, Padhola and Alur (all of Uganda).”

They don’t speak Arabic. And Kenya isn’t in Northern Africa.

So Obama’s father was African.

As you MAY know, demographic categories are ARBITRARY for the most part. Who decides, for example, whether a person is “Hispanic,” or “latino,” or “Caucasian.” Obama’s mother filled out the form for the birth certificate in 1961 and said Obama’s father was “African.” (She probably felt strongly that he wasn’t a “black,” or “negro,” or “coloured” person, because he wasn’t an American. He was an African student.) The Hawaii Department of Health accepted that designation.

Obama’s campaign released his birth certificate on June 13, 2008. It LOOKS just like other Hawaiian birth certificates of the time. These articles discuss the fact-checking done by one organization on this issue.

READ these articles!!!!! Or, frankly, stop spouting off about this ridiculous issue as if it IS an issue.

Now, I understand that someone who doesn't really care about "evidence" such as this would find this email to be perhaps heavy-handed: piling it on. After all, quoting all these sources might simply indicate a tenaciously adamant attitude rather than a careful consideration of facts. In theory, after all, someone who was arguing on the other side might offer a similar pile of evidence. This being the case (one might say), why should we pay any attention to this at all?!??!

So how did my dad respond?
Let's agree to disagree about the importance of the birth certificate issue. I'm sure any source that you come up with will, in your mind, support your feelings on this, and visa-versa.

now let's talk about the issues.
Oh. My. God. So, rather than either offer his own evidence, or concede that my evidence is compelling, or even admit that the initial speculation was wrong, my dad basically accuses ME of being willing to accept any evidence at all. I was furious. Rather than respond right away, knowing that my anger might cause me to say something I would regret, I decided to sleep on it. (Not that I slept well...interspersed in wierd dreams about my friend Willie and a Ford Mustang, it kept coming back into mind.)

So, this morning, I wrote the following:
So, this is the way it is, huh? You throw around speculative bullshit about Obama being not what he says he is. I supply evidence that he IS what he says he is.

Rather than supplying any evidence at all that your spurious allegations are correct—and rather than even RESPONDING to my evidence or even trying to deflect it—you accuse ME of “accepting any source” and refuse to engage the issue. (This, despite the fact that I spent an hour finding the best evidence I could find…..and even supplied credentials of one of the organizations involved.)

Dad, that’s not political discussion or argument. That’s demagoguery.

I quit.
Before I sent this, I wanted to be sure I wasn't using "demagoguery" incorrectly. So, I typed "define demagoguery" into Google. Basically, demagoguery refers to an approach to political speech that emphasizes the emotions and passions of the mob, rather than rational discussion of issues. (See also Wikipedia article.) There are all sorts of methods that count as demagoguery, including mixing apples and oranges, using half-truths, citing false authority, creating a false dilemma, demonization, straw man, loaded questions, unrelated facts, emotional appeal, and personal attack.

My father's response was demagoguery in several of these senses (false authority, loaded questions, half-truths), but primarily because of its use of speculative innuendo (an indirect or subtle, usually derogatory implication in expression; an insinuation).

My father's response to this last email was somewhat gracious, but also predictably weaselly. Rather than respond to "all" (as we had been doing all along), he responded privately to me, and wrote:
I'm sure that your sources are credible, just as I'm sure that anything I throw back at you will be completely baseless and unfounded. This discussion between us isn't unique. It's been going on for ages and ages. Your responses to a conservative viewpoint aren't new and refreshing to a conservative. The arguments that we've had aren't winnable and neither side will ever seem reasonable. Only the votes will tell.

The main reason I responded to your first email was because you found it in your heart to tell our whole family what's best for them and how they should vote and how deeply you felt that a vote for McCain would be a waste and "wrongminded."
[Um, I don't think I used that word.}
Craig, I love you. You're bright and a great family man and I'm sure that your students really get a fine education from you. But, you're also a college liberal, through and through, and I never expected anything from you other than what you did and said. It's just that I don't like the fact that liberals think that they know what's best for the average American and that they will provide for them with governments help and my tax dollars. ---- The poor have been voting for the Democrats forever because of promises made - they're still poor.

I'm through too. This has been a rigorous experience for me and very tiring. I'm not a natural writer and these responses have taken hours and hours to formulate and write. ( even this little note has taken me more than an hour and I haven't had breakfast yet!) But, I don't regret having done it. It's shown me that my convictions are strong and on the mark. And it's shown me how much your convictions (though wrongminded :) are strong and that you stick up for what you believe.

Please don't be angry with me, my son. As you are, I'm just sticking up for my convictions.


PS: I'm sorry about the birth certificate response; it wasn't fair, and it was sort of "demagoguery" wasn't it? Personally, I wasn't going to bring up the issue with the birth certificate anyway, but [my sister] said something and you responded. My response was trying to just push the issue aside and get on with the real issues, not "refuse to engage the issue."
So, there we have it. Demagoguery admitted, "sort of." But privately. My dad won't say this to everyone. And, rather than concede anything at all about my argument, he closes the discussion with a last dig at me, a "college liberal, through and through," who (even though he can't cite any evidence of this other than his own feelings that I'm condescending to his point of view), believes (again, by implication, not evidence) "that [I] know what's best for the average American and that [I] will provide for them with governments help and [your] tax dollars."

I guess the moral of this story is one of two things.

1. It's not only impolite but impolitic to discuss politics (or religion) with your family members (but see)


2. Never try to argue an ideologue out of his firm convictions. At the end of the day, ideologies aren't about evidence (also here); they are about a person's entire World View.

This latter point applies as much to me, as to my dad.

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