Nut Picking

I love meta commentary–that's why it's so much fun to read George Will and Charles Krauthammer–that's what they do: they make (usally wrong) observations on the logic of argument.  Well, at least someone is doing it.  For this reason I was glad to run across a phrase close to our heart here, "nut picking."  It appears in a Dave Weigel column in the Washington Post concerning misconceptions about the "Tea Party Movement." 

The tea party is racist.

2. It's a phenomenon that some activists call "nutpicking" — send a cameraman into a protest and he'll focus on the craziest sign. Yes, there are racists in the tea party, and they make themselves known. But tea party activists, in most cases, root them out. Texas activist Dale Robertson, who held a sign comparing taxpayers to "niggars" at a 2009 rally, was drummed out of that event and pilloried by his peers. Mark Williams, formerly the bomb-throwing spokesman for the Tea Party Express (he once told me he wanted to send the liberal watchdog group Media Matters "a case of champagne" for calling him racist), was booted after penning a parody essay that had the NAACP pining for slavery.

Liberal critics of the tea party make the case that conservative opposition to social spending is often racially motivated. That's not new, though, and it's certainly not the basis for the tea party.

"Nut picking" has its origin in a 2006 Kevin Drum post of the Washington Monthly as far as I can tell.  To be precise, it refers to the all-too-common practice of trolling the comments of internet fora–what you humans call "blogs"–for the crazies.  One then alleges that the crazy commentor represents a typical view of the opposition.  Therefore, etc., as the medievals would say.  Real logicians call this practice "weak manning" or more technically, "the selectional form of the straw man."  

Now to be precise again (sorry, it's my job), the claim that the tea party is racist might be justified (badly, let's say) in some instances by nut picking, but it is not the same as nut picking.  Nut picking may be one of the many mechanisms used to produce an unrepresentative sample, upon which one then makes an inductive generalization.   

6 thoughts on “Nut Picking”

  1. John,
    So one similarity between Weigl's charge of nut-picking and weak-man forms of nut-picking is the thought that crazy/stupid sample x is representative of class X.  The important difference is that the former may just be unrepresentative samples of X, while the latter are intentional selections of crazy versions of X (which may or may not be representative).  Does that capture the difference?  Or is there another important element?


    I believe you're saying these aren't unrepresentative samples, yes?  If so, I agree.  Mark Williams' racial views weren't exactly a secret before he was hired – look up his Hurricane Katrina comments.  And what about Tom Tancredo?  Or the hundreds of extremist signs chronicled in blog posts?  Or what about Ryan Murdough?
    Or tea party racial attitudes?’re-lazy/
    The tea party is mostly just the same old social and economic conservatives with a corporate makeover and a love of Glenn Beck. I like some of Weigel's stuff, he's done some solid work, and the article ain't bad. But I don't like it when he tries to whitewash the teabaggers or claim Rand Paul was being "honest" while dodging Rachel Maddow's direct questions.  Not all the tea party crowd are racist, and not all the racists are rabid racists, but racism is a significant element of the movement.  That was the NAACP's critique – 'call out this element in your midst, tea party' – and that accurate criticism was what drew the furious responses from Wiliams and Breitbart.  Weigel didn't really cover the astroturf-corporate funding angle, either.  
    He also writes, as you quoted above:
    Liberal critics of the tea party make the case that conservative opposition to social spending is often racially motivated. That's not new, though, and it's certainly not the basis for the tea party.
    Really?  That sounds like a concession that there's racism, and that's not mediated by it being "not new."  And Santelli's rant was a classic Randian moochers screed. His rant didn't use a lot of racial language (coded perhaps), but other teabaggers, including Williams, have certainly combined Randism with racism.    

  3. Scott–my sense is that nut picking is the deliberate selection of unrpresentative samples–or the deliberate selection of nuts, and the deliberate non interest in non nuts.  So, yes, I think you characterize it correctly. 

  4. Hi Batocchio–

    I think we agree that nut-picking is a bad practice.

    But I think you raise an interesting point about this overall discussion that merit some more discussion.  In particular, accusations of nut picking (or accusations of false general statements) ought to be met with representative samples.  More importantly, it's important to provide clarity on what one means by racism in the first place.  Oddly enough, I think Weigel's portrayal of the racism charge is weak.  Some may claim that the TPs are rabidly racist; but the more serious charges–ones everyone ought to think deeply about, even liberals of course–are the racial and (I'd say) social components to the argument.  So for instance, when Rush Limbaugh, a guy with millions of listeners, complains that the Obama's act like they are "owed" nice things (trips, etc.) on account of America's "slave past" then you don't have to wonder much at all about what he means.   

  5. Yup, defining terms is helpful, and with any charge of nut-picking the best solution would seem to be simply trying to provide representative samples.  The nut may be representative, or not at all.  The nut may represent the far edge of a prevalent attitude.  Also, "Does race play a role in tea party views, and if so, how, and to what extent?" is a better set of questions than "Is the tea party racist?" 

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