Weapons of mass distraction

Sometimes op-ed writers in the major dailies opt out of arguments altogether. Such was the case–as far as we could tell–this weekend. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post even admitted that he was too tired of arguments to make any. Props to Cohen, for we might have squandered precious time pointing out that fact. But we didn’t have to look far–as far as John Leo’s column in US News in fact–for our daily sustenance of nonsense in the guise of intelligible discourse.

In discussing Thomas Frank’s recent book What’s the matter with Kansas? Leo poses the following question:

Frank is stupefied that abortion, evolution, and gay marriage are major political issues and that 80 percent of the state’s voters backed George W. Bush in 2000. Why are they wasting their voting power on cultural and social issues instead of pursuing their own self-interest?

In answering this question for Frank, Leo illustrates for us the beguiling rhetorical technique of attempting to distract the reader with the powerful odor of a urine-scented cross:

Part of the problem is that liberals who focus sharply on economics tend to have no feel for noneconomic issues that so many of us care deeply about. Right at the start of his book, Frank cites the controversy (which he apparently considers stupid) over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ: “because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” But “the hicks” had a point: Alleged art that traduces religion was now supported and often funded by the same sensitive people who quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians, or women. A new value system was descending on the culture. And under that system, not only were prayers disappearing from the schools (a good idea, in my opinion), but student valedictory speeches that included a line of praise for God were being censored, and small schoolchildren, asked to draw a picture of anyone they admired, were being reprimanded if they drew Jesus.

Leo supports his analysis of the liberals’ (a silly unsupported generalization repeated throughout the piece) lack of rural cultural sensitivity with a series of extreme examples that have nothing to do with the orignal issues mentioned–abortion, evolution, and gay marriage–and everything to do with shocking us into agreement. Since Leo clearly disagrees with Frank’s argument–that Kansans ignore their own economic self-interest and vote instead on social issues on account of hickdom–he should stick to the social issues in question, rather than charging the fictitious liberals with hyprocisy (the ones who “quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians, or women”) and distracting us with peripheral and largely undocumented (save the explicit reference to Andres Serrano)episodes from the culture wars of the 90’s. One might even reasonably claim that these hyberbolic examples have nothing to do with abortion and gay marriage (which are not art forms or otherwise required at school graduations) and evolution (which is not a moral issue, but has everything to do with high school graduation).

Assuming that we’ve been wholly distracted by the urine-scented cross and the removal of Jesus portraits from admiring religious youngsters, Leo completes his shift to “morality” (again–evolution?). Putting himself inside the head of the clueless liberal, Leo argues:

The left usually chalks this up to fear of change, hardening arteries, racism, or some other insulting cause.

But that’s ridiculous! Not everyone in Kansas suffers from arteriosclerosis! And indeed they do not. Nor would anyone seriously hold the moldly straw man of an argument Leo attributes to the left.

But not content with the ineffective but sneaky reverse straw man, Leo employs the more straightforward tactic of oversimplifying, exaggerating, and ridiculing peripheral positions of one’s argumentative opponent:

But the real reason is that ordinary Americans no longer feel that they can transmit their culture to their young–the schools and media make that almost impossible now. (One indicator is the home-schooling movement, which includes 1.1 million children, a number sure to keep rising.) The multicultural and universalist side of the new morality undercuts community and mocks patriotism. America and the West, we are told, are nothing to be proud of, merely entrenched systems of domination. The courts increasingly reflect the law-school culture, which is nearly as one-sided as the campus culture.

The fact that there might exist someone who holds this panoply of views does not do anything to make its attribution to the “left” any less ridiculous and irresponsible. This argument, with its irrelevant evidence and its unsupported generalizations about campus and law-school culture, compounded with the previous argument’s National Endowment for the Arts’ funded distraction, make for first class logical balderdash.

So much ink has been spilled in the service of the defeat of outlandishly fictitious opponents by stealth weapons of mass distraction.