Safire on straw men

William Safire was one of the inspirations for this site.  No, not for his semi-erudite columns on language, but rather for the consistent sloppiness of his arguments in his op-ed columns.  He retired from op-ed writing shortly after we started this blog (almost five years ago!), so that was it for him, for us.  But he never stopped writing (so far as I can gather, I don't read it that often) his On Language column for the Sunday Magazine.

Recently he has been a go-to guy on the notion of a straw man, as if his supposed expertise on matters of language makes him a master of critical reasoning.  It obviously doesn't, as the following passage from last week's column will demonstrate:

Accepting the Democratic nomination in a huge football stadium way back in the presidential campaign of ’08, Senator Barack Obama displayed his oratorical talent by using one of his favorite tried-and-true devices in argument: “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country!”

Who was telling him that? To be sure, his opponents were claiming that a Republican administration would be stronger on defense, but nobody was telling him or the voters that Democrats preferred abject surrender. At the time, reviewing that speech, I noted the rhetorical technique: “By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book.”

Encouraged by his reviews for eloquence, President Obama has embraced the straw man frequently (as F.D.R. liked to emphasize it, “again and again and again”) with nary a peep of criticism. Two weeks ago, the Times correspondent Helene Cooper dared to note this president’s repeated use of digs like “I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems.” Some folks, like those who, are never named but are always wrongheaded extremists. Her “White House Memo” was headlined “Some Obama Enemies Are Made Totally of Straw”; its subhead was “Setting them up to have someone to knock down.” Cooper, as the objective reporter, gave examples of conservative politicians who speak straw-manese, although none with such fluency.

I suppose Safire doesn't read the newspaper, listen to speeches, or know how to use google.  A constant theme of Republican arguments in the last two National election cylces has been that the Democrats would not defend this country (see any speech by Dick Cheney–chances are "we'll get hit again").  On top of this, Safire even straw-mans the alleged Obama straw man: Obama said "would not defend" and Safire says "preferred abject surrender."  Those are different.

More basically, Safire doesn't really get what makes a straw man a straw man.  Just because one uses "those who" or "some" does not mean one is using a straw man.  What makes an argument a straw man is the distortion or actual arguments, the selection of really weak and unrepresentative arguments (the weak man), or the whole-cloth invention of silly arguments and non-existent arguers (the hollow man) for the sole purpose of defeating them.  "Some" and "those who" may be a sign of a straw man, but it's not a sufficient condition for one.

3 thoughts on “Safire on straw men”

  1. In formal logic, it only requires a single instance of the existential quantifier to validate such a claim. But it occurs to me that in an informal context like this one must move from the formal “some” (a single) to the more difficult to quantify “A few”, “A representative few”, “Many” etc. The fact that Safire’s complaints fail at even this more restrictive level is rather telling, I should think.

  2. This raises the question of consistency. Do people tend to be more forgiving of rhetorical excesses when it comes from  the boys on your  own team?

    Obama  presents the opposition viewpoint with a lot more fairness and open-mindedness than columnists.  When he mentions a contrary viewpoint, he almost seems to be saying, “let’s seriously consider this position for a moment.”  It’s almost as if he’s acknowledging that the viewpoint has some validity — even if  it’s not entirely accurate. When Bush used straw men, you definitely got the sense he had already made up his mind and was merely sneering at the opinion.

    Let’s be fair to politicians. It is hard to be “always on.”  We should put impromptu speeches in a different category from  scripted ones.  I don’t know about you, but as careful as a writer as I am, I frequently slip into sloppy  tropes in speech and even in my fast and furious blog postings. 24 hour TV tends to exaggerate the use of these sloppy sentences. (I’m glad that you have generally focused on written articles — where the fallacies are more subtle). As little as I respect the right-wing talk show hosts, I also acknowledge that if you talk 3 or 4 hours a day on your talk show and field calls from political wackos, chances are you’re going to say some howlers before you’ve realized what you’ve said. 

    BTW, see my rant about “making no mistake”

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