Generalizing from Novak’s Hurt Feelings

Source: (ChST 09/09/04): Robert Novak argued last week that the protesters at the Republican National Convention “represented[ed] a disturbing new development in the nation’s politics: hatred in the streets.”

His justification of this claim is worth considering. It takes three forms:

  1. Anecdotal Evidence
  2. Tim Carney, a reporter for this column, got a taste of that last Thursday night as he left the Garden. He was wearing a three-piece suit and presumably was mistaken for a delegate by a young woman, who yelled at him: ”Get out of New York!” She added to Carney, a native New Yorker: ”You don’t belong here!”

    Individual marchers singled out any person they thought might be a convention delegate, firing off angry, often obscene, denunciations. The streets of Manhattan were not pleasant for anyone foolish enough to wander around wearing a convention badge.

  3. Generalizations:
  4. The organized demonstrations were purely negative, attacking George W. Bush with scant expression of support for John Kerry.

    The irrational loathing expressed daily on the Internet by passionate, though poorly informed, bloggers was transferred into the streets.

    This last quote is an interesting unsupported generalization (about bloggers) used in support of another generalization (about the protesters).

  5. Personal Experience:
  6. Unfortunately, many demonstrators recognized me from my television appearances and condemned me as a ”traitor” because of the CIA leak case, some suggesting I should kill myself.

I cannot, of course, offer substantive comment on the truth or falsity of Novak’s characterizations of the protesters: we might, however, note that the 500,000 protesters who assembled to march on Sunday cannot with any plausibility be identified with the much smaller group of more militant protesters who used strategic harassment of delegates to convey their disagreement with the platform of the Republican party. This somewhat wild generalization seems to lack plausibility. One might imagine any number of other similar generalizations that would be regarded as obviously false–such as from the number of Saudi Arabian Nationals involved in the September 11th hijackings to a characterization of Saudi Arabian National in general. Or from the probably illegal and perhaps treasonous leaking of a C.I.A. operative’s identity by a Republican to a characterization of all Republicans as treasonous–though we might note that Ann Coulter has made a similar generalization about Democrats in her screed Treason.

Nor do I wish to contest the truth of the anecdotal reports which I am sure could be multiplied many times over and which seem to be plausible given the evidence of other reporting on the protesters.

What I would want to contest, however, is Novak’s inference to the presence of a radically new form of politics which he calls “hatred in the streets.” Above all, Novak is trying to discredit the protest movement by distinguishing it from the protests in 1968, which Novak surprisingly finds respectable. In 1968, the protests, Novak argues, had a determinate political goal. In 2004, the protests are nothing more than “hatred in the streets.” This argument relies on the implausible generalization uncovered above which is based on some particular protesters’ tactics to the a characterization of the motivations of 500,000 other protesters.

In fact, I am sure that Novak did encounter “hatred in the streets.” If, as he says, “many demonstrators recognized” him, I suspect that the hatred against someone who has been plausibly accused of knowlingly betraying his government, and at least accused of unknowingly doing so, was quite present and palpable. Whether or not that is to be blamed on the protesters, on Novak’s scandalous column, or on high-ranking members of the Bush administration, remains seemingly for Fitzgerald and a Grand Jury to decide. But nonetheless, as a matter of logic, Novak is not entitled to generalize from these particular instances of hatred directed towards him (and other isolated cases) to the 500,000 protesters who assembled to show their disagreement with the current administration’s policies.