In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election there were countless takes about how it was a repudiation of elites and liberals who didn’t take working class white people‘s concerns seriously. In the ensuing years, enterprising journalists from every corner have done the Cletus Safari, as Ed Burmila calls it, where they venture into some diner in a dying Midwestern Rust Belt town to hear the denizens’ concerns over immigration or political correctness. After years of this kind of reporting appearing in the New York Times and all, some newspaper editors seem to believe that if you live in the Midwest, you’re white (and maybe eat 10-egg breakfasts at a diner). One political editor at the New York Times said as much.
Now there seems to be an argumentative version of the Cletus Safari. Tom Scocca, writing today at Salon, identifies the form. While the journalistic version consists in filling the pages of the paper with reporting on the thoughts and impressions of all of those forgotten people no one hears from, the argumentative version summons these impressions into a point of view that occupies some important dialectical space. Scocca writes:
At the end of June, after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got criticized for writing this passage:
This was straightforwardly in the spirit of what the accused El Paso gunman would write, about “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” But Stephens, a self-styled Never Trumper who claims to be offended by the president’s vulgarity and bigotry, didn’t believe he had written any such thing. In a follow-up column, calling his critics “Jacobins” and their complaints “preposterous,” and comparing himself to the target of Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate, he explained that people had willfully misunderstood his effort “to channel the negative way ‘ordinary people’ might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates.”
Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).
I often think that all argument is really meta-argument. Your moves are moves about moves in arguments as much as they are moves within an argument. The straw man (hollow man version actually) illustrates this point nicely. It’s like you’re saying: “By bringing up these racist ideas, I’m not asserting them, I’m merely making sure the argument we are having is conducted with respect to both sides.” Stephens should get extra points for invoking the very meta “free speech” defense, where a criticism of a view is conflated with the idea that the view shouldn’t be heard at all.
It’s all extra meta because Stephens casts himself as adjudicating the middle ground between people with racist ideas (not him!) and other (equally made up) people whose sole obsession is political correctness and silencing free speech. It’s a double straw man, with Stephens right in the reasonable middle.
Interestingly, this move–the straw man argument invoked to establish a bothsiderist meta position, was identified by Whately in his 1855 Elements of Logic. Aware that spectators of arguments often don’t pay careful attention to what they’re seeing or hearing, it is often enough, as he points out, to suggest there is some view without having to put it into any particular detail. The point of invoking the unattended or ignored view is not to examine it, but to force conciliation or some kind of draw in the minds of the onlooker (pp.241-242).
*I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, thanks for listening.