By Bob Cesca: One of the prerequisites for being a political writer/junkie is a natural and sometimes frustrating inability to keep my yapper shut. Admittedly, I have a big mouth.
Nevertheless, being an outspoken critic of current events and politics is especially dangerous when I observe a friend, family member or colleague making a flawed or downright wrong argument — especially when the flaw is something that, in my view, is not only a self-defeating flaw of liberalism, but also an insufferable hobby horse of the timid press corp.
Specifically, I’m talking about the logical fallacy known as the false equivalence, or what I sometimes refer to as the “both sides meme.” Simply put, false equivalence is a deliberate correlation of two disparate things in order to suggest balance.
Most recently, I read a blog post by my friend and podcast partner, Chez Pazienza, in which this fallacy happened to have been the lead. So I couldn’t help myself. I had to challenge Chez on Facebook regarding his use of the both sides meme. Now, I didn’t challenge Chez just to prove him wrong. There are several broader points to be made when it comes to this all-too-common fallacy as it applies to liberal framing.
Chez’s post was mainly about criticizing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and a New York Times op/ed written by Michael Moore and Oliver Stone in which they accused officials of violating Assange’s free speech rights. But unfortunately Chez began the post by coupling Todd Akin’s ridiculous comments about rape and abortion with the Moore/Stone op/ed:
You know, in the interest of fairness I wanted to take a minute and remind everyone that the Neanderthals on the right are by no means the only ones willing to claim that there are varying degrees of rape — that some rape is really rape while other rape is, I don’t know, like a warm bath on a cool autumn evening.
There are those on the left just as comfortable engaging in inexcusable and repulsive semantics when it comes time to defend someone they happen to think is serving the greater good.
I don’t know how else to read this other than to see an obviously lopsided false equivalence. Again, Chez’s assertion was that both sides “claim that there are varying degrees of rape.” He wrote, “there are those on the left just as comfortable” parsing the word. He also posted the link to his post on Facebook with the comment: “Just in case anyone thinks that it’s only the right that’s capable of pulling this kind of crap.” Again, the right and left both do this and are equally wrong.
When I read the post, I responded via Facebook and suggested to Chez that there was no need to correlate Michael Moore and Todd Akin. Why not simply dissect the op/ed instead of telling his readers that liberals are just as bad as conservatives on what actions constitutes rape and how female biology reacts in those tragic circumstances? While Assange is accused of rape, the word “rape” wasn’t used in the op/ed piece and there was no parsing or redefining or anything of the like.
Chez and some of his readers naturally objected to my evaluation by noting that Chez was merely being intellectually honest and that there was no false equivalence presented in the post. The debate lasted for about 40 comments, and Chez followed up with a column here on The Daily Banter in which he made a case for intellectual honesty and against the accusation of his original post containing a false equivalence.
Regarding the intellectual honesty defense, if anyone’s idea of intellectual honesty is to find a single instance on the left — Moore during a BBC interview two years ago and not within the NYT piece at all — and use it to counterpoint the broad systemic and legislative efforts of an entire American political party, I’m not quite sure there’s much intellectualism at work here. We’re talking about one example, which is barely an example at all, versus dozens of members of Congress including Akin and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan who tried to pass a law defining “forcible” rape. Insofar as Moore attempted to diminish the allegations of rape against Assange two years ago (he actually thinks the charges are a conspiracy to nab Assange), it was certainly in questionable taste for him to do so, though Assange is only accused of rape and hasn’t been found guilty.
On the other hand, the outrage over Akin is partly due to his words, yes, but the lion share of the outrage — I would suggest 90% — stems from the fact that he’s running for Senate, and that he’s a sitting member of Congress who’s been co-sponsoring and voting on federal laws that harshly regulate and penalize the reproductive rights of more than half of the American population. That makes the ignorance, misogyny and legislative agenda of Akin and his fellow anti-choice Republicans inherently dangerous beyond anything that one guy, Moore, could ever possibly be accused. And, by the way, Moore’s views on reproductive rights and abortion are obviously and exactly the opposite of the Republican Party, which, incidentally, will ratify its extremist anti-choice platform on Monday including a plank in support of a “personhood amendment” that contains no exceptions for rape, incest and the like. In other words, the Republican Party, unlike Moore and almost every liberal alive today, wants to criminalize abortion even if the medical procedure is performed on a victim of rape.
Are there really “Neanderthals” on both sides? Not even close. Moore said something distasteful and wrong two years ago. In what universe is this anything like Akin’s ongoing position on rape and the massive anti-woman, anti-choice political agenda of the Republican Party?
A similar false equivalence was created by the press and conservatives earlier this year when Democratic operative Hillary Rosen said Mitt Romney’s wife shouldn’t have stayed home to raise her kids. See? Both sides are engaging in a “war against women!” Of course, Republicans were passing multiple laws involving transvaginal ultrasound probes while rolling back reproductive rights, and one woman popped off with something stupid. Equal? Not a chance in hell. And it certainly wasn’t a valid or fair argument.
In a framing sense, liberals too often slip into a Pollyanna state of mind in which they believe they’ll score points with differently-minded readers/friends if they concede something that’s not entirely true. Democrats are just as corrupt as Republicans. All politicians spend too much taxpayer money. They’re all crooks! Conservatives, on the other hand, hardly ever concede anything, right or wrong. While it might be noble to concede a point in polite debate, it’s never a good idea to concede a point that simply isn’t true. The temporary result might be an easing of political tensions in the context of a debate, but the longer-term impact is that conservatives tend to exploit liberal concessions, while people in the middle tend to become more disillusioned and apathetic due to the misinterpretation that both sides are equally evil, so why bother with either of them? I always cite the example of various liberal pundits, including Moore, who repeated the tragically inaccurate idea that both Al Gore and George W. Bush were the same, so liberals should either stay at home on Election Day or vote for Ralph Nader. I’m ashamed to admit that I was suckered by that one and cast my vote in the 2000 election for Nader. If the thousands of people who voted for Nader in 2000 had voted for Gore in Florida alone, Gore would’ve won that election and, contrary to Moore et al, the first eight years of the previous decade would’ve been vastly different. Bush and Gore were nowhere near equal in almost every way, but because they both came from wealthy families and took donations from corporations and special interests, we were told that they were both corrupt and didn’t deserve our vote. Chez made a similar mistake by painting Moore and Akin with the same filthy brush.
Chez wrote: “What it’s about is attempting to hold everyone accountable in the same manner, trying as best I can not to be hypocritical and, from a strategic standpoint, to make sure that the aforementioned adversaries don’t have a weapon to use against me.”
Politics, whether writing about it or running for office, is a chess game that involves careful thought and strategy. As I’ve written before, I have no quarrels with accountability. In fact, I often debate Glenn Greenwald over what I call “smart accountability” — the process of holding similarly-minded leaders accountable in a way that doesn’t undermine my values and goals. Put another way, it’s okay to criticize the president, but liberals should do it in a way that is, 1) fair and rational, 2) doesn’t give fuel to political enemies, and 3) doesn’t undermine a liberal-leaning agenda by convincing members of the liberal base to withdraw support for that agenda. It’s a challenge, but it can be done. Stupid accountability, on the other hand, might still be accountability and, on some level, a noble endeavor, but if it motivates fellow liberals to stay home on Election Day or to support a primary challenger to Democrat X, it makes conservative victories more likely. Greenwald and others too often elevate accountability above everything else even if it could aid the election of a Republican president and a Republican Congress. There’s no thought whatsoever to the downsides of indelicate “Glennzilla” juggernaut style accountability. I believe in a more strategic approach that doesn’t result in liberals defeating themselves in the name of some sort of higher-ground. We can be responsible citizens, but we should avoid the wanton zeal that could undermine our goals.
When it’s deserved, there are ways to hold fellow liberals accountable without drawing inaccurate and unequal correlations between liberals and conservatives. You can be intellectually honest, but it doesn’t make sense, strategically or logically, to inadvertently diminish the awfulness of something a conservative like Todd Akin says by telling everyone around you that liberals say it, too, and so if everyone’s wrong nobody is right, so fuck everyone — even though half of everyone is fighting to keep abortion safe and legal; half of everyone is fighting for affordable contraception; half of everyone is fighting for equal rights for women. Michael Moore is part of that half, regardless of what he said. Todd Akin, Paul Ryan and others are enemies of those goals. By falsely reducing them to the same level, it elevates the enemies and diminishes an ally and therefore hurts the defense of core liberal values. And what upside could possibly mitigate such a loss?