Friday, October 19, 2007

You Couldn't Pay Me To Look This Stupid On Television


I'm going to give Tucker Carlson the benefit of the doubt, that he's not an idiot but just plays one on television, but let's take a look at a couple of his statements from his recent appearance on Real Time.

Let's start with a comment that is, in a superficial sense, reasonable - but simply detached from reality. Speaking about the insane right-wing attacks on 12-year-old Graeme Frost and his family, Carlson states that individual cases shouldn't have been brought into the debate:
And here’s why. It’s moral blackmail. We’re having an adult conversation about what is best for the country. You bring your ailing child in, who is 12, I can’t disagree with you, because I’m mean all of a sudden. It ends the conversation. It doesn’t start the conversation.
This is, of course, the flip side to Michele Malkin / Rush Limbaugh approach, which seemingly is to send people the message that if they dare to attach their names and stories to a program they oppose, they will abuse their public platforms to hurl wild personal attacks without regard to such niceties as facts. If you're brave enough to put your name forward anyway and weather those attacks, Carlson is there to tell you that you are subverting the debate.

If you remove the personal element from the debate, you're left arguing dollars and statistics. It's a great way to bore the audience, and help ensure that the broader general public doesn't gain any real understanding of the public policy issues or consequences of a particular vote or agenda. So it's a great tack for people who oppose programs like SCHIP. But to pretend that this will lead to better informed decisions and better public policy is naive, dishonest, or both. That's why the rabid dogs of the right responded not with statistics, but with an (entirely dishonest) counter-narrative that the Frosts were rich and undeserving. They could have taken Carlson's (supposed) cue and limited themselves to describing what percentage of recipients fall into the Frosts' demographic, and why that demographic doesn't need SCHIP, but even their most engaged supporters would be drifting off to sleep.

I would accuse Carlson of endorsing high school debate tactics, but even there I doubt that many debate coaches would tell their students, "Pretend that your audience is Mr. Spock from Star Trek, and tailor your argument to what you believe would convince him." (And similarly, I doubt any debate coach would embrace Carlson's tactic of rudely interrupting people and talking over them to prevent them from making their points, even if that is the unfortunate standard for modern political television.) If Carlson is sincere in his argument, he's charmingly naive. If not, as I suspect, he simply wants to foreclose effective tactics of persuasion - if the bullies won't scare people out of sharing their personal stories, Carlson has their back with his accusations that they are subverting the debate and distracting people from the "real issues".
KRUGMAN: Did you go – did you go on your program and start raging against that ad that Bush had in the 2004 campaign about Ashley’s story and how he comforted a young girl after 9/11?

CARLSON: Probably.
I'm thinking "probably not". Further, even assuming that he can find an example where he criticized the personalization of a policy he favors, I very much doubt it was more than a finger wag before endorsing the message. Maybe Carlson truly does want all personal stories eradicated from politics, but I suspect that he reserves this type of argument for issues which he deems unimportant or where he disagrees with the narrative advanced through the personal story.
KRUGMAN: [overlapping] The point is, it’s a perfect illustration of what we’re trying to deal with. [voices overlap]

BEHAR: [overlapping] He’s the symbol of it.

MAHER: [overlapping] He was—

CARLSON: [overlapping]—there is no one child who’s a perfect illustration of any problem in this country. That’s ridiculous.

MAHER: [overlapping] But, he – but, he – but, he was a prop. But he also legitimately epitomized the issue.

CARLSON: [overlapping] Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. No one child can epitomize – this is a very – this is one-seventh of the U.S. economy, pal. ... No one child is a metaphor – he’s a kid.
I am taken back to my first year of law school where some of the students simply couldn't grasp the idea of arguing based on analogy, particularly when they were emotionally close to an issue. This is necessary skill in law, where applying the law as interpreted in previous cases can be crucial to advancing your client's case. A certain subset of students took the position that unless the metaphor was perfect, no comparison could be made. Taken to Carlson's extreme, assuming he doesn't fall into the block of conctrete thinkers who lack the cognitive tools to handle metaphors, avoiding metaphors isn't about making the debate more balanced. It's about making the issues more abstract and more difficult to understand.

There's also an inherent absurdity in arguing that you can't examine individual experience, because (definitionally) each individual's experience is uniqe. Some experiences are highly representative of the whole. And some individual experiences will demonstrate institutional failings that may not be obvious, or may be hidden from view, if you take a broad, impersonal perspective.
No, but you know what I mean? It’s not just Bush. It’s like the same Darfur talk. “We need to get in there and invade Darfur.” The same people who are against being in Iraq say, “Oh, we have to get in there to avert humanitarian crisis there. I mean, the left is for intervention, too, in equally crazy ways. We should all back off, take a good listen to the libertarians, and don’t invade unless we have to. ... Look at Somalia. We were just going to feed the people. And the next thing you know, they’re killing our Seals in the middle of Mogadishu.
Somalia? Darfur? So I guess, Tucker, you only have a problem when other people analogize?

He continues,
What is our responsibility? Do we have a responsibility to police the world? I thought we didn’t. And if we do, then we have to stay in Iraq, if we have that responsibility.
I annoint Tucker "King of the False Dichotomy." If we don't have a responsibility to police the world, does that mean we can simply pack up and go home with no thought for the consequence? If we do, does that mean we have to act everywhere, with an equal amount of effort, and cannot consider whether our efforts will be productive, or the financial, military and human cost?

On Blackwater:
And for the third and most important reason, you can’t go anywhere in Iraq without them. You have to have them. The military is not going to protect you. And so if you want to deliver air conditioners or feed people or get up the, you know, phone lines, you have to have these people. ... I don’t think there’s any evidence the Blackwater guys have committed more atrocities than our own troops.
Tucker.... I think our troops slightly outnumber the Blackwater contractors in Iraq. Also, if you believe that the roles of the troops and of Blackwater "contractors" is equivalent, such that the comparison might make some amount of sense, your argument that we "need" Blackwater falls apart. But then, you do have such difficulty arguing from analogy....
Who – who – who protects your bureau – who protects the New York Times bureau in Baghdad? Because the military is not going to. You wouldn’t have reporters there if it weren’t for private contractors.
So now government agencies are analogous to private news companies, with no greater contribution to the war effort, and thus should be protected by private contractors and not the military.... Deeper and deeper.
MAHER: [overlapping] They didn’t have Blackwater in World War II. Eisenhower wasn’t protected by Blackwater.

CARLSON: [overlapping] Because we weren’t rebuilding the country, that’s why.
Well, now you know. There was no U.S. effort to rebuild Germany or Europe after WWII, and had there been it wouldn't have succeeded without companies like Blackwater. Thanks for clearing that up, Tucker. (It seems that Tucker's never been particularly good with facts.)

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