Thursday, April 10, 2008

January 2008

Today's Debate
January 28, 2008

Highlights of Incivility

There's been so much going on in the presidential primaries recently that it's almost too much to keep up with. Below are some highlights of recent contributions to incivility and bad reasoning:

"The facts are that he [Senator Barack Obama] has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years."
-- Senator Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2008, at the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) South Carolina Democratic Debate.
Comment: This is a distortion of Obama's comments. Obama had, in the week leading up to the debate, made comments about President Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. He said the Republican Party had been "the party of ideas" in recent decades "in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom". He also said Reagan "changed the trajectory of America". Clinton alleged that these comments showed that Obama was praising Reagan and the Republican Party. But this is a misrepresentation. Although Obama may have been expressing admiration for Reagan and the Republican Party's dynamism, their ability to change the direction of the country and to challenge conventional wisdom, that is different from endorsing the particular direction they sent the country in and the particular ideas they espoused. And Obama has regularly criticized and taken positions that are at odds with the positions of Reagan and the Republican Party.
"While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you [referring to Hillary Clinton] were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart."
-- Barack Obama, January 21, 2008, at the CBC South Carolina Democratic Debate.
Comment: It's difficult to say what point Obama is trying to make here - politicians often don't make clear arguments - but it seems to be something along the lines of ad hominem argument, maybe name-calling as well. "Hillary Clinton was a corporate lawyer and on the board at Wal-Mart, so she can't be trusted", is something like the argument that's being implied by Obama. Perhaps there is some legitimate point being made here about Clinton's character and suitability for public office. But Obama doesn't make clear what that point would be, so his statement just comes off as either ad hominem argument or name-calling.
"It certainly came across in the way that it was presented, as though the Republicans had been standing up against the conventional wisdom with their ideas. I'm just reacting to the fact, yes, they did have ideas, and they were bad ideas. Bad for America, and I was fighting against those ideas when you [referring to Barack Obama] were practicing law and representing your contributor, [Tony] Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago."
-- Senator Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2008, at the CBC South Carolina Democratic Debate.
Comment: Apart from being a meek attempt to defend her caricature of Obama's statements about Reagan and the Republican Party, this statement also tries to parry Obama's "corporate lawyer at Wal-Mart" jibe by retaliating in kind. However, Clinton's response has all the same problems as Obama's jab: is she making a legitimate point about Obama's character and suitability for public office? If so, her argument is so unclear that her point is lost. Like Obama's, Clinton's statement comes off as ad hominem argument or name-calling.
"When he [Senator Barack Obama's campaign] put out a hit job on me at the same time he called her [Senator Hillary Clinton] the senator from Punjab, I never said a word."
-- Former President Bill Clinton, January 23, 2008, in response to a question from a CNN reporter regarding whether he had injected race into the Democratic primary debate.
Comment: Bill Clinton is correct that the memo put out by the Obama campaign in 2007 - which referred to Hillary Clinton as "D-Punjab" because of all her Indian-American donors - was derisive and wrong. It was a form of name-calling, and perhaps ad hominem argument as well (i.e., "Hillary Clinton gets money from Indian-American donors, so her policies aren't going to serve Americans equally."). However, he seems to be arguing that his silence about this was somehow virtuous, or should somehow be reciprocated by the Obama camp. This is mistaken: when the memo was revealed, he should have condemned it. He shouldn't expect anything in return for being silent about it.
Hillary Clinton's campaign runs an ad quoting Barack Obama's statements about the Republican Party being the "party of ideas", and then goes on to criticize those ideas, while implying that Obama supports them.
-- January 23, 2008.
Comment: This behavior doesn't improve with age. It was caricature when Hillary Clinton said it two days earlier, and it's still caricature when it's aired on TV.
"The one thing that is clear is that when power is confronted with real change, they [referring to Bill and Hillary Clinton] will say anything."
-- Barack Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, January 23, 2008.
Comment: This is name-calling, and perhaps ad hominem argument as well. Although it is certainly the case that the Clinton campaign has resorted to unfair tactics, this "stop at nothing to hold on to power" accusation is false and derisive. (This accusation is made in lots of political contests, but is it ever true? Is there ever a candidate or politician who would LITERALLY say or do ANYTHING to achieve power? I doubt it.) Plus, pretty much every campaign uses unfair tactics at some point or another, Barack Obama's included. Does that mean it's fair to say "Barack Obama will say anything to become president"?
Politicians "don't always say what they mean, or mean what they say...That is what this debate in this party is all about."
-- Barack Obama, January 23, 2008.
Comment: This is a caricature. Yes, it's true that politicians often say one thing and then do another. But Obama is implying that he's not that sort of politician whereas his opponents - notably, Hillary Clinton - are. But that's false. January 2007 has seen both the Clinton and Obama campaigns stoop to many of the same unfair tactics, despite Obama's call for a new and higher standard of political conduct.
"Senator [Hillary] Clinton said, 'Well, I voted for it, but I hoped the bill would die.'"
-- Barack Obama, January 23, 2008, referring to Clinton's vote on a 2001 bankruptcy bill.
Comment: This is a distortion. Obama is trying to portray Clinton as having an incoherent, yes-and-no position on the bill. But Clinton has clearly stated that, although she did vote for the bill, she had come to view her vote as a mistake and regretted it. Thus, she was pleased when the bill eventually failed to pass. If Obama wants to criticize her for not realizing soon enough that the bill was a bad idea, that's one thing. But to say that she was simultaneously in favor of and opposed to the bill is an outright misrepresentation of Clinton's position.
Tim Russert: "Governor Huckabee, are you comfortable with the fact that Governor [Mitt] Romney raised fees a quarter of a million dollars as governor of Massachusetts? Do you trust him as a tax cutter?"
Former Governor (AR) Mike Huckabee: "You know, it's going to be really more do the voters trust him, and do they trust me."
-- January 24, 2008, at the Florida Republican Debate.
Comment: Huckabee is avoiding the question by employing the "it's not my decision" evasion. Yes, voters in the Republican primaries are going to have to decide for themselves whether or not Romney or Huckabee can be trusted to keep their pledges to cut taxes (or to keep any other pledges, for that matter). But how does that prevent Huckabee from giving his OWN opinion on whether Romney can be trusted? Would Huckabee decline to express ANY opinion whatsoever on who participants in the Republican should vote for since, after all, that's something the voters have to decide? Of course not.
"I'm so proud of the job that the men and women in the military are doing there [in Iraq], and they don't want us to raise the white flag of surrender, like Senator Clinton does."
-- Senator John McCain (AZ), January 24, 2008, at the Florida Republican Debate.
Comment: McCain may disagree with Clinton's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq, but to describe her position as "raising the white flag of surrender" is exaggeration, if not outright caricature.
"[Hillary Clinton's] approach to the war in Iraq: just get out as fast as you can. Just -- don't even think about the sacrifice that's been made or the need to keep Al Qaeda from establishing safe havens."
-- Former Governor Mitt Romney (MA), January 24, 2008, at the Florida Republican Debate.
Comment: This is a distortion. Clinton believes that having a large U.S. military presence in Iraq reduces the incentive for the Iraqi government to take the initiative to address security challenges - such as Al Qaeda. Romney may disagree with that belief, but to say that Clinton cares nothing at all about whether Al Qaeda establishes safe havens in Iraq is false.
"Given the contributions I made in this race [i.e., the money given to his own campaign], I know I owe no one anything. I don't have some group there that I have a special obligation to that raised money for me. I'm by far the biggest contributor to my own campaign. And people can count on the fact that there's no nobody that can call me and say, 'Hey, look, you owe me,' because they [sic] don't."
-- Former Governor Mitt Romney (MA), January 24, 2008, at the Florida Republican Debate.
Comment: Romney is arguing that he is more virtuous than the other candidates because he is not beholden to special interests. Like most people who denounce special interests, Romney assumes that they are always bad, but doesn't offer any good reason for why we should believe that.

There are, of course and unfortunately, plenty more examples to be had, and I'll try to get to as many of them as I can in the near future.

Today's Debate
January 20, 2008

Distortion in the Democratic Primary

The accusations and vitriol exhibited in the past two weeks between the Clinton and Obama campaigns are a great example of uncivil, unproductive debate.

When Hillary Clinton said that "Dr. King's dream [of civil rights and equal treatment for African-Americans] began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson [LBJ] passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done," she was making a plainly true statement. Martin Luther King, Jr., for all his admirable efforts, didn't bring about civil rights on his own, other people contributed. And one of those other people was LBJ. There's nothing racist or insensitive about this claim, and it was unfair for people to accuse Clinton of slighting MLK's civil rights record.

At the same time, distorting what an opponent says is a common tactic among politicians of all stripes. Clinton herself has distorted the words and positions of her opponents, and has seldom if ever denounced others who have done the same to her opponents. (I wonder, had a Republican made the same comment about MLK, LBJ and civil rights, would Clinton have joined in alleging a racist slight?) Only now, when this tactic is being used against her, is she complaining about it.

It's a long campaign season, and there'll be plenty more distortions and misrepresentations of candidates' statements. Hopefully, Clinton will stand up against all such instances, and not just the ones that put her at a disadvantage.

Today's Debate
January 7, 2008

Transcending a Double-Standard

Following Illinois Senator Barack Obama's victory in the January 3, 2008, Iowa Democratic caucuses, many comments have been made regarding whether the United States of America has "turned a corner," become "colorblind" or "transcended" race, and is now prepared to elect a black president.

Unfortunately, much of this discussion still uses a double-standard when it comes to race. Even though one of his parents is black and the other is white, Obama is consistently referred to as a black candidate. I've never heard him referred to as a white candidate, and very seldom as a mixed-race or multi-ethnic candidate. (In fact, Obama frequently refers to himself as black, but I haven't heard him refer to himself as white.)

What is the reason for this? After all, if having a black parent is sufficient grounds for calling him black, then having a white parent should be sufficient grounds for calling him white.

As I've pointed out before (Is Barack Obama a Black Candidate or a White one? (October 20, 2007)), this sort of double-standard is used by white supremacists, who believe that whites are superior to blacks, and that any mixture of the two "corrupts" white "purity". And, years ago, when white supremacists were mainstream, this double-standard was widely accepted. But, if you're not a white supremacist - and you shouldn't be - what good reason is there to keep using this double-standard?

Again, none that I can see.

So, why not get rid of it? If we're comfortable referring to Obama as black (because he has a black parent), then we should also be comfortable calling him white (because he has a white parent, too). On the other hand, if we're uncomfortable calling him white (because he has a black parent), then we should also be uncomfortable calling him black (because he has a white parent), and we should instead say he's mixed-race or bi-racial or something along those lines.

But we should really stop saying he's black at the exclusion of being white, because it's a double-standard that serves no purpose for people who aren't white supremacists.

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