Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Analysis: Obama's "Dos Caras" Ad Links McCain to Rush Limbaugh

Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) presidential campaign released an ad on September 15, 2008, with this content (both the TV and radio versions were aired in Spanish and appear below as translated into English):

OBAMA: I am Barack Obama and I approve this message.
NARRATOR: They want us to forget the insults we've put up with,
TEXT: "... stupid and unskilled Mexicans" -- Rush Limbaugh
NARRATOR: The intolerance.
TEXT: "Shut your mouth or get out!" -- Rush Limbaugh
NARRATOR: They made us feel marginalized in this country we love so much. John McCain and his Republican friends have two faces.
TEXT: Caused the failure of immigration reform -- McCain campaign advertisement
NARRATOR: One that lies just to get our vote, and another even worse, continues the policies of George Bush, putting the special interests ahead of working families. John McCain: more of the same old Republican tricks.

* YouTube: "Dos Caras" Ad
* YouTube: No Way Obama - Dos Caras "Two Faces" Translated
* Wash Post: Obama Invokes Rush Limbaugh in New Spanish-Language Ads (September 17, 2008)

The radio version of the ad also included the following:

NARRATOR: Don't forget that John McCain abandoned us rather than confront the leaders of the Republican Party. Many of us were born here, and others came to work and achieve a better life for their families -- not to commit crimes or drain the system like many of John McCain's friends claim. Let's not be fooled by political tricks from John McCain and the Republicans. Vote so they respect us. Vote for a change.

McCain's "Which Side Are They On?" Ad

This ad from the Obama campaign was in part responding to an earlier ad from the McCain campaign, released on September 12, 2008 (which also aired in Spanish and appears below as translated into English):

NARRATOR: Obama and his congressional allies say they are on the side of immigrants.
TEXT: On our side?
NARRATOR: But are they? The press reports that their efforts were "poison pills" that made immigration reform fail.
TEXT: Caused the failure of immigration reform
NARRATOR: The result: No guest worker program.
TEXT: Result: guest worker program: no
NARRATOR: No path to citizenship.
TEXT: Result: path to citizenship: no
NARRATOR: No secure borders.
TEXT: Result: secure borders: no
NARRATOR: No reform.
TEXT: It didn't happen
NARRATOR: Is that being on our side? Obama and his congressional allies ready to block immigration reform, but not ready to lead.
TEXT: Ready to block a reform of immigration. But not ready to govern.
MCCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approve this message.
TEXT: Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee. Approved by John McCain.

* YouTube: Which Side Are They On?
* YouTube: McCain ad: Which Side Are They On?
* CNN: McCain ad slams Obama, Senate Democrats on immigration (September 13, 2008)
* WorldNetDaily: McCain TV ad blames Obama for 'amnesty' failure – in Spanish (September 18, 2008)

This ad from the McCain campaign blames Obama and other Democrats for the failure to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, a bill which would have granted legal residence to many illegal aliens.

(For the final vote, see the Senate web site: S. 1348 (Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007).)

This criticism is dubious. It's far from clear that Obama and the Senate Democrats were responsible for the bill not being passed. Senate procedure on passing legislation is fairly complicated, and it's arguable as to who deserves blame for any piece of legislation failing to get passed in the Senate. Suffice to say that, in the case of this immigration reform legislation, there were lots of people involved in the process -- both Republicans and Democrats, and even the President -- who could be considered for blame.

(The claim of Obama's radio ad -- that "John McCain abandoned us rather than confront the leaders of the Republican Party" -- is similarly dubious.)

At any rate, it's far from obvious that the Democrats should shoulder ALL the blame. McCain's ad mentions "press reports" that blame Democrats for killing the legislation. But the accuracy of these press reports is given scant attention, and -- even if they ARE correct -- they still fall short of saying that Democrats are SOLELY to blame.

Obama's Response

However, Obama's response went much further than simply saying that lots of people could be blamed for the death of the immigration reform bill.

Obama's "Dos Caras" ad essentially makes three points:
  1. McCain is lying when he blames Democrats for the death of the immigration reform bill;
  2. McCain wants to continue "the policies of George Bush, putting the special interests ahead of working families"; and,
  3. McCain is friends with talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has called Mexicans "stupid and unskilled" and told immigrants to "shut up or get out".

The "Two Faces" Republicans Show

The Obama ad accuses Republicans of displaying two different sides or "faces" (I assume the ad means they are shown to the Spanish-speaking community, especially immigrants):

John McCain and his Republican friends have two faces. One that lies just to get our vote, and another even worse, continues the policies of George Bush, putting the special interests ahead of working families.

But was McCain lying when he accused Democrats of killing the immigration reform bill? I agree McCain's accusation is questionable and not clearly true, but that's far from saying it's intentionally false. Obama's ad gives us no reason to believe that McCain's accusation is an intentional falsehood or a knowing and willful endorsement of false beliefs (i.e., a lie). If he wants to claim that it is, then he needs to back it the claim, not simply assert it.

As to the other "face" that Republicans show -- continuing "the policies of George Bush, putting the special interests ahead of working families" -- this is obviously an attempt to disparage Bush's (and Republican's) policies as failed policies. As is typical, however, Obama's ad gives little support to this assertion.

In addition, he provides no substance to the claim that McCain (and Bush and Republicans) put special interests ahead of working families, nor does he define what a "special interest" is or explain why "special interests" are bad.

The Quotes from Rush Limbaugh

The Obama ad engages in outright distortion in the way it quoted Limbaugh.

The quotes the Obama ad mentioned were:

stupid and unskilled Mexicans


Shut your mouth or get out!

These are both direct quotes from Limbaugh. However, they are removed from their context in such a way as to make it seem like Limbaugh is saying that Mexicans are stupid and unskilled, and as telling immigrants (or, perhaps, Central and South American, or Spanish-speaking immigrants?) to shut up and leave.

But both of these impressions are false, as is evident when you consider the quotes in context.

"Stupid and Unskilled Mexicans"

Regarding the first quote, it was made by Limbaugh on his radio show in 1993, while he was supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Defending NAFTA against its critics, Limbaugh said:

If you are unskilled and uneducated, your job is going south. Skilled workers, educated people are going to do fine 'cause those are the kinds of jobs NAFTA is going to create. If we are going to start rewarding no skills and stupid people, I'm serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do -- let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.

* ABC News: From the Fact Check Desk: Obama's New Spanish Language TV Ad Es ErrĂ³neo (September 17, 2008)

Limbaugh is responding to NAFTA critics who argue that the trade deal will cause the U.S. to lose jobs. In attempting to rebut this criticism, Limbaugh refers to "stupid", "uneducated", and "unskilled" people in both Mexico AND the U.S. He doesn't single out Mexicans as being stupid and unskilled. Nor does he say that ALL Mexicans are stupid and unskilled.

Limbaugh shouldn't have used the term "stupid" -- it is a derisive term unfairly assigning mental deficiency -- even if he was merely trying to mock NAFTA critics for what he saw as the low esteem that they held for unskilled laborers. But it is simply false for the Obama campaign to imply that Limbaugh was tarring all (or even only) Mexicans with the term. By quoting Limbaugh out of context, Obama's ad was making a false accusation of bigotry.

"Shut up or get out!"

The second quote -- "Shut up or get out!" -- was also taken out of context.

It was made on April 6, 2006, again on Limbaugh's radio show:

Everybody's making immigration proposals these days. Let me add mine to the mix. Call it The Limbaugh Laws:

First: If you immigrate to our country, you have to speak the native language. You have to be a professional or an investor; no unskilled workers allowed. Also, there will be no special bilingual programs in the schools with the Limbaugh Laws. No special ballots for elections. No government business will be conducted in your language. Foreigners will not have the right to vote or hold political office.

If you're in our country, you cannot be a burden to taxpayers. You are not entitled to welfare, food stamps, or other government goodies. You can come if you invest here: an amount equal to 40,000 times the daily minimum wage. If not, stay home. But if you want to buy land, it'll be restricted. No waterfront, for instance. As a foreigner, you must relinquish individual rights to the property.

And another thing: You don't have the right to protest. You're allowed no demonstrations, no foreign flag waving, no political organizing, no bad-mouthing our President or his policies. You're a foreigner: shut your mouth or get out! And if you come here illegally, you're going to jail.

You think the Limbaugh Laws are harsh? Well, every one of the laws I just mentioned are actual laws of Mexico today! That's how the Mexican government handles immigrants to their country. Yet Mexicans come here illegally and protest in our streets!

How do you say 'double standard' in Spanish? How about: 'No mas!'

* Politico: Limbaugh, hitting back over usage in ad, says Obama "stoking racism" (September 17, 2008)

What Limbaugh was trying to do here was to expose what he saw as a double standard: the abundant criticism of the harshness U.S. immigration laws versus the absence of criticism for Mexican immigration laws, despite the fact that Mexican immigration laws are more stringent. And he did this by asking us to imagine what would happen if the immigration laws in effect at the time in Mexico were proposed for the U.S.

Limbaugh never actually advocated having these laws -- laws that, with their prohibition on political demonstrations and other restrictions, could be bluntly summarized as telling immigrants to "Shut your mouth or get out". He merely asked his audience to think what kind of reception a "shut your mouth or get out" immigration policy would get if it were proposed for the U.S.

Limbaugh was speaking hypothetically, not actually endorsing such an attitude. By quoting him out of context, the Obama ad is distorting his position and unfairly demonizing him as being anti-immigrant.

Again, this amounts to a false accusation of bigotry on the part of Obama and his campaign.

(The Washington Post piece by Ed O'Keefe -- Wash Post: Obama Invokes Rush Limbaugh in New Spanish-Language Ads (September 17, 2008) -- also falsely makes the accusation, describing the Obama ad as trying to link "Sen. John McCain to anti-immigrant comments made by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh". As discussed above, Limbaugh's comments weren't anti-immigrant.)

Guilt by Association?

There is another element to Obama's ad that is questionable: its reference to Limbaugh (and others) as being a "friend" of McCain.

There are several problems with this assertion.

First, it's not clear in what sense -- if any -- Limbaugh and McCain could correctly be called friends. They're both Republicans, and agree on some political issues, such as the war in Iraq. But their acrimonious disagreement on various other political issues -- such as illegal immigration -- is well-known, and they are not friends in the sense of having friendly relations with one another.

So, if the Obama campaign is going to call Limbaugh and McCain "friends", then it needs to spell out precisely what is meant by this ambiguous term. Otherwise, how can we tell whether or not the assertion is true?

Second, supposing that Limbaugh and McCain ARE friends, why should that make us think less of McCain (as is the clear implication of Obama's ad)? Is this an attempt to assign guilt by association? Guilt by association is not a straightforward business: just because person A is friends with person B and person B did something bad, it doesn't necessarily follow that we should also think badly of person A.

Lastly, the radio version of Obama's ad says this:

Many of us were born here, and others came to work and achieve a better life for their families -- not to commit crimes or drain the system like many of John McCain's friends claim.

This is yet another accusation referencing "friends" of McCain. This time, Obama's ad accuses these "friends" of saying that immigrants (or, perhaps, Central and South American, or Spanish-speaking immigrants?) come here in order "to commit crimes or drain the system".

But Obama provides no evidence of who it is who has said this. The ad cites no quotes and no names (though, of course, even when they named Limbaugh and gave quotes from him, they STILL failed to prove their case).

The burden of proof is on Obama and his campaign to prove that these things have been said (and said by "friends" of McCain, and to THEN explain why this should make us think less of McCain). Without such proof, it is evidence of yet another false accusation of bigotry.


So, to round up, McCain ran an ad making an unsubstantiated accusation that Obama and Democrats killed an immigration reform bill.

Obama responded with an ad that made several accusations of his own:

  • that McCain lied;
  • that Republican policies were failed policies;
  • that Limbaugh (and others) made bigoted, anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican statements; and,
  • that McCain's friendship with Limbaugh (and others) should make us think worse of him.

And these accusations of Obama's wound up being unsubstantiated or even false.

-- Civ.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Analysis: McCain's "Education" Ad Claims Obama Supported Sex Education for Kindergarteners

Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) presidential campaign released an ad on September 7, 2008, with this content:

NARRATOR: Education Week says Obama hasn't made a significant mark on education,
TEXT: Education Week: "Hasn't made a significant mark on education." 3/7/07
NARRATOR: That he's elusive on accountability,
TEXT: The Washington Post: "Elusive" 7/7/08
NARRATOR: A staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.
TEXT: Chicago Tribune: "Staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly." 7/20/08
NARRATOR: Obama's one accomplishment?
TEXT: Obama's one accomplishment?
NARRATOR: Legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners.
TEXT: Illinois Senate Health and Human Servicess Committee: "Comprehensive sex education" 5.8.99, passed 3/6/03
NARRATOR: Learning about sex before learning to read?
TEXT: Learning about sex before learning to read?
NARRATOR: Barack Obama: wrong on education,
TEXT: Wrong on education
NARRATOR: Wrong for your family.
TEXT: Wrong for your family
MCCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approved this message.
TEXT: Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008. Approved by John McCain
* [YouTube: Barack Obama Sex Ed for Kindergarten 5 year olds.]

There are a variety of claims being made in this ad, but it is the last one -- that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) supported teaching "comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners" -- is the most serious.

First, though, let's address the other claims being made, which were made by various periodicals, but which the McCain campaign has chosen to publicize (and, as such, implicitly endorse):

  • Obama "hasn't made a significant mark on education": Since it's arguable what amounts to a "significant mark", it's arguable whether or not this is true. But, if it is, is that such a bad thing? Many politicians haven't made a "significant mark" on lots of issues, does that seriously count against electing them?
  • Obama is "elusive" on education issues: Again, it's not clear what counts as "elusive", so it's not clear whether this is true.
  • Obama is a "staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly": Perhaps this is true, but we're given no reason to think that defending the "public school monopoly" is a bad thing. Maybe it is, but the ad only assumes this point, it doesn't offer -- or even point us toward -- any argument for it.

Beyond these issues, there is also the matter of whether these sources -- Education Week, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune -- are being accurately quoted by the McCain campaign.

Was the Sex-Ed Bill Obama's "One Accomplishment" in Education?

On the sex education legislation, the McCain ad calls it Obama's "one accomplishment". But this claim is problematic on a variety of fronts.

First, the bill never became law, so can it be called an accomplishment at all?

Second, while Obama did vote for the bill, he was not a sponsor of it. So, if it HAD passed, would it be correct to call the bill HIS accomplishment, rather than the accomplishment of those who DID sponsor it?

Finally, Obama has -- in the Illinois State Senate and in the U.S. Senate -- sponsored other education legislation. Shouldn't these other pieces of legislation be considered accomplishments, as well? As such, isn't the "one accomplishment" assertion false?

Did Obama Support Inappropriate Sex Education for Kindergarteners?

But the most serious claim made by the McCain ad is that the legislation that Obama supported would have allowed inappropriate sex education for kindergarteners.

But is this true?

The answer to that question hinges, in part, on what counts as appropriate sex education, a matter of controversy that I won't go into here.

However, the answer also hinges on the content of the bill (you can see the text of the legislation here: Illinois General Assembly: Full Text of SB0099).

The bill says the following:

Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV.

This pronouncement is ambiguous. As a student, would the "comprehensive sex education" I receive occur over the course grades K through 12 (that is, piece by piece over 13 years), or would it occur in just one year (that is, once in kindergarten, then again in first grade, then AGAIN in second grade, and so on)?

The bill, in this respect, is poorly worded, since it seems open to the interpretation that a student could receive a comprehensive sex education in just one year (including instruction on HIV and other STDs, etc.), and at an age of as young as five years old (and then again at six years old, and AGAIN at seven, and so on).

However, the bill also says:

All course material and instruction shall be age and developmentally appropriate.


All course material and instruction in classes that teach sex education and discuss sexual activity or behavior shall be age and developmentally appropriate.

This fits in more with the idea that students would receive a comprehensive sex education over the course of 13 years -- starting at age five and ending at age 18 -- rather than all in one year while they're still learning to read.

Of course, the "age appropriate" constraint is not clearly spelled out, but neither is it absent altogether. The bill could certainly do to be clearer about what, exactly, is going to be taught to five-year-olds regarding sex education (it was suggested that kindergarteners would be taught about "inappropriate touching" so that they would not fall prey to child molesters [FactCheck.org: Off Base on Sex Ed (September 10, 2008)]).

But it's far from clear that this is opening the door -- intentionally or unintentionally -- to teaching five-year-old children about sex, HIV, condoms and so forth. McCain is baselessly endorsing the worst interpretation of a somewhat ambiguous bill.

It is false for the McCain campaign to assert that the bill would definitely have had these consequences, let alone to imply that this was an accomplishment that Obama sought to bring about.

-- Civ.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rhetoric: Gaffes

Gaffes are absurd, nonsensical, false or otherwise obviously out-of-bounds statements that people make. Politicians and pundits make them, of course, but they are often put to misuse in the political arena.

This is done by paying selective attention to them. That is, you pardon and excuse (or even ignore) the ridiculous gaffes made by yourself and your allies, while excoriating your opponents for theirs.

(This is a common bias: people tend to focus on the flaws and mistakes of those they hate, while casting a blind eye to the flaws and mistakes on their own side.)

Under the "Examples and Analysis" section below, you will find a list of gaffes made by different people of different political persuasions. Consider how these gaffes were put to use, how they were treated by different people. Some people pointed to them as evidence of extreme stupidity, ignorance, obtuseness, etc., while others excused them as merely a "slip-up" or ignored them altogether.

"You all have friends thinking about voting for Donald Trump. Friends do not let friends vote for con artists. All right, so you want to have a little fun? All right, what is Donald Trump do when things go wrong? He takes to Twitter. I have him right here. Let's read some. You'll have fun. All right, number one, here's the first one, "Lightweight Marco Rubio was working hard last night." This is true. "The problem is, he is a chocker. And once a chocker, always a choker." I guess that's what he meant to say. He spelled choker, C-H-O-C-K-E-R, chocker. He called me Mr. Meltdown. Let me tell you something, during one of the breaks, two of the breaks, he went backstage, he was having a meltdown. First, he had this little makeup thing applying, like, makeup around his mustache, because he had one of those sweat mustaches. He wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet. I don't know. Then I see him pacing back and forth, and then he is huddled in the corner talking to somebody, waving his arm up and down and the person trying to calm him down. Any way, but I'm a chocker. All right, next tweet. "Leight weight chocker, Marco Rubio, looks like a little boy on stage, not presidential material." He meant to say lightweight, but he spelled it L-E-I-G-H T, so he got it wrong. "Looks like a little boy on stage." It's not that I look like a little boy, it's not that I would be the youngest president but he would be the oldest president ever elected. So you start to worry. All right, last one, "Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night." Now, this is him about himself, OK. "Great honer." I think he meant to say "honor." I don't know how he got that wrong, because the "E" and "O" are nowhere near each other oh there on the keyboard. That's what I'm thinking. So how do this guy three tweets misspell words so badly? I only reach two conclusions. Number one, that's how they spell those words at the Wharton School of Business where he went. Or number two, just like Trump Tower, he must have hired a foreign worker to do his own tweets. All right, so guys, we have a con artist as the front-runner in the Republican Party. A guy, a guy who has made a career out of telling people lies so they come in and buy his product or whatever he does. You ever heard of Trump vodka. You have? Well, it isn't around any more. Or a Trump mattress, or Trump air, or Trump ice or Trump water. Those are all businesses that are gone, because they were disasters. Trump hot air, yeah."
-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), February 26, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Rubio is mocking Trump for his gaffes, as well for Trump's mocking of Rubio. It's not clear how much (if any) of this is meant comically.

[Rep.] Alan Grayson [(D-FL)] is Elizabeth Warren without a filter — but he intends with her help to become Florida’s great Democratic hope. Since Grayson first burst onto the national media scene as a first-term congressman from Central Florida with a savage wit, he has generated near non-stop headlines and Internet hits, calling all manner of political opponents “whores,” “vampires” and “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.” Even some Democrats who agree with almost all of his policy positions want to keep their distance. … After he shot into the national media arena in 2009, Grayson was unbowed, asking me, “Is it a necessary element of this job that I take shit from people? No one gets a free pass if they attack me. I don’t think it’s beneficial to turn the other cheek. There is no reason a Democrat has to be a weakling.” … His strident criticism of the financial system led to an early — and highly embarrassing — gaffe in February 2010, what soon would become just an indicator of what was to come. In a radio interview, Grayson attacked Linda Robertson, a senior adviser to Fed Chairman Paul Bernanke, calling her a “K street whore” and accusing her of “trying to teach me about economics.” He later apologized. Yet once catapulted into the national spotlight for his outrageousness, he never looked back. In fact, he doubled-down, comparing former Vice President Dick Cheney to a vampire bat (“I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking”), calling the Republican Party a “lie factory” and dubbing Rush Limbaugh a “a has-been hypocrite loser” who was “more lucid when he was a drug addict.”
-- From an article in Politico, May 20, 2015, by Mark I. Pinsky.

Comment: What Pinsky calls a "savage wit" and "gaffe" on the part of Grayson is better described as demonizing. "Whore" is name-calling of the "sexual deviancy" sort. Also, Grayson reportedly uses "get tough" rhetoric, according to Pinsky.

U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez has apologized for an ethnically touchy gaffe that was caught on cell phone video.

The Democrat, who is running to replace California's retiring Sen. Barabara Boxer, would otherwise seem like a paragon of diversity. But when she let out a stereotypical Native American "war cry" over the weekend, it marred that image and sent her running.

Literally -- away from a reporter trying to chase her down for comment on the gaffe that many found racially offensive. But late Sunday, she spoke about the slip-up.

Native Americans know she's watching out for them, she said at a Democratic Party convention in Anaheim, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. "And they know what many of you don't know — that like so many Mexican Americans, I am proudly Native American on my mother's side," Sanchez said.

Sanchez was ad-libbing at a California Democratic party convention in Anaheim, when she made a stereotypical Native American "war cry."

Raising her hand to her lips, she let out about two seconds of it.

"I'm going to his office, thinkin' that I'm gonna go meet with woo-woo-woo-woo, right? 'Cause he said 'Indian American,'" she said, using the gesture to try to discern between Indian Americans -- with ancestry from India's subcontinent -- and Native Americans.
-- From a CNN article, May 17, 2015, about remarks made by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), on May 16, 2015.

Comment: Were Sanchez's remarks a "gaffe" or a racist slur?


Examples from 2013.


Examples from 2012.


Examples from 2011.


Examples from 2008.

OLBERMANN: As we continue -- scrap NAFTA, Senator Obama, or fix it?
OBAMA: I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada to try to amend NAFTA because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now.
-- Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), August 7, 2007, during Democratic Party presidential primary debate moderated by Keith Olbermann.

Comment: Canada has a prime minister and a governor-general (who is the representative of the British monarch), but no president.


Examples from 2000.

"A minor slip-up by Vice President Dan Quayle hatched a frenzy and a long-running joke. Quayle led a spelling bee for sixth-grade students while visiting an elementary school in New Jersey in 1992. Working from an inaccurate flash card prepared by a teacher, he corrected William Figueroa, 12, when the child spelled "potato" on the blackboard -- making the boy add an unnecessary "e" at the word's end. Quayle would never hear the end of it."
-- Account of incident involving Vice President Dan Quayle that occurred on June 15, 1992.

Comment: This gaffe was partly due to the misspelled flash card -- which spelled the word "potato" as "potatoe" -- made by the teacher, but also due to Quayle's failure to catch the error.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Analysis: McCain's "Celeb" Ad Derides Obama's Celebrity

Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign released an ad on July 30, 2008, with this content:

NARRATOR: He's the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?
TEXT: Obama: is he ready to lead?
NARRATOR: With gas prices soaring, Barack Obama says "no" to offshore drilling,
TEXT: Obama: no offshore drilling
NARRATOR: and says he'll raise taxes on electricity?
TEXT: Obama: new taxes
NARRATOR: Higher taxes,
TEXT: higher taxes
NARRATOR: more foreign oil:
TEXT: more foreign oil
NARRATOR: that's the real Obama.
TEXT: McCain
MCCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approved this message.
TEXT: Paid for by John McCain 2008. Approved by John McCain.
* [YouTube: Celeb (July 30, 2008)]

Along with the above content, the ad displays video of Sen. Barack Obama as well as of celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and audio of crowds cheering Obama's name.

This ad focuses on Obama's celebrity, but without making a clear point about it. Clearly, the ad is not praising Obama for his celebrity, and is instead being dismissive of it. But what is the basis for this position?

If the ad is making the argument that you shouldn't go along with someone simply because they are famous, that's fine. In fact, it's a good point.

But we shouldn't be AGAINST someone simply because they're famous, either. The argument that "so-and-so is popular, therefore his ideas are wrong" is nothing more than ad hominem reasoning.

Which brings us to the choice of celebrities that appear alongside Obama in the ad: Hilton and Spears, who are (popularly, at least) regarded as being vapid celebrities, the implication being that Obama's celebrity is similarly unfounded.

But this is an invalid form of argument. You can't force the conclusion that Obama's celebrity is vapid simply by putting his photo up alongside Spears and Hilton any more than you can force us to conclude that he's a great, admirable leader simply by putting his photo up alongside Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

If the McCain campaign (or anyone else) wants to argue that Obama's celebrity is vapid or baseless, fine. But you have to provide reasons for that conclusion. It's not enough to simply point out that SOME celebrities (i.e., Spears and Hilton) are superficial in order to argue that Obama's celebrity is superficial. Just like it wouldn't be enough to point out that SOME celebrities (i.e., Churchill, Mother Teresa, and Mandela) are deserving of admiration in order to argue that Obama is a celebrity who deserves admiration.

So, this ad by the McCain campaign lacked substance in this respect. They would have done better to focus instead on the merits of Obama's position on taxes and drilling for oil, rather than making a spurious argument about his celebrity.

Was the Ad Racist?

Many people criticized the "Celeb" ad for appealing to racism.

For instance:

"The ad gave us an uneasy feeling that the McCain campaign was starting up the same sort of racially tinged attack on Mr. Obama that Republican operatives ran against Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. That assault, too, began with videos juxtaposing Mr. Ford with young, white women."
* [The NY Times Editorial Board: Say What? John McCain, Barack Obama, and the "Race Card" (July 31, 2008)]

And, more explicitly:

"a political dog whistle sends a message that only a particular constituency will hear (or intuitively understand). [President George W.] Bush has, care of his speechwriters, been dog whistling to his evangelicals for the past eight years; often, when we heathens think he sounds most nonsensical, it's because he's sending a coded message to his Jesus peeps. Often, dog whistles are merely a covert shout-out to a particular constituency ... to quietly speak to subconscious (or conscious) biases and evoke a particular visceral reaction. ... Obama, dog whistles the ad, hitting old racists in the sweet spot, could fuck these white girls ... and we don't want that, now, do we?"
* [Melissa McEwan, UK Guardian: McCain blows the dog whistle (August 1, 2008)]

Any accusation of racist behavior should be supported by evidence, not supposition. The burden of proof should be on the accuser to prove the claim, not on the accused to disprove it. And proving racism has to amount to more than pointing to someone's behavior and positing racism as a possible explanation (since just about anything is possible). There must be evidence that demonstrates that racism is a likely -- or the best -- explanation.

There doesn't seem to be any such evidence clinching that case, here. The claim that "code words" are being used to send "coded messages" is a frequent accusation in politics, but one that is seldom defended in any substantive way. A "code" for anything can be found anywhere if you're willing to entertain different interpretations of a speech. But that's different from proving that the speechwriter was actively and intentionally using a code to communicate to people.

Absent more convincing evidence, those who are accusing the McCain campaign of appealing to racism in their "Celeb" ad are making an unfounded accusation of racism.

-- Civ.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who Will Win? The Debate is Already Lost ...

At this point, most people are waiting to learn the outcome the 2008 presidential election.

But, in one respect, we can already say that the electoral campaign has been a failure.

The point of elections isn't only to select a candidate for office. Participating in the democratic process -- engaging in elections and debates about candidates and policies -- should make us better people. It should make us wiser and increase our understanding of moral and political issues. At the very least, it shouldn't make us worse.

By this measure, the election of 2008 has certainly failed.

It has been riddled with instances of name-calling, demonizing, misrepresentation, exaggeration, ad hominem reasoning and more.

(Many of these instances have been cataloged by The Civil Debate Page, though many more are still waiting to be addressed.)

Generally, each side has used underhanded tactics in order to make us think the worst of their opponent. Frequently, they've tried to convince us that their own side is trying to do what's right and good, while the other side is selfish or unmoved by moral considerations.

For instance, those who have suggested that we should try to help people in need have been tarred as "socialists" or "redistributors" [AFP: McCain reignites Obama 'socialist' claim over 2001 interview (October 27, 2008)]. Meanwhile, those who have suggested that we should try to be self-sufficient and reward work and productivity have been ridiculed for supporting "Social Darwinism" [AP: Obama Accuses Bush of 'Social Darwinism' (March 27, 2007)]

Astonishingly, after expressing all this contempt for their opponents, each side insists that they want to unify the country, even though their behavior demonstrates that they have neither the will nor the knowledge requisite to do so.

Regardless of who wins or loses -- John McCain or Barack Obama -- what happens next is predictable.

The winning side will act as if they and their ideas have been overwhelmingly embraced by the nation, even though -- at best -- only a third of the country's residents will have voted for them (and many of those will have done so with reservations).

Each side will give a self-servingly false account of their fate (by way of the "only my opponent" caricature):

The winning side will say that they won by running a clean campaign (which is false), while insisting that their opponents did not behave virtuously (which is true), resulting in their loss.

The losing side will say that they behaved virtuously during the campaign (also false), while insisting that the winning side played dirty (true), resulting in their loss.

The winner will make a dramatic appeal, "reaching across the aisle" to the loser in order to unite the country. Given past behavior, the loser will (correctly) judge this to be insincere, and turn it down. The winners will accuse them of being stubborn, ignorant and/or deliberately subversive, and will call them sore losers.

Resentment will accrue on both sides, which will degenerate into more name-calling, misrepresentation, etc., and four years from now we'll hold another election so we can do it all over again.

Given this, does it matter who wins the election? Both sides will have succeeded mostly in making their supporters think the worst of their opponents, thereby encouraging the worst in us, inciting our hatreds and deluding us into thinking that our political adversaries are evil, selfish, and stupid.

(You can see it already in the desperate, fearful hatred people express, particularly toward Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Bush, and Sarah Palin.)

They'll have succeeded in making us worse people in the name of improving government.

Is this sort of politics any place for good people?