Thursday, March 15, 2012

Obama's "Flat-Earth" Name-Calling Misfires on History (and Civility)

Speaking about energy policy today (March 15, 2012), President Barack Obama criticized Republicans, saying:
"Lately, we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians, a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office … they've been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. ... We’re trying to move towards the future; they want to be stuck in the past. We’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round."
Obama is wrong on two fronts, here. First as a matter of civil debate, and second as a matter of historical fact.

The Civility Side

On the first point, Obama is engaging in name-calling, a derisive caricature of Republicans.

Obama is saying that Republicans' only policy on energy is to "drill, drill, drill" more oil. But, while it's true that the GOP presidential contenders do emphasize drilling for oil more than Obama and Democrats do, they have many energy proposals apart from that. (This is known as the "silver bullet" caricature, where you say your opponent has only one proposal to fix a certain issue, when in fact they have several.)

For instance:

Far from Obama's derisive misrepresentation, Republicans don't have a "drill oil and do nothing else" strategy on energy. 

And this caricature is derisive. Obama is demonizing Republicans by making it sound like they're opposed to innovation. "They want us to be stuck in the past", Obama says.

But that's not true. Obama and Republicans have legitimate differences of opinion about which energy sources are most reliable and most feasible for the near-term and further into the future. You don't demonize people who disagree with you on such complicated matters by deriding them as people who believe the Earth is flat.

In fact, that kind of caricature is just as bad as when Republicans have caricatured Obama as a Luddite who wants to get rid of ATMs. I'm sure Obama doesn't like being demonized that way, he would do well to treat his opponents with the same respect he demands for himself.

Unfortunately, White House Spokesman Jay Carney says that this sort of derision is not just "appropriate", it's also a "policy message" rather than a campaign message. Well, so much for treating others the way you'd like to be treated.

The History Side

Secondly -- and this is the kind of ironic part -- in suggesting that Republicans are akin to flat-Earthers, Obama gets some basic history wrong.

When Christopher Columbus decided to sail west from Spain to Japan, China, and Asia more generally, he faced a lot of criticism, but not because his critics believed the Earth was flat. Educated Europeans by that time mostly agreed with Columbus that the Earth was round, that is was a sphere.

Rather, Columbus' critics disagreed with him about how big the globe was. Columbus thought it was small enough so that the ocean between Spain and Japan could be crossed by boat in one non-stop trip. His critics disagreed, insisting that the globe -- and therefore the distance between Spain and Japan -- was bigger, so big that the ships of Columbus' day couldn't possibly carry enough supplies to keep the crew from starving before they reached land.

And it turns out Columbus' critics were right. By the time he and his crew stumbled onto the islands of the Caribbean, they had been at sea for five weeks and had not made it even half-way to Japan. If not for the Americas standing in his way, Columbus and his crew likely would have starved. (Well, Columbus might have been beaten to death, but the rest of his crew would probably have starved.)

So, in suggesting Republicans were as ignorant as people who don't know basic geography, Obama displayed that he is ignorant of basic history.

To be fair, lots of people are misinformed on this one, but I wonder if Obama will deride his own ignorance on this matter the way he seems to enjoy deriding what he sees as GOP ignorance...

No comments: