Friday, August 24, 2012

Rhetoric: "The Broader Truth"

Politicians often give us stories, anecdotes, or statistics to back up their positions. Sometimes, those stories, anecdotes, or statistics wind up being false.

The right thing to do, under these circumstances, is to admit that what you said was false, and then offer up factual, true data or anecdotes to support your position. But, frequently, politicians just gloss over the falsity, and insist that what they said, while false, nonetheless illustrates a "broader truth" which cannot be denied.

This could be viewed as an evasion of sorts. However it's classified, it's unacceptable behavior. If the broader picture -- or "the underlying point" -- is true, then why can't you illustrate it with a true story or statistic? If there's a whole forest out there, why can't you point to an actual tree?

If the bigger picture is so abundantly true, then you should be able to come up with an accurate statistic illustrating that fact. If you can't, then maybe you're wrong about the broader point.

Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown. … The unarmed 18-year-old also became a potent symbol of the lack of trust between African Americans and law enforcement. … But the other DOJ report, the one on the actual shooting of Michael Brown, shows him to be an inappropriate symbol. … The DOJ report notes on page 44 that Johnson “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender.” In one of those interviews, Johnson told MSNBC that Brown was shot in the back by Wilson. It was then that Johnson said Brown stopped, turned around with his hands up and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” And, like that, “hands up, don’t shoot” became the mantra of a movement. But it was wrong, built on a lie. Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger “Black Lives Matter.” In fact, the false Ferguson narrative stuck because of concern over a distressing pattern of other police killings of unarmed African American men and boys around the time of Brown’s death. Eric Garner was killed on a Staten Island street on July 17. John Crawford III was killed in a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio, on Aug. 5, four days before Brown. Levar Jones survived being shot by a South Carolina state trooper on Sept. 4. Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was killed in a Cleveland park on Nov. 23, the day before the Ferguson grand jury opted not to indict Wilson. Sadly, the list has grown longer.
-- Pundit Jonathan Capehart, March 16, 2015. Capehart was referring to the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Dorian Johnson was friends with Brown, and witnessed his shooting. A federal report on the Ferguson, MO, police department claimed it was guilty of racial discrimination, and another federal report concluded Wilson had committed no wrongdoing in shooting Brown.

Comment: This is an example of "the broader truth" rhetoric. Capehart is saying that, even though Brown's shooting is not an instance of police racism, the "broader truth" is that there is a problem of racial violence by police. Capehart goes on to list several such cases, though he doesn't (perhaps for the sake of brevity?) offer proof that these cases – unlike the shooting of Brown – are shootings by police motivated by race.

"The evidence of racial bias comes not only from statistics, but also from remarks made by police, city and court officials. A thorough examination of the records – including a large volume of work emails – shows a number of public servants expressing racist comments or gender discrimination; demonstrating grotesque views and images of African Americans in which they were seen as the “other,” called “transient” by public officials, and characterized as lacking personal responsibility. I want to emphasize that all of these examples, statistics and conclusions are drawn directly from the exhaustive Findings Report that the Department of Justice has released. Clearly, these findings – and others included in the report – demonstrate that, although some community perceptions of Michael Brown’s tragic death may not have been accurate, the widespread conditions that these perceptions were based upon, and the climate that gave rise to them, were all too real."
-- Attorney General Eric Holder, March 4, 2015, in a report on the police department of Ferguson, MO.

Comment: This is "the broader truth" rhetoric. Is it understandable that protesters concluded the shooting of Brown was an act of racism? If there were so many verifiable cases of racism committed by the Ferguson, MO, police department, then shouldn't protesters have gotten upset about those examples, and not the unverified accusations of racism in the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson? It wouldn't be acceptable to argue the other way, would it? That is, could Wilson have argued that, even if he was wrong in assessing the behavior of Brown in particular, the broader truth is that there is a climate of crime and hostility to police, therefore making Wilson's reaction to Brown understandable?

"Here's the Republican Party's message to women in 2012: No choice. No exceptions. After 48 straight hours of Republicans falling all over each other calling for Rep. Todd Akin to rescind his ridiculous, ignorant-of-basic-biological-functions comments about rape and abortion, their party just voted to embrace Akin's position by including a constitutional ban on all abortions -- even in cases of rape or incest -- in their 2012 platform. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are now, incredibly, saying they don't agree with the policies of the party whose nomination they're about to accept, but guess what? The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that the platform was, and I quote, "written at the direction of Romney's campaign.""
-- Fundraising email sent by chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, August 21, 2012.

However, what the LA Times article from correspondent Paul West (August 20, 2012) said was, "Delegates for presumptive nominee Mitt Romney are voting down substantive changes to the platform language that was written at the direction of Romney’s campaign." This is a poorly written sentence. Taken on its own, it seems to say that Romney's delegates are rejecting changes to the platform, the platform having been written by the Romney campaign. Reading the entire article, though, it's clear that the platform for 2012 is largely being adopted unchanged from what was written previously for earlier election years (2008, 2004), and that Romney's delegates -- at the direction of Romney's campaign -- are rejecting any attempts to change that platform. Wasserman Schultz is thus wrong to say that Romney was "writing" the platform. And, at any rate, Romney doesn't accept the platform's position (presidential candidates frequently reject or diverge from the party platform). He has clearly said that -- while he opposes abortion -- he supports exceptions for rape and incest.

Wasserman Schultz was challenged regarding the truth of her claim:
CNN ANCHOR ANDERSON COOPER: My only point is -- and again it's my job on both sides of the aisle to point out things that are inaccurate -- is in a fundraising e-mail to misquote something to serve your argument just doesn't seem in the long term to serve your argument very well. But --
WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I understand your point, but I think we -- I mean, the balance of the e-mail makes the case very clearly. And the main thrust of the information we're trying to convey is that Mitt Romney is disingenuous when it comes to his position on a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices, and he's extreme and has embraced an extreme position. And we want women to know that.
-- Wasserman Schultz, August 23, 2012, on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees.

Comment: The "balance" or the "main thrust" of Wasserman Schultz's email doesn't eliminate the fact that she misrepresented the LA Times article, that the Romney campaign isn't writing the GOP platform, and that Wasserman Schultz has misrepresented what Romney's position on abortion is. If Wasserman Schultz wants to argue that Romney's position on abortion is wrong, she should do so using facts, not misrepresentations.

"Everybody goes to clinics, to hospitals, to doctors, and so on. Some people go to Planned Parenthood. But you don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol or your blood pressure checked. If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."
-- Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), April 8, 2011.

However, measured by number of services provided, abortions account for 3% of what Planned Parenthood does.

Kyl responded to challenges to the truth of his claim later that day:
"His remark was not intended to be a factual statement but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions."
-- Statement released by Kyl's office, later on April 8, 2011.

Comment: There are disagreements regarding how to measure what percentage of what Planned Parenthood does are abortions. But the point here is that Kyl accepts that his initial statement wasn't factual, and then tries to cover up for it by saying that it wasn't intended to be factual, but was made to illustrate some other factual claim. And that makes him guilty of trying to avoid, obscure, or justify the falsity of his initial claim with "the broader truth" rhetoric. (Note the propensity to have a spokesperson release the retraction.)

"More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won't pay the full cost of care. It happens every day. One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size. That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America."
-- President Barack Obama, September 9, 2009, during remarks to a joint session of Congress on health care.

Obama is referring to Otto Raddatz and Robin Lynn Beaton. Raddatz, however, did receive the treatment he needed -- a stem cell transplant -- and he continued to live for another three years (he died January 6, 2009). Beaton, meanwhile, did lose her insurance coverage, but not because of undeclared acne. Rather, the Associated Press reports, "when enrolling in the plan, she had not reported a previous heart condition and did not list her weight accurately".

The Obama administration responded to challenges to the truth of his claim:
"The story President Obama referenced in his speech underscores what so many Americans have learned the hard way: Insurance companies look for ways to rescind their coverage when you need it most … A media account of Mr. Raddatz’s story that the president relied on in his speech confused some of the details, but the underlying point remains the same.  President Obama wants to end the practice that allows insurance companies to pull insurance for individuals like Mr. Raddatz when they need it most."
-- White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield, related by Politifact in September 17, 2009, article.

Comment: How does Obama's story about Raddatz "underscore" the claim that health insurance providers unfairly revoke coverage if Obama's story about Raddatz isn't true? Obama's telling of the story was not "confused", it was false. And because it was false, it provides no evidence of the "underlying point" that Obama was trying to impress on people. If there's an abundance of cases of health insurers leaving people in the lurch, then why can't Obama provide an example of that actually happening? (Note the propensity to have a spokesperson release the retraction.)

“For my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they’re saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don’t have to pay her treatment, there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.”
-- Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), October 7, 2008, during the second presidential debate of the 2008 election.

Obama is referring to his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died of cancer in 1995. However, Dunham did not have a dispute with her insurer, CIGNA, about health insurance. Rather, she had a dispute with them regarding disability coverage. Dunham told CIGNA she would be represented on the matter by “my son and attorney Barack Obama”, indicating that Obama should have been aware that health insurance coverage was not at issue.

 The Obama administration responded to challenges to the truth of his claim:
"A White House spokesman chose not to dispute [the claim that Dunham's health insurer acted appropriately], while arguing that Mr. Obama’s broader point remained salient. … "[T]he president’s mother incurred several hundred dollars in monthly uncovered medical expenses that she was relying on insurance to pay … She first could not get a response from the insurance company, then was refused coverage. This personal history of the president’s speaks powerfully to the impact of pre-existing condition limits on insurance protection from health care costs.""
-- White House spokesman Nicholas Papas, related by The New York Times in July 14, 2011, article.

Comment: Note that Papas says Dunham was "relying on insurance" without specifying whether the insurance in question was health insurance (which did pay Dunham's bills as expected) or disability (which Dunham was denied). Obama's October 7, 2008, remarks were clearly about health insurance, not disability insurance. Because Dunham's health insurance paid her bills as it was supposed to, Dunham's story doesn't "speak powerfully to the impact of pre-existing condition limits on insurance protection from health care costs". Only a story of a health insurer unfairly withholding coverage will illustrate the "broader point". (Note the propensity to have a spokesperson release the retraction.)

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

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