A practical guide to intellectual dishonesty
Vilifying the peace movement by suggesting that it is spitting in the face of the U.S. troops in Iraq has been a common slander in the inexorable advance toward the war that began Wednesday night. It is a simplistic, mean-spirited and politically charged characterization, and a telling example of a much larger issue, the intellectual dishonesty so rampant in the public forum.
Intellectual dishonesty comes in several shapes and sizes. It is wrestling with the worst argument on the other side rather than the best. It is appearing to be stupider than you really are when that's convenient for the superficial case you wish to make. When all else fails, it is the form of debate that purposefully misrepresents someone's motives or actions for the sake of maligning them.
Peace protesters have been an easy target of late. The local advocates are a raucous coalition brought together by a variety of factors -- earnestness, boredom, pacifism, alienation and disdain for President Bush -- that includes little if any antipathy for soldiers on the front lines. Say what you will about the 50 women "breast-feeding for peace" in the rain at Pioneer Courthouse Square this month, but don't tell me they were giving succor to the enemy.
Intellectual honesty is so rare in the contentious public dialogue because it runs contrary to the very nature and spirit of politics. Because politics is primarily about gaining power and holding on to it, political machines are designed to find the other side's weaknesses and to exploit them.
They have no interest in publicizing the most compelling case of the opposition. They avoid evidence of moral conviction or philosophical complexity and highlight traces of inconsistency and hypocrisy because they are seeking something far more useful than the truth or common ground: All the players in politics want is an advantage.
The hucksters on the sidelines, from "Crossfire" to the slickly packaged invective on KXL, want ratings and an audience. They need to be entertaining, and a balanced, honest assessment of issues as grand as war and peace usually isn't. Rather than take these commentaries -- including this column -- as gospel, you might want to stay alert for signs that what you're dealing with isn't a particularly sincere struggle with the news of the day.
How neatly, for example, does the moral of the story coincide with the prevailing bias of the person presenting the news? You should be much less suspicious of a perspective that cuts across the grain of the host's political views than you are of another opportunity for him to gloat, "I told you so."
H ow prevalent are the pejorative labels of the day, be they "right-wing nut," "flaming liberal" or "anti-American"? That kind of pigeonholing is a dead giveaway of old grudges and a theatrical rush to judgment.
Beware of blasts from the past. Whenever people argue, "I didn't hear you complaining when Bill Clinton . . ." or "Where were you when Ronald Reagan . . . ," it's an admission that they'd rather claim everyone is guilty than profess their favorite's innocence.
How are everyone's motives described or disparaged? Is the commentator's cynicism or benevolence consistently applied to all the characters in the daily drama? Or are some combatants given a free pass while others are ripped apart with no concession that they were trying to act honorably? You can no more dismiss peace protesters as unpatriotic than you can reduce the president's dogged pursuit of Saddam Hussein to a quest for oil and familial revenge.
Intellectual honesty is usually forfeit when someone abandons the intelligent argument for an emotional one. I'm as entertained by those vitriolic, impassioned rants as the next guy, especially when they involve issues as insignificant as the Trail Blazers or the best breakfast place in town.
But when this country marches off to war, there's more at stake than the usual scrap for political advantage. The debates that follow demand an intellectual honesty that finds more to like in nervous humility than in arrogant certainty.
Reach Steve Duin at 503-221-8597, [email protected]
or 1320 S.W.
Broadway, Portland OR 97201.