November 17, 2010

How To Edit Out Invective

Earlier today, I was e-mailed a link to an article that someone found interesting. Another person on the e-mail link said that he too found the article interesting, but was taken aback by the partisan rhetoric, ad hominem attacks, and emotional invective. So I took a stab at editing the essay, and wound up chopping out nearly four-fifths of it. The original can be read here; it is 2,787 words long. My edited version of it follows, it is 614 words long. I'm sure that the author, Professor David Michael Green of Hofstra University, loved every one of the 2,173 words that I cut out, because a lot of them were liberal-to-progressive red meat. But I think I've kept the intellectual content of his essay intact. Here's how I edited of Prof. Green's essay:
The most important problem America faces is the inability of its citizenry to make thoughtful decisions. We are fast losing the “Enlightenment-era” ability to engage in dispassionate empirical observation and rational analysis. Many prefer instead a “religious approach” to the world in which knowledge is given as true by an authority, and deviations therefrom are sanctionable heresy. “Enlightenment” and “religious” thinking is ultimately irreconcilable, and the second approach has dangerously gained popularity.

An illustration: while doing a radio show earlier this month, I spoke with a man who believed Barack Obama to be a “liberal.” I said, “I can name ten examples of right-wing policy from this White House. Can you name three examples of liberalism? … Okay, how about one?” He could not, and uncomfortably laughed, “You know, you’re never going to get me to believe that!” He adhered to the “Obama is a liberal” idea despite my demonstration of its falsity, showing a mentality defined by an incapacity for rational thought. In place of reason, he held a tribal world view in which “our” team is always good and right, and “facts” are accepted dogma, rejected out of hand, or manufactured to support a predetermined conclusion. This is characterized by fear and discomfort when the ambiguities of reality contradict given assumptions.

Religious people claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. That may be true, but it does not mean that religion is true. Rather, it demonstrates that faith is a palliative for frightening realities. Religious thought thus appears when political discourse meets difficult problems.

Consider fiscal policy. Our government promises radical tax cuts for the wealthy and a balanced budget at the same time. Similar promises were made during the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and they resulted in increased deficits. Tax cuts cannot be delivered at the same time as a balanced budget. President Reagan’s OMB director, David Stockman, has admitted this. But the myth persists; a new generation of tax and fiscal policy based upon it will surely increase rather than diminish our national debt.

Consider foreign policy. Former Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz has admitted, and the Downing Street Memos proved, that the argument in favor of invading Iraq so as to prevent its creation and use of WMDs was not based upon substantial evidence. World leaders likely knew this truth but nevertheless sold the myth, even as they prepared for and fought a long, bloody, and expensive war.

Consider patriotism. We claim that the United States is an exceptional, thriving society, despite the fact that many economic indicators suggest that ours is an empire in decline. President Obama was taken to task recently for saying something that suggested America was falliable. His critics ignored other things he said, which were unambiguous praise of America; they were irritated by the suggestion of even the slightest imperfection in America. For deviating even minutely from the a priori Truth of American exceptionalism, Obama was castigated unjustly.

Consider science. When scientists say that global warming will effect deleterious climactic changes over the next half century, uneducated pundits claim this is not true because fifty years from now is very different than fifty hours from now, and the science upon which the conclusions are based is hard to understand, so the cause-and-effect relationship is obscure. But if that climactic change were predicted to take place in fifty days, serious scientific and technological effort would surely be mobilized to address it.

The root of all of these problems is our increasing reliance upon faith rather than reason. We should consciously return to the values of the Enlightenment culture, which places a premium on thoughtfulness, logic, and a scientific approach to reality.
My goal in editing the essay was to keep its intellectual argument intact, not necessarily to endorse or adopt all of its content. I'm not sure, for instance, that tax cuts were the direct or even primary cause of bloated deficits in the past -- I think spending increases, in both defense and in entitlements -- were probably bigger culprits. I still have doubts about the justifiability of the Iraq war when viewed from a prospective rather than a retrospective basis, and additional moralizing about it now strikes me as not a particularly useful thing to do. And I remain unopinionated as to global warming because the science is hard and complex and I have made a choice to deal with other kinds of issues because there's lots of other commentary about global warming available elsewhere. So I'm not 100% with Prof. Green on his content. I don't think I need to be, in order to either understand or distill and fairly restate his points. I don't think there's any doubt, even edited, that the essayist comes from a liberal perspective.

I'm also not claiming to be a superior writer to him. Prof. Green was blogging, and that's an indulgent, unattended, generally unassisted theater in which one writes. My own writing and blogging here is overlong, sometimes over-emotional, and quite often would benefit immensely from third-party editing. So I'm not saying I'm any better than Prof. Green here because I'm guilty of indulging my political and emotional passions when I blog too, instead of stepping back, cooling down, and trimming out the fat as I probably should more often than I do. Emotional arguments have a valid and appropriate place in persuasive discourse, after all, so the last thing I'm saying is that he should trim out all of the emotional impact of his essay because in places, I think his appeals to emotion contribute to the larger point.

What I am saying is that if Prof. Green wants to change the minds of people who think like he says Republicans do (and he's right that they think this way), then he's cutting himself off at the knees when eight of every ten words he writes contribute to a theme of "Rethuglicans R teh SUXor!!1! hehe" because the partisan bashing really does get in the way of the argument. I'd ask him, "Who is the target audience for this essay? What is this essay intended to produce in the mind of its readers?" If the target is conservatives he wants to persuade to abandon what he calls "faith-based" thinking, mixing in insults is hardly the way to appeal to them to do so. If it's a piece written by a liberal to other liberals, why did he write it in the first place, seeing as his audience agrees with him already? What intellectual bridge does this cross? If it's intended to make liberals look more "rational" and thereby appeal to persuadeable moderates, then why does he work so hard to bend a criticism which obviously can apply to both sides of the aisle in a partisan fashion?

At the end of the day, Prof. Green does have an interesting point to make. Too many people -- he singles out political conservatives but liberals are presumptively just as susceptible to this sort of thing as conservatives -- do not engage in critical thought when approaching difficult problems, and exchanging competing slogans is not the same thing as political discourse. Making this point may not be as much fun as calling the other side a pack of lying weasels, but in my opinion making that point without all of the partisan baggage makes the point more effectively and to a broader audience.

1 comment:

patrickcard said...

I have a look at your blog periodically and typically find it insightful or interesting.

I'm curious though... I acknowledge your point that it does little good to insult the very same people you're ostensibly trying to reach, as the good professor did.

But it seems like no alternatives ever work. How do we get to a point that people are willing to consider arguments dispassionately and use logic and reason to come to conclusions? I have no problem with religious reasoning (I used to be a hardcore Christian) -- well, I do, but I understand most of it -- but even non-overtly-religious conservatives (and, fair point, liberals!) hold to many ridiculous beliefs without actually fairly considering the original point and/or counterpoints.

What's the solution?