Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Rick Perlstein: Nixonland and Hack-Slaying

Rick Perlstein of The Campaign for America's Future/The Big Con been so busy recently he needs his own roundup. If you missed it, he's posted some selections from his discussion with David Frum on Blogging Heads TV (via C&L). The usual pattern is: Frum spins away, states a falsehood, Perlstein calls him on it, and Frum will try bluster his way through, issue an irrelevant qualifier, or pretend that being wrong doesn't affect his argument at all, and try to move on. It's really pretty funny (and educational) stuff. As I've commented, I think it perfectly captures the wonk versus hack divide, but I wish it played out like this more often.

Perlstein explores the dilemma of how to deal with folks like Frum:

This navigates us straight into some tricky waters: what to say when, as is so often the case, conservatives utter confident falsehoods in mid-debate that just happen to gel exquisitely with their own preferred arguments? Are they lying? Ignorant? Or merely a bit opportunistic?

Charging any of these is inflammatory, of course, or at least ungentlemanly. And, yes, perhaps even unfair (there is such a thing as a good-faith factual mistake, even one that happens to seem to clinch an argument).

But not charging any of these things might be yet more discomfiting—because you might let a blackguard escape the scene of a rhetorical crime.

As it happens, one of American politics' greatest masters of talking himself out of sticky verbal situations—most often with a quip—derived a perfect solution to my little dilemma. Here's Ronald Reagan, in his famous October 27, 1964 televised address for Barry Goldwater, in a line he often repeated: "Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so."

Just so. That's the most generous, non-judgmental way of describing my problem with our conservative friends.

I once coined a word to describe all the untrue utterances I heard at the 2004 Republican National Convention to write around the thorny problem over whether the men and women of the Grand Old Party were lying or merely ignorant: not-so's. The coinage never took off, but I'm going to revive it to neutralize characterize all the untrue utterances that so casually came out of David Frum's mouth as I debated.

That's a pretty good, polite term for it, and it occurs so often there's certainly a need for such a term. Certainly, as Roy Edroso satirically does, we can consider the stupidity-to-evil ratio of various right-wingers, and as Jonathan Schwarz does, we can occasionally uncover evidence that "these people truly believe the insane stuff they say." I still like the term "to Horowitz," coined by a Sadly, No! commenter, which is when a conservative essentially says, "The fact that my premise was false in no way reduces the strength of my argument." It's a popular gambit with David Horowitz, Jonah Goldberg and… David Frum. Personally, I'm fond of the very useful term bullshit, which describes any statement where the speaker just doesn't care whether it's true or not. But that doesn't play as well on "civil" talk shows, and there are plenty of falsehoods conservatives actually do believe (such as this one). So "not so" — or NotSo! — may prove very useful.

Perlstein solicited submissions for key conservative "not sos" in "Axis Of Um, Um: Where Do We Go Frum Here?" and has followed up in "Notso! — And A New Request."

(I also have more on the subject of debating hacks here and here, among quite a few other posts.)

Meanwhile, Perlstein's new book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is out, so give it a look and keep your eyes out for the book tour. A previous book by Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus was praised even by conservatives for its accuracy and insight. That one's out of print, and won't be re-issued until next year, but Jonathan Schwarz passes on that Perlstein's auctioning off some first editions on eBay that he'll sign and dedicate as requested.

Schwarz also passes on a speech highlighted by Perlstein over at The American Prospect. The speech's by Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) back in 1966, highlighting the importance of patriotic dissent, in this case opposing Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War. Schwarz quotes the best paragraph:

The causes of the malady are not entirely clear but its recurrence is one of the uniformities of history: power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations -- to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work. The Lord, after all, surely would not choose you as His agent and then deny you the sword with which to do His will. German soldiers in the First World War wore belt buckles imprinted with the words "Gott mit uns." It was approximately under this kind of infatuation -- an exaggerated sense of power and an imaginary sense of mission -- that the Athenians attacked Syracuse, and Napoleon and then Hitler invaded Russia. In plain words, they overextended their commitments and they came to grief.

That's pretty timely and timeless, to my mind, especially given that the zeal for war not only ignores all human wisdom, but also the realities of war throughout human history and simple common sense. Perlstein's introduction to the speech includes these remarks:

I've heard that Nixonland can be a depressing book -- it does describe the spectacle of a certain political party whose name begins with a "D" tearing itself to shreds in divisive presidential primary fights and then nominating sweet-tempered goo-goos who get rolled over by a Republican mountebank who'll say anything to win. That selfsame mountebank outright robs the mantle of populism from the Party of the People by somehow saddling the Democrats for a generation or more with the label elitist. As I said, depressing.

Well, like old Tony Grasci used to say down by the docks, "pessmism of the intellect, optimism of the will" -- there's never been any other option for champions of ordinary people who wish to keep on keepin' on in the often thankless struggle to wrestle power from the privileged.

Those are pretty timely and timeless observations too, I'd say. This May Day, citizens demonstrated for immigrant rights and to stop the war. Both are encouraging. And 'often thankless struggles' are less thankless, and less draining, when they're undertaken with other people. The Bushies view the crime of Watergate as getting caught. Since Cheney and Bush are basically Nixon with the warm, fuzzy and occasionally responsible parts ripped out, I'm thinking Nixonland could be a valuable resource. Part of fighting movement conservatism lies in not letting them rewrite history and spread their "not sos" unchallenged. This crew needs to be called out and permanently discredited. It'll take a sustained, group effort, but every little bit helps. There can never be enough hack-debunking or activism for social justice.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Faded said...

Another day, another fine post, Batocchio. (Restraint, lucidity, and eloquence).

Suzi Riot said...

Good to see you back at full strength (and then some). Brilliant!