Thursday, April 19, 2012

False Equivalence

False Equivalence

At the NRA convention a couple of days ago, washed-up rocker and certifiably bat-shit-crazy-person Ted Nugent launched the mother of all tirades against everything to do with Barack Obama.  For example:  his head should be chopped off.  For example:  if the President is reelected, Nugent will “end up dead or in jail” (a not-so-subtle suggestion that Nugent himself will attempt to do the beheading honors).  Nugent, by the way, is on the NRA’s Board of Directors.  He’s also a hunting buddy of Mike Huckabee and a loud supporter of Mitt Romney.

Asked later about his screed, Nugent was not exactly contrite.  “When I do God’s work so beautifully like I do, the devils go berserk,” he explained.  For good measure, he labeled Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz a “brain-dead . . . soul-less, heartless idiot” and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “sub-human scoundrel” because these "varmints" had dared to criticize him.

Democrats have indeed condemned Nugent’s bloodthirsty rant, but the response has been rather muted, all things considered.  Perhaps that’s because Nugent’s almost unbelievable outrageousness leaves one speechless – or because one hesitates to dignify his ranting by giving it more attention.  The Secret Service is giving Nugent more attention, however, because it’s a federal crime to make threats against the President.  (When they’re not busy squabbling about hooker prices in Colombia, Secret Service agents have a sworn duty to investigate such threats. I really hope they do so with the seriousness they would bring to the task if the threatener were a non-semi-celebrity.)

Republicans have said virtually nothing.  Through a spokesperson, Mitt Romney – who was so eager to have Nugent’s endorsement that he promised the Motor City Madman to never, ever enact new gun laws – finally issued what might be the world’s most lily-livered disavowal, one that didn’t mention Nugent by name and tut-tutted over uncivil discourse on both sides.


The implication here is that Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen’s inept observation – that Ann Romney’s stay-at-home-motherhood is not ‘work’ in a way that a salaried job is ‘work’ – is an outrage on the same order of magnitude as Nugent’s vitriolic ravings.  This is a textbook example of what seems to be this year’s most popular logical fallacy:  False Equivalence.

False equivalence resembles random metonymy gone rogue – if things share one or two similarities despite crucial factual differences, they can be classified and compared as parts of the same group, setting the stage for fallacious, ludicrous, even dangerous conclusions.  For instance

 Why are these men equivalent?  Because they’re both good orators and have mustaches.

Of course, this conclusion is both ridiculous and offensive.  But so is what’s happening in political discourse these days.  People who should know better bestow an entirely baseless moral equivalence on, say, an ill-advised comment that is basically a simple statement of fact and venomous, violence-advocating hate speech.  Justification?  Both Rosen and Nugent talk about politics, and both said something that upset some people (although this last point of commonality is fairly bogus, because even Ann Romney has admitted that she was ‘delighted’ by Rosen’s remark, evidently because it could be ginned up into a foundationless charge that Democrats do not respect the work mothers do).

Reliance on false equivalence goes beyond politicians.  It permeates political news reporting.  Even otherwise perspicacious journalists add an obligatory ‘on both sides’ or ‘the other party does it too’ when discussing an egregious statement or action by a politician or a party or its supporters.  They do this even when the equivalence is patently baseless. It’s as if, in fear of seeming ‘biased,’ everyone is emulating the almost parodic ‘Fair and Balanced’ routine perfected by Fox News, where a token – and often muffled, drowned out, or ridiculed – voice for ‘the other side’ pretends to constitute impartiality.

Ah, the whole thing makes me tired.  Sometimes it feels as if political discourse this year, after it’s been pounded into indistinguishable mush through false equivalence, does nothing but echo the immortal dialogue between Pee-Wee and Francis:

‘I know you are, but what am I?’
‘I know you are, but what am !?’
‘I know you are, but what am I?’

Listen to too much of this sort of politico-speak and your mind starts to play tricks on you . . . It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting . . .

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