In Response to Jerome Parent
In his critique of my article “Cowards in the Shadows,” Jerome Parent charges that I have used various “rhetorical tricks known as logical fallacies…instead of just relying on the facts” in my argument. He contends I have used ad hominem, broad generalizations, and emotional language to support my position. I wish to respond.
As a composition teacher, Parent surely understands that effective written argument in forums such as this utilizes a combination of logical, emotional, and ethical appeals. If either of us were simply relying on “just the facts,” our discourse would be limited to non-controversial statements like, “Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.” Or perhaps we would simply post pie charts and spreadsheets. In short, we would have little to talk about. The call for “just the facts” is itself a sly rhetorical sleight-of-hand to present himself as logical and analytical in contrast to his “emotional” and illogical debating partner. As I will demonstrate, however, Parent himself uses the very strategies he criticizes in my writing. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, he also engages in many of the same flaws in reasoning that, according to him, I am guilty of.
One accusation he levels is that I used “emotional language.” Yet note how my colleague begins his own article: “One thing I learned in Vietnam is that it is easy to point out someone else’s fear when the bullets are not aimed at you.” As a patriot, I respect him for his military service and acknowledge that he has more direct knowledge of the combat theater than I. Still, he tries to establish his own credibility by emphasizing his status as a veteran and using an emotionally-charged reference to “bullets” being “aimed” at someone (presumably him). As I pointed out earlier, good writers attempt to reach their audience, so it is perfectly fine if he wishes to emphasize his military service to connect with readers on an emotional level and develop his ethos. Yet he would have you believe that his writing is purely logical and fact-based. Does his combat experience in Vietnam translate to some higher understanding of all forms of cowardice and courage? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a debatable proposition, certainly not a fact. At any rate, I would not have brought it up at all, except he implied that “emotional language” is somehow inappropriate in this discourse, a charge which the facts of his own writing style dispute.
With all due respect to Parent’s combat service, a person does not have to be a war veteran to understand courage and cowardice. Good parents teach their children it is cowardly to observe a classmate’s being bullied and not inform someone capable of stopping the abusive behavior. They explain that the act of bullying itself is a form of cowardice, because the bully is targeting someone weaker than him/herself. Also, as I have suggested in other articles, many conservative voters have grown weary of the moral cowardice often on display from Republicans who abandon their colleagues at the first sign of controversy to save their own political skins. To their credit, Democrats usually close ranks and refuse to allow one of their own to go down without support. This is not to suggest that unquestioned loyalty is always appropriate, but a common complaint among Republican voters is that our politicians eat their own.
Parent is certainly correct that exposing government corruption and abuse is difficult business. He mentions Deepthroat, but there was also Daniel Ellsburg with the Pentagon Papers, and, more recently, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who’ve found themselves in very serious trouble for leaking government secrets. Such incidents even date back to the revolutionary period. In my U.S. History I class just last week, my students and I discussed Benjamin Franklin’s dressing down in front of the Privy Council in London after Franklin sent a packet of letters back to Massachusetts revealing that Governor Thomas Hutchinson had suggested an “abridgement” of Bostonians’ liberties might be necessary to quell growing unrest. Franklin hoped to remain anonymous, but tensions became so high that he had to come forward. Indeed, as Franklin’s situation demonstrates, our country was founded by many individuals who risked their reputations, fortunes, and lives to counter what they considered a repressive government. It’s Franklin who famously said, “We must all hang together, or we will hang separately.”
Nevertheless, calling someone a traitor is an extremely grievous charge. I would also contend it’s moral cowardice of another kind to hide behind anonymity and float innuendo that a sitting president worked with a foreign government to undermine the country’s electoral process without providing definitive proof. Parent says there are dangers to leakers, but they have already committed themselves to potential ruin by talking to reporters about confidential and classified information in the first place. The current problem is that so far, what we’ve seen suggests that partisans are leaking information that may have a grain of truth (Sessions met with Russians!) but is embellished by Democrats and the press to create doubts. Or, more specifically, people are trading on their positions as “intelligence officials” and putting out disinformation that never definitively ties Trump to collusion with the Russian government. These efforts appear to intended to undermine the new administration.
We hoped the country had learned a hard lesson decades ago when an out-of-control, self-aggrandizing Wisconsin senator was instrumental in ruining the lives and careers of so many people. Since many Democrats were the victims of McCarthy’s and HUAC’s activities, it is disturbing that sitting senators like Claire McCaskill and other lawmakers would not be more careful about suggesting the president has committed treason. If someone as powerful as Donald Trump can be accused of betraying his country without evidence, what is to shield the rest of us from similar charges if we alienate the intelligence community? It is not too much to expect that the American public be provided with concrete proof immediately if Trump is guilty of these extremely serious charges. If the leakers have the goods on him, then let them provide that information to the people through their press sources and try to maintain their cover. Until they do, they are merely further eroding Americans’ trust in the federal government.
Parent claims that, “There is no disputing that the Russians hacked the DNC and released information damaging to Clinton.” There are most certainly questions whether the Russians hacked the DNC. Julian Assange himself has denied that the Russians were the source of the information in the DNC Wikileaks revelations. Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist has done some excellent reporting on the issue, suggesting the intelligence community has deliberately targeted Trump because he has singled them out for criticism. As Hemingway reminds us in her reportage, even Senator Charles Schumer ominously warned Trump that he should not annoy the intelligence agencies because “they have seven ways to Sunday to get back at you.” Certainly, we have received reports from intelligence agencies that the Russians hacked the DNC and most of the media are running with that information. What is the number of intelligence agencies confirming the hack that the Democrats keep emphasizing in their talking points? Sixteen? Seventeen? Yet not one thing so far has tied Trump to election misconduct after months of allegations.
James Clapper even released a partial report about Russian election interference before he left his position as DNI. Still, among conservatives there is legitimate doubt that this interference goes beyond the usual cyber warfare the Russians, Chinese, and we engage in regularly. Conservatives remember quite vividly George Tenet’s “slam dunk” intelligence that led us into Iraq. We also remember James Clapper’s insistence that the government wasn’t spying on Americans when in fact it was. (Full disclosure: Before he retired, my husband worked at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency under Clapper’s directorship. I can assure you, however, Mr. Z. was not a spy.) Many Americans legitimately question whether officials are shooting straight with the public or engaging in politics. In fact, even Democrats have argued that the government is politicized. They were outraged with FBI Director James Comey re-opened the investigation of Hillary Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. Before that, when Comey chose not to bring charges against HRC, the Republicans were alleging politics was influencing his decision. Right now, there is bi-partisan skepticism about the government’s credibility. Unfortunately, there is so much chaos and confusion, the public has no idea what to believe.
But suppose I concede that the Russians did hack the DNC. To what degree is that the most important element of the story? (Indeed, security appears to have been so lax, my mother in the nursing home could have hacked their computers with only her Jitterbug flip phone.) Parent points out that information “damaging to Clinton” was released, without specifying the nature of that information. The Wikileaks e-mails revealed that the DNC was deliberately working to sabotage the Sanders campaign, resulting in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Wikileaks also revealed that Donna Brazile, CNN analyst and interim replacement for Wasserman-Schultz, had been forwarding debate questions to the Clinton campaign during the primary season. So far, the facts show that it is the Democrats who were undermining another presidential candidate to gain an unfair advantage in the election. This point is regularly obscured by talk of Trump’s Russian connections.
My colleague objects to my use of “corrupt national media.” He writes, “The media is biased. But it not some monolithic liberal conglomerate,” creating a straw man argument that caricatures what I actually said. I did not single out “liberal” media exclusively for criticism. I criticized “corrupt” media, including influential conservative journalists like Bill Kristol, who tweeted that he was happy about “Deep State” attempts to undermine the Trump presidency. Anyone who has read my other articles also knows I have been critical of traditional mainstream conservative publications like National Review Online for rabidly anti-Trump coverage. Certainly there are honest journalists, but the journalism profession is in serious crisis.
Quoting an article written by our editor Eric Stephenson about how market forces drive coverage, Parent neglects to mention that in the same article, Stephenson also points out that it’s not simply benign market forces leading the shift away from traditional media outlets. In fact, our esteemed editor is making a point similar to my “corrupt media” assertion. Stephenson writes, “A cacophony of voices are spreading as much media gossip as possible in an effort to destroy the Trump presidency early on. To a dispassionate observer, this assault has the look of an orchestrated effort.” In contrast, Parent argues that “columnists and commentators are supposed to stir up trouble with speculative thinking.” I’m not sure how he squares that with the idea that anything other than “just the facts” writing is problematic.
Parent also exaggerates the threat to the press from Trump’s “enemies of the American people” remark. He writes, “I’m not agreeing with those who call Trump a potential dictator, but the “enemy of the people” remark is historically the kind of phrase dictator wannabes use.” After denying that he’s calling Trump a dictator, he goes on to say, “To not understand why journalists from both the right and left find that remark disturbing is to ignore the suicidal deaths of democracies in other times and places.” Parent can’t have it both ways and distance himself from the over-the-top “Trump is Hitler” people and then use hyperbole to talk about the “suicidal deaths of democracies” resulting from targeting the press.
Trump did not surrender his own First Amendment rights when he became president. In addition, the First Amendment does not shield the press from critique or even strong condemnation, especially when journalists kick professional ethics to the curb. It isn’t Trump’s fault the press has such a low opinion among the American people. The complaints about deteriorating journalistic standards have been ongoing for a long time, with no attempt to reform. Once again, people appear more alarmed by what Trump says about reporters than what the previous administration did to them when James Rosen and AP reporters were investigated by the Obama Justice Department.
Parent was extremely censorious of my remarks about John McCain. He makes an odd claim that “my emasculating comparison” of the Arizona senator to the Dixie Chicks “is both distasteful and rude.” Parent either misread my remark or he is being deliberately disingenuous. Here is my reference to McCain: “They [the media] were cheered on by Republican Senator John McCain, who pulled a Dixie Chicks and criticized the president’s remarks about the press during a trip overseas. Obviously, I am referencing Senator McCain’s criticism of POTUS during his trip to Munich and the Dixie Chicks and their criticisms of President George W. Bush while they were touring overseas. Both McCain and the singers did indeed criticize sitting presidents while outside the country. That is a fact. Strangely enough, however, Mr. “just the facts” complains loudest about that. I’ll leave it to Parent to explain why comparing McCain to three talented and successful (albeit controversial) women is “emasculating.”
Parent’s patronizing admonition to “treat McCain like an elderly relative” was amusing. If anyone is “emasculating” McCain, it is Parent for implying that the poor, grandfatherly senator is not to be criticized in his dotage. Despite his war injury, McCain has been a United States Senator for nearly three decades and also the Republican nominee for president. He is one of the most powerful men in the country. I even voted for him in 2008. Still, that does not make me blind to his many flaws. He was a member of the Keating Five. This “man of honor” who has “defended his political rivals and attacked his own party when he thought it necessary” provided the infamous “wacko birds” diss of fellow Republicans, which should distress Parent since he says he objects to ad hominem. I daresay McCain is perfectly capable of handling criticism. Just because someone is a soldier does not insulate him/her from critique. Like everyone else, soldiers come in all kinds, honorable and dishonorable, competent and incompetent, and some in between. I admire General George Washington’s campaign at the Battle of Trenton, but I also know his early career in the Ohio Country serving with Braddock was disastrous. Benedict Arnold was a hero at Saratoga. Over West Point? Not so much.
Furthermore, Parent has suddenly become more particular about personal attacks than he has been in the past. His previous USR columns indicate he is fully capable of ad hominem himself. Here and here in his own USR columns, he refers to Trump as “The Orange One.” In another column he calls “state and government officials” who might stand in the way of abortion rights….wait for it… “turdweasels.”
More seriously (at least in my view), instead of treating me as an honorable colleague with whom he has an honest disagreement, he casts aspersions on my integrity by leading his rebuttal by calling my rhetorical approach “tricky.” Later, when he discusses my point about Trump’s war with the media, he says, “Dismissing Trump’s comment about traditional media being an enemy of the people, as ‘something really mean’ is both tone deaf and ignorant of the political ploys used by dictators throughout history.” I may be many things. I may be misinformed. I may be incorrect. In this case, Parent might plausibly argue that I am guilty of understatement. I may even be wrong (as he was when he wrote “The Clinton Tsunami” and other articles stating that Hillary would win in a landslide), but I am very confident that “ignorant” and “tone deaf” to “political ploys used by dictators throughout history” is a charge that does not apply to me. Would a column like this be written by an “ignorant” person?
For the record, though, I am not complaining about Parent’s invective. Political writing is historically contentious and snarky. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine called George III the “royal brute of Britain.” I frequently use snark and sarcasm myself. Parent is free to use all the ad hominem he pleases. On the other hand, if he truly objects to it, he would be wise not to call someone out for it, then pretend he doesn’t indulge in it himself.
In his essay predicting Hillary Clinton’s landslide victory, Parent ends by saying the following, which also seems apt here: “Of course that’s just my opinion. If I’m wrong, you’ll let me know.”
The Academic Redneck