The Lizardís Tongue 2

by Dafydd ab Hugh

This Bloody Fight's Been Rigged!

Power Line tipped me to a fascinating article by Todd Manzi up at Human Events, provacatively titled "The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy: Attack on Bill Bennett Was Staged." While Manzi makes some powerful points about the irresponsibility of the press, he ultimately fails the twin labors of Hercules he sets himself: either to prove that the dogpile on William Bennett was "staged," or to offer any practical suggestions for preventing such media mayhem in the future.

Manzi jumps right into the fray with his second paragraph:

The travesty is that weíre even talking about this at all. The most abhorrent behavior that occurred regarding this issue came from the Associated Press (AP). Allowing news hit men like John Conyers, Bruce Gordon, Ralph Neas, Howard Dean and many elected Democrats to assault Bill Bennett is detestable and the AP should be held accountable. The only way liberal Democrats can win is by fighting without honor and by perpetrating hideous attacks on innocent citizens.

The problem with th line "hideous attacks on innocent citizens" is that it depends upon the idea, which Manzi develops later, that because these activists took the lead in publicizing Bennett's remarks even before the MSM picked up on them, that proves the whole imbroglio was "staged."

According to the Google timeline, all of the above press releases [by the execrable Media Matters, Rep. John Conyers, the NAACP's Bruce Gordon, and by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights] were issued BEFORE any of the main stream media (MSM) published one story about the Bennett call. At this moment the only people in the general public who knew what Bennett said were those who heard it on the radio.

This unseemly group of barnacles attempted to get ahead of the issue and attach themselves to it for their own self promotion. They were also sending a strong signal to the (AP) that they want this to be a national story.

But flip it around: suppose Howard the Dean were to give a private fundraiser (which he frequently does), and suppose he were to say something incendiary about Republicans (which he inevitably does). At that point, his remarks have only been heard by the Democratic Party cognoscenti... would any of us see anything wrong with George Will or Charles Krauthammer or John Hinderaker picking up the offending remarks and spreading them far and wide, hoping to get as many people as possible angry at Dean? Isn't that the job of a partisan pundit?

They should be faulted in the Bennett case for the falsity of their message -- not the fact that they spread it before it was already news. Nor can one legitimately blame AP for carrying the story once the activists were talking about it: that made it legitmate news. AP's shame is that they carried such a misleading take on the story, not that they carried the story at all.

We are of course talking about Bennett's reductio ad absurdum on his radio show, which I have already defended -- defended in terms of what Bennett actually said; second, on the point of his analogy: a reductio ad absurdum showing such arguments are invalid on their face; third, I even went beyond what Bennett himself was able to do at the moment (for obvious reasons) and argued the underlying statistics that make the absurdist argument possible.

(The argument -- in structure -- was lifted from the book Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, though they used "poor" rather than race, a disingenuous euphemism, since the crime-rate difference is primarily cultural, not economic; they did not use the argument as a reductio.)

Manzi ably demonstrates that the activists and even the MSM themselves deliberately misconstrued Bennett's argument to the public, hoping to wrongfully inflame passions and sentiment against a very decent and moral man who opposes abortion of any baby, regardless of race. Manzi quotes James Taranto, whose takedown of the fatuous Juan Williams is priceless: Taranto notes that in the course of attacking Bennett for using an offensive example to show the absurdity of someone's argument, Williams manages to do exactly the same thing Bennett did... six times in a single statement! I suppose Williams felt justified: after all, some white dude said something that offended many blacks, so Juan Williams, in retaliation, said a bunch of things to offend whites, Christians, and Jews. This is a verbal version of the Crown Heights Riot logic: some Jew accidentally kills a black child, so let's grab the first Jew we meet and murder him in retaliation -- a Jew's a Jew!

But clearly the attack was no more "staged" than it is when conservative pundits pick out something some hapless liberal said in quasi-private and broadcast the remarks to a wider audience, hoping to gin up some outrage. There is nothing wrong with that when we do it, so I can't fault the Left when they do it. I can only fault them for lying about what Bennett said... not for publicizing it.

Manzi's piece truly falls apart, embarassingly so, in the last paragraphs, when he makes suggestions for what to do to prevent future such liberal swarm attacks. He offers three:

  • Bill Bennett should sue AP, presumably for libel
  • Well-heeled conservatives should fund their own "news gathering agency" to use in place of AP
  • Conservatives should express their anger against AP for reporting the story as they did, and also against the White House for issuing "a negative comment" about Bennett's remarks

Each of these is childish in its own way. First, Bennett would get nowhere suing the Associated Press: Bennett is a public figure; the Associated Press are well-heeled; they have an army of lawyers specializing in defending exactly such lawsuits; and most important, they were careful not to libel Bennett, printing the full text of his on-air remarks and ensuring the comments by activists that they reprinted were opinion, reaction, and analysis, however flawed -- not provably false claims. Worse, not only would Bennett lose the case, the publicity would simply reopen all the old wounds and give the MSM the golden opportunity to recycle all their previous attacks on him! The Navy expression BOHICA (bend over, here it comes again) adequately covers this crackpot idea.

Second, that conservatives should start their own conservative news agency... does Manzi mean something like World Net Daily, NewsMax, Trinity Broadcasting, EIB, or CBN? We already have a balanced news-gathering agency in Fox News Channel; to call for (another) explicitly "conservative" one, besides the ones above, is to make the same mistake liberals made with Air America: you don't win the battle by excluding the opposition; if that worked, then why aren't we in the second term of President Gore or the first of President Kerry? The battle for hearts and minds is won in the free marketplace of ideas competing against each other; convince the mind, and the heart will follow.

Finally, does even Manzi believe that if conservatives yell at AP, the MSM will be more even-handed in the future? Even his suggestion that supporters of Bill Bennett should whine to the White House is misplaced: when reporters demanded that presidential spokesman Scott McClellan "denounce" Bennett, he responded by merely calling the remarks "unfortunate," a rebuke so mild that in D.C. speak, it was actually a slap at the journalists trying to play "let's you and him fight!"

Manzi absurdly argues that:

The war between liberal ideology and conservative ideology will be won or lost based on which side makes the strongest impressions with the people who refuse to participate.

He makes a half-hearted attempt to work this into an argument, but it collapses under its own weight of contradiction: "those who havenít bothered to put forth the work necessary to understand the issue" typically also don't put forth the work necessary to bestir themselves to vote. And even when they do, they vote their party -- which is as likely to be Republican as Democrat.

His concluding paragraph is, of course, inarguable:

In the War on Terror we are happy that Bush has adopted the preemptive strategy of hunting down our enemy and stop them before they can harm us. We recognize this is much wiser than simply reacting to attacks after they occur. The war of ideas is no different. We must all do what we can to preempt future attacks. It is time for each and every one of us to decide, right now, if we are passively going to accept the problem, or if we are going to actively combat the problem.

It is, however, a platitude that tells us nothing specific. Todd Manzi's article is certainly worth reading; its strong middle section, where he shows the paucity of the liberals' arguments, such they must regularly stoop to bearing false witness -- if you have to lie to prove your point, then your point is wrong to begin with -- overcomes the dead weight of the rest of the piece. But it simply isn't the knockout blow that we were hoping to see.

It's a good centerpunch; with enough body blows like this, New-Left liberalism may eventually collapse and join its sister philosophy, Socialism, on the ash heap of history. But nobody's going to call the fight on the basis of this piece, so let's keep slugging.