Friday, July 26, 2013

The lurkers support Obama in e-mail

It's a tried and true technique in messageboard-land since the days of Usenet: when you're backed into a corner in an argument, cite "real" (imaginary) support from those unwilling to engage publicly in the argument. For those unfamiliar with messageboard lingo, these are called lurkers, people who are following a particular online discussion (usually one that has become a fierce argument), but are not publicly siding with any of the actual participants, are not publicly saying anything at all. However, on many messageboards, there are ways to tell someone what you think of their opinions (or of them, perosnally). There are things like "reputation points," short messages that can be attached to a particular post showing approval and readable only by the poster. There are "private messages" or "PM's," which are simply direct messages to another member in a given forum. And there are old-fashioned e-mails, Facebook messages, and tweets one can send from links on a given user's profile.

So, picture this: an argument is taking place on a board that is mostly about politics. Let's say it's an argument about the consequences of extending unemployment benefits indefinitely. Most participants are claiming that such a move will not increase employment, but will tend to decrease it (because of the incentives such a move creates). They cite all kinds of evidence to buttress this position. But a few--wrapped up in ideological cloaks of stupidity--are insisting just the opposite, that extending benefits represents some sort of "financial stimulus" and will actually create jobs.

Needless to say, these few are getting pounded in the debate, as they are unable to offer any actual evidence to make their case. But they won't give in, won't admit defeat. Some try to deflect by introducing other issues or making the argument about "caring" or the like. Others resort to personal insults and name-calling. And still others just abandon the argument without having the courage to admit they were wrong. All of these responses are, of course, intellectually dishonest.

But there is another possible choice, equally dishonest though largely unprovable. It is, again, the "lurkers support me in e-mail/rep points/tweets/PM's" gambit. The idea is simple, the person who is getting their ass handed to them in the world of evidence-based argumentation declares that many nameless people support his or her position, though such support is clandestine or private for one reason or another. Since such supposed support is not public, the person using this argument believes it is effective, as no one can prove their claim of support is false. But veterans of messageboard wars scoff and mock this technique; not only is it intellectually and rhetorically dishonest, it's also sophomoric in the extreme and is indicative of a small mind that--in a given argument--is clearly way out of its depth.

Which brings us to President Obama and his remarks Tuesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. From those remarks:
It’s interesting, in the run-up to this speech, a lot of reporters say that, well, Mr. President, these are all good ideas, but some of you’ve said before; some of them sound great, but you can't get those through Congress. Republicans won’t agree with you. And I say, look, the fact is there are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on a lot of the ideas I’ll be proposing. I know because they’ve said so. But they worry they’ll face swift political retaliation for cooperating with me.
Not content with citing just one group of lurkers, the President claims support from two: "a lot of reporters" and "Republicans in Congress right now." And how can this be challenged? If surveyed, some reporters might very well agree with the President's ideas, but which ones did the President speak to in "the run-up to this speech" (whatever that nebulous phrase is supposed to mean)? Who can say, besides the President himself and any reporters who deign to step forward?

The "Republicans in Congress" is even more difficult to verify, for Obama is claiming that the discussions with these unnamed members were private and that all fear the political repercussions for voicing their opinions on this matter. If we were to survey every Republican in Congress and every one refused to back the President's claims, this would theoretically prove nothing, as Obama could simply reiterate: "they're too afraid to agree with me in public." What is an honest rhetorician to do? Simple, note that if we accept Obama's claims, then by definition he is implying all those who agree with him are liars. Thus, we can rightly say that only dishonest people support Obama...

That is, of course, an unfair construct. But it is no more unfair than the one offered by the President. We're five plus years into his Presidency and he's still making empty-headed campaign-style speeches in which his apparent goal is to merely zing his political opponents, nothing more. That's not leadership. It's not even good debating. It's small-minded, vapid rhetoric from a defensive and petty politician more concerned with political capital than with anything else.

Cheers, all.

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