Replacing Arguments with Name Calling

Rush Limbaugh has claimed that the modern liberalism of Ted Kennedy & Co. is dead in the water as far as arguments are concerned. I am not sure this isn't true also of modern conservatism, a la George W. Bush'are there really any arguments in support of Bush's bloated big government 'compassionate' conservatism?

Limbaugh seems to be right about the demise of arguments for modern liberalism'I still cannot just say 'liberalism,' given how that label used to be deployed to mean people who loved liberty before the social democrats hijacked it. This is evident from the way the new darling of that political group, Al Franken, goes about propping up the liberal position, namely, with unabashed name calling. Just consider the titles of his recent best selling books Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot and other observations and Lies: and the lying liars who tell them: a fair and balanced look at the Right.

But perhaps you think all this is in jest and as far as Franken's serious ideas are concerned he relies not on such put downs but on arguments and analysis. Well, there is very little of that in either of these works'mostly they are filled with rehashed calls for more social welfare and reiterations of shopworn ideas such as that the poor are all victims and the rich mainly get rich by being lucky. This stuff is really old and the arguments for it have been met over and over again by people who actually make their case on a variety of fronts such as history, economics, philosophy, psychology and the rest of the fields that teach us a thing or two about human beings and their behavior.

Franken is about to launch a radio talk show program, on a new network that modern liberals are setting up, led, as The New York Times reports, 'by Shelley Lewis, a career broadcast news producer, and Lizz Winstead, a former stand up comic who was co-creator of Comedy Central's 'Daily Show'.' When referring to the competition Franken will go up against, Winstead talks of 'a big ugly white guy giving you the answers.'

I don't know about you, but such discourse on political topics pretty much proves to me that the people in the limelight have completely abandoned the idea that political issues can be debated rationally, that there may be good arguments to be relied on in order to advance one's favorite public policies. And this doesn't really come as a surprise.

Most of those who went to college back in the days Franken and his pals did heard in their classes'in philosophy, sociology, economics, political science and the rest'that one cannot know what is right and wrong. There are only biases about values, never any knowledge.

That idea, in turn, is often (somewhat mistakenly) credited to David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher who defended the idea that there is a logical gap between statements of 'is' and statements of 'ought.' Whatever the strength of Hume's view, it caught on big time so that, with the added help of the early 20th century logical positivists, the view became mainstream that value judgments are mere biases, emotional dispositions, feelings of approval or disapproval, nothing more. In philosophy it was called 'non-cognitivism,' meaning that what is right and wrong cannot be a matter of cognition'that is, of knowledge.

Now we see the result of this in broad daylight: Some of the major figures of public debate do not even pretend to argue, they just call each other nasty names. They do not even attempt to defend their views as correct but rely on badmouthing their adversaries in the hope of making their name-calling catch on with the citizenry. To achieve this, they add the humor factor, Al Franken's professional expertise.

Thus we have in the making a rather nihilistic turn, now that few educated people seem to actually believe in the possibility of rationality'and thus, of course, civility'in the field of politics.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.