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One of the greatest rhetorical and moral challenges of opinion writing is how to respond to or critique aggressively dishonest or tendentious arguments. One part of you wants to discuss the underlying issue with its complexities and ambiguities intact — and every issue has complexities and ambiguities. But, in battles of ideas, decibels and clarity matter. And, to take up a different sort of metaphor, the niceties of conflict resolution are hardly appropriate or sensible if you’re trapped in a dark alley with a couple mafia goons.

A case in point is the increasingly brazen tendency for conservative columnists to label any critical discussion of neoconservatism as a form of anti-Semitic diatribe.

Let me point you toward one recent example from a December 31st column by Joel Mowbray. Here are the first three grafs …

Discussing the Iraq war with the Washington Post last week, former General Anthony Zinni took the path chosen by so many anti-Semites: he blamed it on the Jews.

Neither President Bush nor Vice-President Cheney—nor for that matter Zinni’s old friend, Secretary of State Colin Powell—was to blame. It was the Jews. They “captured” both Bush and Cheney, and Powell was merely being a “good soldier.”

Technically, the former head of the Central Command in the Middle East didn’t say “Jews.” He instead used a term that has become a new favorite for anti-Semites: “neoconservatives.” As the name implies, “neoconservative” was originally meant to denote someone who is a newcomer to the right. In the 90’s, many people self-identified themselves as “neocons,” but today that term has become synonymous with “Jews.”

So Tony Zinni, retired four-star general, former head of Centcom, a tough critic of the Iraq war and its architects, is an anti-Semite. And the basis for this is his criticism of neoconservatives.

Here’s another example, from Tuesday’s column by David Brooks in the Times …

In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for “conservative” and neo is short for “Jewish”) travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another. The ones outside government have almost no contact with President Bush. There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle’s insidious power over administration policy, but I’ve been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office. If he’s shaping their decisions, he must be microwaving his ideas into their fillings.

It’s true that both Bush and the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace. But correlation does not mean causation. All evidence suggests that Bush formed his conclusions independently. Besides, if he wanted to follow the neocon line, Bush wouldn’t know where to turn because while the neocons agree on Saddam, they disagree vituperatively on just about everything else. (If you ever read a sentence that starts with “Neocons believe,” there is a 99.44 percent chance everything else in that sentence will be untrue.)

Still, there are apparently millions of people who cling to the notion that the world is controlled by well-organized and malevolent forces. And for a subset of these people, Jews are a handy explanation for everything.

The Brooks’ example is a bit more gussied up. But the essential point is the same.

First, on the accusations — subtle or crass — of anti-Semitism.

We’ve now gone from arguments where anti-Semitism is perceived at the margins of critiques of neoconservative intellectuals to the current practice in which it is treated as a given that ‘neoconservative’ is simply a code word for Jew and criticisms of the same are one shade or another of anti-Semitism.

Let’s be clear on what’s going on here.

Pressure groups exist in politics. The loose association of people generally termed ‘neoconservative’ use the term to describe themselves. And while no group is monolithic in its thinking, they generally think of themselves as a group and act in that fashion. We can get into a discussion at some other point about the fine points of intellectual history and note that intellectual or ideological movements are as much social constructs tethered to specific institutions as they are coherent and consistent textbook philosophies which remain the same over time. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The point is that this is an ideological group in American politics. The people who are a part of it see it as such, as do its critics and opponents. And yet many now want to use blanket criticisms of anti-Semitism to stigmatize and ward off any and all criticism.

It’s almost like a thuggishly rhetorical assertion of intellectual property rights. Neoconservatives can use the term and talk about their movement as a movement. But it’s off-limits for opponents — sort of like how trademark holder Nike can use the phrase “Just Do It” but if Reebok tried, Nike would sue.

Not only is this dishonest. It’s a conscious cheapening of the charge of anti-Semitism that should be roundly and vociferously criticized.

Another point.

In Brooks’ column, aside from the anti-Semitism stuff I’ve noted, we can see another common ploy. In fact, it makes up almost the entirety of Brooks’ column.

The aim is to discredit any notion that neoconservatism plays any significant role in Bush administration foreign policy — a demonstrably ridiculous point. Brooks does this by mixing in all sorts of code words about ‘conspiracies’, ‘jews’, radio communications through dental filings and the like to stigmatize as ridiculous what is actually a serious issue and ripe field for serious debate.

It’s almost the definition of anti-intellectualism.

Here’s a particular example from the second graf of Brooks’ column …

Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Web sites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies; my favorite described a neocon outing organized by Dick Cheney to hunt for humans.

This is really classic. First, a demonstrably accurate point, neocons pushing for forcible regime change in Syria followed by some story about Dick Cheney’s hunting trip to hunt humans.

How do you respond to something like this?

Sort of like …

So many crazy stories out there. One minute people are claiming that jumbo-jets are flying from New York to Paris. The next day we hear that flying saucers are beaming people up to space and spiriting them away to Mars …

Finally, a small confession. Both of the writers I’ve discussed above are what I guess you’d call casual acquaintances — at least people I’ve met on several occasions in the past and almost certainly will again. So there’s a natural or I guess unavoidable tendency to resist calling their arguments dishonest or tendentious — and referring to them by name. But what else is possible or appropriate when they’re slandering and maligning whole categories of people?

What’s being practiced here isn’t argument. These are rhetorical brickbats meant to squelch argument. The whole thing is disinformation from start to finish.

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