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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Helene Cooper discovers a President who likes to argue with Straw Men

On Barack Obama (not George Bush)
He often reverted to his favorite rhetorical devices — straw men — to make his points to the students. For instance, he said that “some people say that I’m being too idealistic” and ask him why he’s reaching out to Iranians, saying that trying to use diplomacy to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is “too hard.”

On nuclear Weapons Newt Gingrich (who is not, technically, made of straw)

GINGRICH: The president’s in a world where Hamas is firing missiles every day into Israel, Iran is building nuclear weapons, and the North Koreans today during — basically during his speech fired a missile, and he has some wonderful fantasy idea that we’re going to have a great meeting next year. […] I just think that it’s very dangerous to have a fantasy foreign policy, and it can get you in enormous trouble.

The accusation that Obama is too idealistic is not made only by straw men. I wonder if Cooper understands the conventional meaning of " rhetorical devices — straw men." It refers to making up an non existent opponent who says something which is easy to refute. It does not refer to describing real live critics briefly and without naming names.

I'm glad that the New York Times is willing to criticize public figures and not just report what they said. However, it would be nice if they managed an accurate criticism instead of claiming that Obama was setting up a straw man when he was responding to his critics.

I don't recall reading that George Bush liked to debate straw men in the New York Times. That was the only debate he could tolerate.

I'm sure Obama uses the rhetorical divice. However, in the quoted passage he was not debating a straw man.

In the cited case, Obama was not inventing an imaginary opponent who doesn't exist, he was accurately albeit generically discussing the most common really existing genuine criticism of his foreign policy made by real flesh and blood people. Furthermore he wasn't choosing some obscure opponent with unusually extreme views. He was mentioning the main stream, virtually unanimous, position of the Republican party.

The article is innaccurate. Cooper's claim on a matter of fact is false. I think the New York Times should publish a correction.

update: Cooper's distortion is much worse than I thought. She suppressed the very clear reference to very real people who very clearly accused Obama of being too idealistic. The quote which she butchered to make her totally false "straw men" allegation is as follows

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, some people say that maybe I'm being too idealistic. I made a speech in Prague about reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, and some people said, ah, that will never happen. And some people have said, why are you discussing the Middle East when it's not going to be possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to come together? Or, why are you reaching out to the Iranians, because the U.S. and Iran can never agree on anything?

My attitude is, is that all these things are hard. I mean, I'm not naïve. If it was easy, it would have already been done.

He's clearly listing specific accusations that he is too starry eyed. All correspond to real flesh and blood critics, but Cooper totally supressed the one which refers to extremely recent and widespread criticism and which makes her claim that Obama was setting up "straw men" plainly false and not just false as I asserted based on her quotation.


Anonymous said...

Helene Cooper though is being quite accurate since the President did not refer to a specific critic, but this is a President who must, absolutely must, be written about with reverence even when the President is actually sounding threatening.

Robert said...

Dear anonymous. Are you a "straw man." Since when is the definition of the rhetorical technique of "straw men" simply not naming specific critics.

The Wikipedia is open to all and has no authority. However, no one objected to this definition

"A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position.[1] To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.[1] [2]"

There is nothing about naming names there. According to the Wikipedia, a straw man argument is responding to an argument that wasn't made, not neglecting to name names.

Who are you ? and what gave you the authority to insult me because I do not agree to use a phrase in the way you chose to define it ? Why should I have enough respect for your intellectual integrity to take seriously a defintion you pull out of your hat after the debate is engaged ?

Obama obviously didn't have time to name all the specific people who made that criticism -- they are very numerous. Nor do I see why he should have given them the attention they seek. The fact is that such people exist and cooper knows it, therefore they are not "straw men". Straw men are not uhm real people (you do know that real people are not made of straw ?)

You argue that Obama must name names yet you supress your own. I don't know what is more amazing your idiocy or your hypocrisy.

Since you are, by your own defition, you are a straw man you can hardly criticize me for being rude to a straw man when I say you are a moron. Or is it possible to slander a straw man ?

Oh and I repeat. Who are you ? There is no legitimate reason for you to hide behind "anonymous." I request that, in the future, you sign your comments here. If you are willing to put your name where your arguments are, I will try to be polite to you.

However, I won't be polite to a self defined straw man.

Robert Waldmann