A really satisfying, engaging intellectual discussion is like a symphony. Each participant in a debate brings a different sound to an important project. One person puts forth an elegant flute rift, then another chimes in with some deeper notes on the tuba, then a third contributes on the clarinet. Each instrument is akin to a different ideological approach, life experience, or a new set of key facts. These different sounds all contribute to something far greater than the sum of their parts.
All except for one: the screeching, electric guitar feedback of those who blast ad hominem assaults into intellectual discussions. As soon as someone goes ad hominem and begins attacking a speaker instead of the speaker’s ideas then the music is done. The noise has begun.
Such is the case in the debate over Glenn Beck. On the heels of the fairly even-handed (but still objectionable) Time cover story on Beck the “progressive” online magazine Salon has unleashed a far more devious, horrific assault on this new symbol of the Right.
The article by Alexander Zaitchik is titled “Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck’s life” and features the subtitle, “Cleon Skousen was a right-wing crank whom even conservatives despised. Then Beck discovered him.”
The article starts off with a condescending description of the recent Conservative March on Washington before identifying the “true” engineer behind it:
The masses were summoned by Glenn Beck, Fox News host and organizer of the 912 Project, the civic initiative he pulled together six months ago to restore America to the sense of purpose and unity it had felt the day after the towers fell.
In reality, however, the so-called 912ers were summoned to D.C. by the man who changed Beck’s life, and that helps explain why the movement is not the nonpartisan lovefest that Beck first sold on air with his trademark tears. Beck has created a massive meet-up for the disaffected, paranoid Palin-ite “death panel” wing of the GOP, those ideologues most susceptible to conspiracy theories and prone to latch on to eccentric distortions of fact in the name of opposing “socialism.” In that, they are true disciples of the late W. Cleon Skousen, Beck’s favorite writer and the author of the bible of the 9/12 movement, “The 5,000 Year Leap.” A once-famous anti-communist “historian,” Skousen was too extreme even for the conservative activists of the Goldwater era, but Glenn Beck has now rescued him from the remainder pile of history, and introduced him to a receptive new audience.
To Zaitchik understanding Skousen will allow Salon’s leftist readers to truly grasp the lunacy of the modern Conservative Movement without having to bother participating in the intellectual symphony of ideas:
As Beck knows, to focus solely on “The 5,000 Year Leap” is to sell the author short. When he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen had authored more than a dozen books and pamphlets on the Red Menace, New World Order conspiracy, Christian child rearing, and Mormon end-times prophecy. It is a body of work that does much to explain Glenn Beck’s bizarre conspiratorial mash-up of recent months, which decries a new darkness at noon and finds strange symbols carefully coded in the retired lobby art of Rockefeller Center. It also suggests that the modern base of the Republican Party is headed to a very strange place.
The article then goes on to present a summary of Skousen’s life, books, and ideas that reinforces one central thesis: he was a conspiracist, racist, fundamentalist kook who respectable conservatives eventually ignored, until Beck “rediscovered” him. I have not read The 5000-Year Leap nor am I particularly familiar with Skousen. My experience with Leap is limited to seeing it frequently at the top of the political bestsellers list when I’m browsing on my Kindle. To determine the accuracy of Salon’s summary of Skousen is a task I turn over to NewsReal’s readers who are perhaps more educated on him.
It should come as no surprise that Salon also attacks David Horowitz as a Skousenite:
Whatever the circumstances, Beck really began touting Skousen in the latter half of 2007. The first brief mention of Skousen in the online archives of Beck’s radio show is Sept. 24, 2007. Less than two months later, Beck interviewed conservative pundit David Horowitz on his radio program. He asked him, “Have you ever read any Skousen? Have you read — do you remember ‘The Naked Communist’? I went back and reread that, it was printed in the 1950s. I reread that recently. You look at all the things the communists wanted to accomplish. It’s all been done.” Horowitz agreed.
Horowitz notes in response:
In the Salon article, I didn’t say I had read the Skousen book as he insinuates, only that I had heard of it. And I didn’t agree with any statement that Skousen may have made that the Communists achieved everything they wanted.
Here’s the actual exchange that Salon is lying about:
GLENN: You know, I’m reading — have you ever read any Skousen? Have you read — do you remember “The Naked Communist”?
HOROWITZ: Yeah. [DH: I.e, yeah I remember the book “The Naked Communist” but I’ve never read it and haven’t the foggiest idea what’s in it.]
GLENN: I went back and reread that, it was printed in the 1950s. I reread that recently. You look at all the things the communists wanted to accomplish, it’s all been done. It’s all been done.
HOROWITZ: Here’s the way I measure what’s happened to the Democratic party and the country. John F. Kennedy was a Reagan Democrat.
(Why on earth would the author lie about this and provide a link where someone can check it? Does he really think that poorly about his leftist audience?)
Whether Salon’s profile is accurate about Skousen or not is irrelevant. (And just because they lie about Horowitz does not mean they’re lying about Skousen.) When they shift back to talking about Beck’s interest in Skousen’s work they are unable to directly pin any of Skousen’s allegedly nutjob statements onto him. All they can really do is point out that he recommended some of Skousen’s books and wrote the foreword to Leap. They have no evidence that Beck supports everything Skousen ever said.
Salon is trying to suggest that because Beck has been inspired or influenced in some abstract way by Skousen he is therefore in the same alleged Whack-Job Right. The Salon piece is not interested in actually engaging with Beck’s and modern conservatism’s ideas. Instead they’re going to perform a bait and switch, trying to hold up 50-20 year-old objectionable ideas about fundamentalism, racism, and conspiracism and suggest that modern, mainstream conservative thinking is no different.
I have absolutely no tolerance for ad hominem argumentation, whether it’s coming from opponents on the Left, opponents in the Kook Right, and especially from overly-zealous conservative allies.
Here’s a simple explanation of ad hominem that should explain quickly why it’s a classic logical fallacy. Jack puts forth Argument X in a debate with Jill. Jill does not like Argument X and wants to refute it. However in order to do so she decides to say nothing about Argument X and instead say how something about Jack is objectionable. Perhaps she shoots back, “Argument X is not true because we all know that you lie all the time.” Or maybe if they’re having a political debate Jill will say, “Argument X is not true because you’re a leftist/racist/conspiracist. If you’re wrong about something else then you’re wrong about Argument X too.”
But it doesn’t matter if Jack is the one making the claim. Argument X could be “The sky is blue” or “Jimmy Carter was once president” and the truth of the argument would have nothing to do with Jack’s character or ideology.
In the case of the Salon article, Zaitchik is saying “Argument X (the totality of Beck’s thinking) is not true and should not be taken seriously because he has said nice things about books by this nutjob right-winger.”
I’m going to resist the temptation to do to Salon what it does to the Right. It would be ad hominem of me to say that Salon is lying about Skousen because they lied about Horowitz embracing Skousen. The potential truth of the claims about Skousen are completely separate from the fact that the author chose to lie about another fact. The only thing that relates the two claims is the fact that they’re both made in the same article.
If you play an instrument in the intellectual symphony you’re going to run into jerks that do ad hominem guitar feedback. In his book Indoctrination U: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom, Horowitz demonstrates how this is a classic strategy of the Left. In Chapter 2 he relates what happened at Reed College when Dean Peter Steinberger chose to employ ad hominem against him on the Academic Freedom Issue. Steinberger took passages from Horowtiz’s The Art of Political War out of context to suggest that Horowitz supports lying to achieve political objectives. Thus, why should anyone consider Horowitz’s ideas about Academic Freedom? Clear logical fallacy.
But it’s not just leftists that do this. I’ve had to deal with many commenters at NewsReal who like ad hominem also. Last week I stumbled into a debate with one commenter who was insisting that the founding fathers were born-again Christians. I countered that most of the founders were deists. When he demanded evidence I linked him to some quotes from the founders’ writings at Wikipedia, the blog of my friend Jonathan Rowe, and a book of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. His reply: wikipedia has a liberal bias, the publisher of that book has put out anti-Christian books, and what are Rowe’s qualifications to make these claims?! The same thing happened when I fell into a discussion about the Bible with another commenter. Not even trying to change anyone’s mind or attack anyone’s faith I suggested Bart Ehrman’s recent book Jesus, Interrupted as an example of a book which explained how I tended to view the New Testament. The commenter responded by claiming that Ehrman was a “statist” — I’m not sure if that’s even true — and therefore a liar even on such matters as biblical scholarship. Once he brought out the guitar feedback it was time to pack up my instrument and find somewhere else to play music. How can one find any sort of harmony with people who don’t even know such basics as how to read music or carry a tune?
And before one of our leftist critics can jump on me let me admit it: yes, when conservatives try and say that President Obama’s associations with Bill Ayers, Van Jones, Rev. Wright, and other leftists is grounds for treating everything he says as a lie then, yes, they too are engaging in ad hominem noise. These connections are relevant, they just don’t give one a license to block out Obama’s ideas the way the Left blocks out ours.
This criticism of ad hominem does not mean we should trust what everyone says. If someone is known for lying then by all means be skeptical of one of their claims. (Keep this in mind with the new Michael Moore movie coming out.) We just can’t leap frog to the conclusion that what they’re saying is false. And it does not mean that associations or influences are unimportant or should not be discussed. It would be interesting to study which of Skousen’s ideas might have influenced Beck. That’s not Salon’s agenda, though.
Unfortunately this guitar feedback is seemingly never ending in modern political debate. “The Right is against Obama because they’re racists” is only the newest manifestation. But this cycle of ad hominem noise needs to stop. It’s time to unplug both our and our opponents electric guitars and pick up our instruments again. Call out ad hominem when you see people doing it. Don’t take this intellectual short cut yourself. And Conservatives can do this and still play their music with all the passion and aggression needed to triumph as we play the American Song together.
Editor’s note: For a different ad hominem assault that labels some other crackpot conservative as Beck’s mentor see the recent NewsReal debate with David Frum.