Column: Shut-Up, He Explained ... W's Idea of a National Conversation

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Mr. Carpenter is working on a book about American demagoguery. He is a columnist for HNN.

Having been pounded for weeks on all fronts, W's recent coming out on the Iraq Question has demonstrated once again that when it comes to honest analysis and honest debate, the administration takes a powder. Both are irritants to the royal ear; nasty vestiges of a quasi-democratic society which interfere with the transition-now properly underway-to a plutocratic and authoritarian one.

Throughout August we, the people, called for a national debate over invading, warring, and occupying. Last Wednesday the president seemed to finally agree: "We look forward to an open dialogue with Congress and the American people," he told reporters after briefing congressional leaders. The next day, however, he let it be known that "one thing is for certain. I'm not going to change my view." So much for debate. In the administration's thinking, "open dialogue" is a rhetorical plaything at best, a nuisance to be tolerated at worst. The rest of the universe may think debate and dialogue mean deliberation; Bush II sees them as so much rubbish to be exploited at its convenience.

Yet the administration's tactics are far from a new force in American politics. They are, rather, a maturation of the Right's political methodology conceived under Barry Goldwater's leadership in the 1960s and developed during the New Right's infancy in the 1970s. In short order the new Right engulfed simply "the Right," which in shorter order engulfed the whole of conservatism itself. The latter has steadily marched farther to the right ever since.

Notwithstanding the ultraconservative shift that the New Right forced upon the GOP Establishment, the movement also represented a fair degree of conservative continuity. Its 1970s formal debut was simultaneously sudden and long in coming. It never abandoned the Old Right's legacy of anticommunism, economic libertarianism, and Christian traditionalism; its fundamental grounding did not differ from its immediate forebears. The difference that came about in modern conservatism--what marked its dramatic shift, indeed, what made it the "New" Right--was its public rhetoric. While basic goals remained intact, the message and its delivery changed. The Right picked up on rhetorical demagogic devices of the past, refined them for the times, and hence attracted an electoral base far more expansive than ever possible with its earlier and rather boring talk of capitalism's sanctity and communism's evils. To gain an electoral foothold the New Right largely supplanted substantive arguments with deceptive political rhetoric.

The tactical use of simplistic messages in place of balanced and thoughtful public analyses became the Right's political salvation, just as its use had been uppermost in the exploits of demagogic luminaries such as Huey Long and George Wallace. Emotional appeals with built-in scapegoats--godless humanists, big-spending liberals, criminal-loving judges, baby-killing feminists, welfare-cheating blacks, child-molesting gays, and on and on ... and on--became the New Right's modus operandi. Whorishly rooted in red herrings, the Right reflowered in a self-made political greenhouse of reactionary rhetoric and fallacious reasoning. It would convert independent voters, socially conservative Democrats, and historically disengaged evangelicals under the Republican tent. This unfolding reality was that which distinguished latter twentieth-century American conservatism from what preceded.

The overarching characteristic of the New Right's rhetoric that marked it as demagoguery rather than honest political debate was not any pointed refutation of opposing arguments, but the blanket denial of their possible validity, even in part. Rhetorically speaking, in any authentic political dialogue there must be, at least to some degree, an element of give and take. Just as scientific laws deny the absolute certainty of any given physical event occurring, the laws of argumentation mandate that any wholly dogmatic contention cannot be deemed absolutely valid, for it lacks the lifeblood of critical examination. In his book One-Sided Arguments, philosopher Douglas Walton offers a powerful rationale for honest exchange.

Argumentation in a persuasion dialogue, in particular, is resolved on a balance of considerations.... As the sequence of argumentation proceeds, there is supposed to be a genuine exchange of views. The other side's arguments are taken seriously, and are taken account of, in improving one's own arguments.... As an argument goes along, and shows increased [Socratic] insight, it reacts to and benefits from the arguments on both sides.

In addition to other rhetorical tactics, the New Right's uncritical selling to the public of altogether unilaterally derived political positions was what moved it from the arena of reasoned advocacy to the amphitheatre of arbitrary demagoguery. It capitalized on a common denominator of all demagogues: simplistic logic. Barry Goldwater perhaps best promoted simplicity as a dandy political tool while speaking at a 1964 campaign rally in Memphis. He said "a lot of my enemies call me simple. The big trouble with the so-called liberal today is that he doesn't understand simplicity." Problems are easily solved "if we have the courage to face them. Those who don't have that courage want complicated answers when they know in their hearts I'm right." His oft-repeated view led New York Times columnist Tom Wicker to compare him to a "child ... speaking on the problems of the times, with a child's directness and lack of complexity."

Answers came easily to Barry Goldwater and, later, the New Right. They usually do when one doesn't bother with differing opinions. As Barry was a child speaking on problems of the times, so W is a likeminded child of the ultraconservative New Right and its profoundly simplistic view of the world.

When the president says he's now eager to debate the Iraq Question but won't change his mind--"for certain"--the real issue then becomes, What's the point? Modern conservatism has twisted the meaning of "debate" into opportunism. That's what has taken the Right this far, and that's all we'll witness this go-around, too. Thus we might as well skip phony debates and go right to the body bags.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Mr. Carpenter's column is published weekly by History News Network and

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Alec Lloyd - 9/12/2002

You must be new around here.

The “where’s the debate?” line is right up there with “Bush needs to make the case,” in terms of saying nothing but sounding like principled opposition.

As you correctly point out, this debate has been raging for 12 years. Apparently being wrong means never having to say you’re sorry, as the “sanctions will work on their own,” “no blood for oil,” “give peace a chance” crew have repeatedly demonstrated.

So now they’re criticizing the president for actually (gasp) standing up for his own convictions and believing in something. The horror! Apparently the ideal leader (as I posit below) is one who has to indulge in a multi-month “dialogue” to figure out where he stands on any given issue. Of course, it is unlikely our enemies will sit placidly whilst President Hamlet debates the “to be or not to be” of any given policy.

In Mr. Carpenter’s perfect world, presidents will be made out of Play-Doh and will be kept constantly moist and malleable, lest their positions ever harden.

In short, the “where’s the debate” argument is an excuse for inaction. Interesting that where once the Surrender Lobby wanted a congressional vote, they now want it moved until after the election. Apparently matters of war and peace are too “political” and should be made well away from the eyes of the electorate.

I wonder if we will shortly have 1,000 historians demanding an immediate vote. Somehow, I think not.

Bob Denham - 9/12/2002

You are so full of it I don't know where to start.

"Where are they going with the War On Terrorism?" I believe that the president is trying to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

And "Clinton was annoying" ??? He is also the only president impeached ... for lying, no less ... that I can remember.

Go back under your dark, American-hating rock.

Bob Denham

Bob Denham - 9/12/2002

What's the problem? We've been debating about Iraq for over ten years and your side still hasn't gotten the answer it wants? After all the facts are in, and there are enough facts for anybody to make a call on this one, the conclusion is still the same. I, for one, am glad that the president sees it that way too.

Of course I won't see any form of debate at all from Mr. Carpenter or from anybody else on that side of the "debate." All I hear is that you don't like the form that the "debate" is taking. Whatever few arguements that have been offered from you side have long ago been blown out of the course of rational "debate."

Don't look now, Mr. Carpenter, but the hawks appear to be lining up with supporters from both sides of the aisle. Have all their decisions been made with a lack of debate too?

This is nonsense. I can't wait to NOT read any book that you are writing about the subject.

And by the way. This isn't history either. I thought that this was supposed to be a history site.

Bob Denham

Alec Lloyd - 9/12/2002

As I used to be a liberal, they are quite strong from my former irrational hatred of all things conservative.

Bill Heuisler - 9/11/2002

Mr. Hochfelder,
Missing the point for partisan reasons is precisely what Mr. Carpenter does with nauseating regularity. To remind you: there has been a Gulf War and a terrorist attack since Reagan and HW. Further, there is absolutely no evidence that any US President, State Department or Congress approved chemical weapons in Iraq - or anywhere else - particularly against civilians.
There is no evidence Reagan or HW "looked the other way" when Saddam gassed the Kurds. To say so suggests foreknowledge or a wink-and-nod collusion in that horrible crime in North East Iraq.
Your allegation/insinuation illustrates a hatred and distrust for your country difficult to understand. Perhaps you've been taught this nasty "urban legend" in college.
As to the use of chemical weapons: Iraq signed the Geneva protocol in 1925 and the UN Geneva Convention of 1972. Iraq also accepted UN resolution UN37/98. There were at least three UN investigations of Iraqi use of chemical warfare and two UN reports (S/16433 and S18852). The United Nations were very aware of Iraq's breaches of international law, but ultimately did nothing. There is, however, evidence Iraq was helped in their chemical weapons program by the British, West Germans, Indians, Austrians, Belgians and Italians - but definitely not the U.S..
There is nothing in the record about the United States having anything to do with Iraqi chemical warfare. We probably knew about the UN investigations and expected the UN to act. Should we have invaded Iraq then, perhaps? Go back to college and ask that America-hating professor why the United Nations did nothing about the gassing of civilians...three times.
Bill Heuisler

Peter Mark Williams - 9/11/2002

Alec your legs have got to hurt by now from all that knee-jerk reacting.

Alec Lloyd - 9/11/2002

There is a difference: the left has a far higher body count.

Alec Lloyd - 9/11/2002

I’m going to take Mr. Carpenter at his word and try, using his own logic, to build the “ideal” American president.

Firstly, he must be a Democrat because Republicans are Greedy and Evil. And Stupid. Can’t forget the Stupid. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. And Dumb.

Okay, so President Perfect is faced with a terrorist attack which kills 3,000 Americans. He immediately convenes a national dialogue. Not sure how long it should go or who should participate, but we dialogue. From this, we learn a few precious tidbits:

1. Corporations are our biggest enemies;
2. The Kyoto Treaty must be immediately signed;
3. All “enemy” soldiers must be given a public attorney and read their Miranda rights before US military forces can act against them.

Congress votes to approve the use of military force against the “not evil, just misunderstood” perpetrators of 9/11. But Congress also directs every federal agency to perform its duties flawlessly and, because President Perfect has said so and Congress agrees, they achieve this for the first time in world history.

After months of deliberation, we go into Afghanistan, but then stop, because a Taliban weapons dump located next to a school goes up and kills a wayward orphan. America has now forfeited it’s moral right to war.

Declaring a Day of National Shame, President Perfect announces the war is over. Back to your movies, everyone.

Ludicrous? You bet. So is everything Mr. Carpenter writes. There is no reason, no internal consistency. For example, he blames the Bush administration for Congress failing to act with sufficient speed. Hmmm, last time I checked, Tom Daschle had a wee bit of a say in the Senate voting schedule.

President Bush is to be faulted for being determined, having weighed the facts and made up his mind. The horror! A decisive president! How dare he?! Doesn’t he know the greatest presidents take a poll and THEN, after months of agonizing public debate, only THEN can they act?!

Who can forget the critical moment when the polling firm of Toady, Toadie and Toede presented George Washington with the news that a mild plurality favored independence? Washington courageously followed the polls and moved forward.

Then, of course, there was Abraham Lincoln. Using the famed Pinkerton Associates polling agency, he bravely signed the Emancipation Proclamation once his negatives dropped below 35 percent.

And how can we forget FDR, who waited until after the Sunday night focus-group data came in before delivering his Day of Infamy speech. Now there was a REAL leader.

I don’t wish to sound patronizing, demagogic or otherwise “extreme,” but what planet are you people on? You say you want a debate. Fine, you have it, and you’re losing. Badly. You have no case other than “well, we need to have someone else [the UN, undisclosed “allies,” the Electrical Workers Local 344] debate it as well.” Fine, and if they agree, THEN what? Well, then we have to argue the fine points of international law. Okay, under international law, Iraq has violated the cease-fire 35 times in this year alone. So then you bring up the fact that Congress must authorize the use of force, which of course it has, twice. But now say they have to do it again. Basically, you keep moving the goal post.

In 1998, Saddam was a clear threat. President Clinton, Khofi Annan, Tom Daschle, everybody was convinced he was up to no good. Now, four years and thousands of American dead later, it’s suddenly “complex.”

We are dealing with a known aggressor who has launched unprovoked invasions of two neighbors and fire missiles into two more. He has violated every agreement he has ever signed, yet somehow we need to get him to sign just one more.

And if anyone is bringing up irrational, irrelevant and emotional appeals it is Mr. Carpenter and company. Who CARES about Pinochet? The Chileans don’t. Only the remnant of the anti-Nixon radical left still grinds that particular axe. Yeah, 500,00 Rwandans died while Bill Clinton was president. This, too, is really the fault of Newt Gingrich, right?

The funny thing is, while Mr. Carpenter can easily run off the kill totals of all the right-wing dictators America has used as allies of convenience, he will never admit that their totals are utterly DWARFED by the wholesale slaughters engineered by the left. Even dear old Slobo, the Serb dictator, was a communist. Yeah, Pinochet was bad. Yet compared to your average left-wing Socialist Revolutionary, he wouldn’t even make it to the minors. You need at least 100,000 skulls to get a true handle on the nature of “solving social injustice.” Shall we compare the balance sheets? No, of course not, because the Cold War didn’t really happen and we didn’t really need to win.

This dovetails with the “we can use deterrence against Saddam, an invasion is unnecessary.” What?! Now deterrence works?! THE HELL, YOU SAY! Look at all the overnight neocons! So when you were carrying signs for unilateral nuclear disarmament you were WRONG?! Nice of you to finally admit it. Or does this mean that once Saddam has The Bomb you’ll call on us to disarm so he won’t be threatened…

What’s that you say, we once helped Iraq fight Iran? Oh no! I forgot the First Law of International Relations: you can never change policy for any reason. So when are we launching the final conquest of Canada, by the way? Fifty-Four Forty or Fight, right? Spare me.

So now the line is we don’t want to RUSH the vote, because, you know, a year isn’t nearly enough time to think this over. Maybe next year we can vote. At least wait until after the election. Because, you know, election should be about important things like free drugs and Martha Stewart. People shouldn’t be forced to vote on trivial populist crap like war and peace.

And so it goes, with the Ivy Covered Anointed offering their dire predictions and carping incessantly about a war they don’t have to wage and won’t sacrifice anything for. They have the best of both worlds: they can be proven dead wrong (as they were more than a decade ago) and never have to say they are sorry. It’s a great gig if you can get it: noise without responsibility, but for folks who want to make a difference in life, it doesn’t offer much satisfaction.

Better off joining the police, fire, emergency services or the military. Or, just get a real job and help build the country. After all, someone has to pay the salaries of all those Tenured Experts. It costs a lot of money to ponficate with such self-importance. Only people with advanced degrees are truly qualified.

Indeed, because I am one of the Unwashed Toilers, I’d better get back to Industrial Processor 452 before my People’s Labor Supervisor docks my Privilage Card and my rations are reduced.

Barrett Archer - 9/11/2002

I was just about to make the same point. :) You could easily replace "New Right" in this editorial with "New Left," replace examples of right-wing lunacy with examples of left-wing disengenuousness, and you've got the same thing. I hope Mr. Carpenter realizes that (but I doubt it given his track record).

David Hochfelder - 9/11/2002

Yes, but we knew of Iraq's chemical weapons program, and that Saddam used them against the Iranian troops. The Reagan and Bush (I) administrations looked the other way in the 1980s. I'd call that tacit support for their use.

Peter Jensen - 9/11/2002

P.M. Carpenter is a breath of fresh air in these days of stifling cynicism. Most of the Administration's hawks are also certified liars (Dick Cheney, GW Bush) or certified crazies (Wolfewitz and Perle). Sorry, but I don't trust any of them. Rios Montt didn't have "weapons of mass destruction" but he presided over the murder of 100,000 of his own people in Guatemala, aided and abetted by Ronald Reagan who said he "got a bad rap." Nobody suggested we take him out. Pinochet? We put him in and looked the other way while he murdered his own. When it suited our geopolitical purposes we looked the other way while Hussein gassed the Iranians and the Kurds. Nearly a million were slaughtered in Rwanda and we did nothing. I don't think the Right Wing has a patent on demagoguery, but this current bunch gives new meaning to the word. They're mean. They're nasty. They're paranoid, self-righteous, power-mad and out of control. And they lie. Oh boy do they ever lie! Where's the wisdom? Where's the strength of character? Where's the thoughtfulness? Where's the eloquence and the ring of truth? Where's the plan? Where are they going with this "War On Terrorism" and what the Hell does that mean? Not only are they demagogues; they're a threat to America and a threat to the world. One of them claims to be a "born again Christian," but he acts like the anti-Christ. (Hmmm, by golly, maybe that explains it!!) Clinton was annoying, but these guys are frightening, and underneath all their bluster, they just seem scared, which leads me to believe that fear is at the root of demagoguery.

Dave Zahn - 9/10/2002

P.M. Carpenter articles have become so predictable and full of half-truths they are not even fun to pick apart anymore.

Terry Proctor - 9/10/2002

PM, you are a REAL patriot and a scholar! You are one of the few (I fear there are very few) people "out there" who get it! The Republican Party (Dems too, in a very different way) have been hijacked by a frightening agenda and it is going to get ugly before (if?) it gets better. When exactly did sanity leave the equation?

Bill Heuisler - 9/10/2002

This is Liberal "complexity"? Carpenter manages to trivialize The Right, debate, war and, God help us, even body bags, for his smarmy political agenda. Can he spell Aflatoxin?
Quibbling about the destruction of evil is extravagantly naive. What if you're wrong? What if these few months are the margin between inert metal and Uranium 235 absorbing a neutron? What if the difference between common grain fungi and tons of weaponized carcinogen is only days? Some assume the United States is unscrupulous. Some assume Iraqi rationality. Others decline Civilization's right of self defense against Barbarism on the basis of partisan politics or bilateralism.
Politics isn't at issue, stupid. The issue is survival.
A few Kurds survived. In some villages they said their eyes burned on the day the Iraqi helicopters came. Others said they smelled sweet apples. They began to vomit, others could not breathe. Many died horribly. A few survived...or did they?
Halabja Kurdistan, 1988, can any of us forget those photographs? Clotted streets, heaps of humanity, faded colors and sallow skin, mostly women and children, fallen while fleeing their homes, eyes staring, mouths open and leaking dark stains into the dust. An orgy of death, thousands in Halabja, maybe a hundred thousand in Kurdistan and - horror bequeathing horror - more thousands dying right now from birth defects and a decade-long, grossly abnormal, Kurdish cancer spike.
The genocide in Kurdistan was planned and led by Saddam Hussein's cousin, Ali Hassan Al-Majid. He can be heard on a tape obtained by Human Rights Watch addressing a meeting of the Baath party on the subject of Kurds. "I will kill them all with chemical weapons,"he says. "Who is going to say anything? The international community? F--- them, the international community and those who listen to them."
Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan in August of 1995 and spoke of Iraq's rebuilt nuclear program and of their many bio-weapons. He confirmed Iraqi bio-weapons were for offensive use and admitted the development of Aflatoxin. Verifying Kamel's statements, UNSCOM found quantities of Aflatoxin in scud-ready warheads mixed with tear-gas. Tear gas? Why would the Iraqis mix Aflatoxin with tear gas?
Charles Duelfer, Deputy Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, said in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed published at the time of the discovery, "Victims could suffer the short-term effects of inhaling tear gas and assume that this was the totality of the attack. Subsequent cancers would not be linked to the prior event." Cold premeditated deniability. Richard Spertzel, Chief Bio-weapon inspector for UNSCOM said of Aflatoxin, "It is a devilish weapon. Aflatoxin can only do one thing - destroy people's livers - and I suspect that children are more susceptible. From a moral standpoint, aflatoxin is the cruelest weapon. It means watching children die slowly of cancer."
UNSCOM was forced out of Iraq in 1998, but weapons inspectors had found large amounts of Anthrax, Botulinum (muscular paralysis and death), Clostridium Perfringens bacteria (gas-gangrene that rots the flesh) and Ricin ( hemorrhagic pneumonia). All weapons-grade, capable of warhead or aerosol dispersion.
Aside from the sheer quantity of discovered bio-weapons and the testimony of Hussein Kemal, we have other evidence that Saddam's bio-weapons are clearly not for domestic use. Richard Butler, ex-Chairman of UNSCOM has related a conversation he had with Fariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. When he asked for a rational for building such quantities of bio-weapons, Aziz said, "We make bio-weapons to deal with the Persians and the Jews."
When asked about Hussein, Christine Gosden, a medical geneticist who has spent years in Kurdistan since 1988 researching the catastrophic increase in cancer and birth defects, says, "Please understand, the Kurds were for practice."
And our allies? August Henning, Chief of BND (German intelligence) admits and apologizes for his country's allowing German companies to help Iraq build a poison-gas factory in Samarra. Poison gas? Probably to kill Iranians, but poison gas and Germans? The delicate sensibilities of our vaunted allies are as worthless as their timid counsel. As to a 9/11 connection and terrorist deniability, bio-weapons leave no return address, nor does a nuclear bomb, and the rationalization that we cannot connect Iraq would have the same weight after either terror attack. When do we protect ourselves? What is enough evidence for the "international community"?
Finally, please remember: Without "Operation Opera", when the Israeli Air Force under General David Ivry took out Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Saddam would have had nuclear warheads in 1990, the year he invaded Kuwait.
Baghdad delenda est
Bill Heuisler

Gary Caulder - 9/9/2002

I have seen the same polemic advanced explaining the foundations of the "New Left". Demagoguery is not the province of either party, it belongs to both. Both parties seem to find it easier to use attack rhetoric for fund-raising purposes than reasoned debate. Perhaps that is because "in your face" politics, like sports, draws more microphones.