Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I See What You Did There..

This excuse for an editorial by an Idaho newspaper is textbook method of "poisoning the well" on the gun rights argument. As Wikipedia describes, poisoning the well is a rhetorical device used to discredit an argument and manipulate public opinion in your favor.

For a hypothetical and unrelated example of this method at work, let's imagine the following statement - "Mr. Harrison's theories on longitudinal navigation can't possibly be correct because he likes avocado ice cream, and as everyone knows, only liars and rapists like avocado ice cream, just like Mr. Harrison and his supporters!"

You see how the argument is dodged entirely by discrediting the source. Now, instead of evaluating the veracity of Mr. Harrison's argument, being the social animals we are and tending not to apply critical thinking skills, we're loathe to be seen as associating with someone in general disfavor.
"If the well is poisoned, no water drawn from it can be used. If a case is so stated that contrary evidence is automatically precluded, no arguments against it can be used." - Albury Castell
In the first link above we see Jon Alexander "poison the well" on gun rights. Relying on non sequiturs to associate gun rights with racism, the opposition to "science" and "white rage", he dumps enough arsenic in the conversation to make sure no good citizen will question the limits of government power.

Mr. Alexander sets the stage by having us imagine the "once rational Republican". This is a frequent trope used by both Democrats and Republicans alike - to deceitfully claim that they once held the opposition on a pedestal of mutual respect, regardless of their gentlemanly disagreement on a few issues. History would show neither party has ever accorded the other side anything like such a level of credibility. Nonetheless, this fiction always arrives in tandem with an assertion that some event, some nefarious force, has altered the relationship profoundly. A line has been crossed! Thus spoke Mr. Alexander, ominously:
"The party of hard work and reason is becoming something different — something much more frightening."
What is that line that was crossed? Get ready for three shakes of arsenic:
"It took a black president and a stupid gun law....Polls show the support for “science” over the past 20 years among Republicans has plummeted....It’s about straight, white rage, plain and simple...."
Drink not from that well lest ye be colored with that brush! No rational woman or man wants to be associated with an argument that depends on racism, a rejection of science, and white rage.

What's the final milestone in this arc? Pity.
"[It] saddens me. It was his thoughtful approach to things that I always wanted to emulate."
Mmm.. yes. Poor wretched heathen and his cheap beer. What's rather pitiful is such overt hackneyed agitprop-as-prose. These theatrics of the pedestal, the pantomime of dark influence, and the weepy sorrow of a countryman lost are so quaintly mid-century in character. Alas, one would hope in vain that we are immune to such things in this millennium. That we would all know those close ties between gun rights and black liberation. That we would all know that the science of examining crime statistics and patterns in history fall firmly on the side of gun rights. That we would embrace the diversity in the cause and be sophisticated enough to unbox this from the constraints of a simple left-right dichotomy. But we aren't.

It's the immutable nature of man that makes logical fallacies and tropes so useful to the politician over the eons. Though it's also confidence in this immutable nature that makes us so sure that State power inevitably expands at the cost of the citizenry, and that such power concedes nothing without demand. Thus spoke Frederick Douglas to the likes of Jon Alexander:
"The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. ... If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
The case for gun rights isn't owned by one political party. It has nothing to do with Farmer Bundy. It is an argument for the presumption of liberty in Constitutional interpretation, an acknowledgement that the state can go too far in limiting human rights, and a demand that a final check on government power be preserved. That we should have this debate while federal criminal code expands exponentially, imprisonment of citizens sets new records, and an Orwellian state becomes manifest in the Western democracies is neither ironic nor a coincidence. It is simply a pattern.

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