Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 13, 2010

WHEN LIFE RESEMBLES A MONTY PYTHON SKETCH.... There's a classic Monty Python sketch from 1972 called the "Argument Clinic." It goes like this: a man who enjoys a good, substantive debate goes to a business that ostensibly provides one, but after paying his fee, he quickly discovers that the man on the other side of the desk simply contradicts literally everything he says.

The customer, exasperated, eventually tries to explain, "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." His adversary replies ,"No, it isn't." He tries again, "Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes." After a short pause, the antagonist responds, "No, it isn't."

A little too often, the "Argument Clinic" sketch reminds me of efforts to engage conservative Republicans in any kind of discourse. The NYT, for example, had an item this week about right-wing Senate candidate Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania, which included this gem:

Mr. Toomey says he favors making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for all Americans -- which would add $700 billion more to the deficit over 10 years than the plan advocated by President Obama to let the lower rates expire for the rich. But he also expresses a desire to reduce the deficit.

At the ironworks shop, Mr. Toomey brushed aside a question from a local reporter who pointed out that real income for American workers dropped after the Bush tax cuts, saying he did not believe the data.

Well, no, of course not. The data is legitimate, but it would tell Toomey what he doesn't want to hear -- so he brushes it aside. Any of us could go to Toomey, data and charts in hand, and point at the evidence showing that income levels dropped after Bush cut taxes. He'd reply, "No, they didn't."

The problem, of course, is that the phenomenon goes much further than Toomey. The other day, Rick Santorum insisted on national television that under the Bush administration, poverty rates among poverty among African Americans and among single unmarried women were "at the lowest rate ever in the history of this country." That's not even close to true, but if you went to Santorum and explained that reality shows he's wrong, he'd reply, "No, it doesn't."

This comes up just about every day. Here's overwhelming evidence showing that global warming is real. "No, it doesn't." Here's extensive data showing that tax cuts for the wealthy increase the deficit. "No, it doesn't." Here's plain-text proof showing that the Affordable Care Act isn't socialized medicine or a government-takeover. "No, it doesn't."

This isn't about lying, per se, though that's certainly a problem, too. This is about an entire political party rejecting reality and replacing it with a fantasy.

"Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes." It's also the hallmark of American political discourse in the 21st century.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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And also-too many to count-Republicans are saying that we need to CUT taxes; oblivious to the fact that we are STILL paying the "Bush Tax Cut" rates.

Posted by: DAY on October 13, 2010 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Who's castle is that?

WOMAN: King of the who?

ARTHUR: The Britons.

WOMAN: Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR: Well, we all are. we're all Britons and I am your king.

WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.

DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--

WOMAN: Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.

DENNIS: That's what it's all about if only people would--

ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

WOMAN: No one live there.

ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?

WOMAN: We don't have a lord.


DENNIS: I told you. We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.


DENNIS: But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.

ARTHUR: Yes, I see.

DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,--

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: --but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more--

ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN: Order, eh -- who does he think he is?

ARTHUR: I am your king!

WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.

ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.

WOMAN: Well, 'ow did you become king then?

ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, [angels sing] her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [singing stops] That is why I am your king!

DENNIS: Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: Well you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR: Shut up!

DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin' I was an empereror just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they'd put me away!

Posted by: Mark D on October 13, 2010 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: kc on October 13, 2010 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

I flash back to Mythbuster Adam Savages famous quotation of that movie: "I reject your reality, and substitute my own!"

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty on October 13, 2010 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

The Intermediate Step

This isn't about lying, per se, though that's certainly a problem, too. This is about an entire political party rejecting reality and replacing it with a fantasy.

That is the missing link between Orwell's 1984 and the world as we know it.

And the trick to right wing fascism is to grow the base that signs off on the fantasy. What's the tipping point? What percent of the population do you need to cause a major zigzag in history? What is our democracy's breaking point? I don't know. But Fox and their GOP Friends are being helped along to that point by a juxtaposition never before seen:

1) A Great Recession that helps focus hate.
2) A Fractured Old Media that creates a vacuum for hate.
3) The ability of haters to establish an Internet brotherhood and focus it on markets and individuals and issues.

They will be further helped along by the massive dislocations and human squalls created by Global Warming. A dictatorship will look even more efficient....

This is the trend line I see. But it is in no way inevitable. The quickest way to waylay it is to improve the economy. But what if those who can hire refuse to? What if those who know we should do something about global warming continue to argue to do nothing? What if a miserable future failing world is okay with the tiny percent of people who realize they can control it better?

What then?
Who will say no to their dark vision?

Posted by: koreyel on October 13, 2010 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

don't worry, they'll get a think tank to provide them with whatever results they need, therefore it's just as good as reality

Posted by: golack on October 13, 2010 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

I run into this problem all the time in discussions with delusional Fox news viewers and the like. Some are too far gone, but a percentage know they - to an extent, it's a spectrum - are peddling nonsense but won't get called on it due to the "if enough people believe it, it must be true" canard, hoping to overwhelm you with numbers, "well, you may have your librul 'facts,' but I know one bbiiiiillllion {invert pinkie into corner of mouth} people who buy this horseshit, too, so I MUST be right."

What I do, and it's nearly foolproof, is demand the individual submit to say, a $1,000 cash wager on the specific data point. As most Americans can't stand being called out on a bet, they are very, very hard to resist it, and almost immediately you can see on their face that they know they're in a pickle. Rick Santorum provides the perfect example here. Suppose Rick is your half-witted brother-in-law and loves to spew right-wing nonsense. Offer, "ok, then, how about we place $1,000 dollars, and no shit on this one, you ignorant ass. One. Thousand. Cash. Dollars, that, numerically, the value was or was not at it's lowest point in history at that time." Now there's some spice on that meatball, and knucklenuts is in a great pickle - either shy away from the bet like a scared puppy and look "wimpy" which is not a feeling self-righteous and impudent conservative idiots enjoy much, and implies conceding the point anyways. Or take the bet, knowing darn well that something significant is on the line, and there will be severe repercussions for being incorrect. I 100% guarantee, within moments, a bunch of hemming and hawing and uh, err, uh, well, no, you see, that's not fair, uh, er, whine, cry, moan.

Won't work with an actually politicain unfortunately, they couldn't care less and they can only be called out by an effective media and educated electorate who will punish them for being full of shit (a fantasy in modern times, unfortunately). But it will shut up the local idiots around you right quick. And ... it's a load of fun!

Posted by: jsacto on October 13, 2010 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Repubs want everyone to pay less taxes. Unfortunately, their scheme to do this for the working class is by way of pay cuts. You make less, you pay less! A tax cut!

Posted by: JoeW on October 13, 2010 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

Raw, unbriddled Machiavellianism - now that is the hallmark of the 21st century Republican party! Such a 16th century mind set these shameless politicos seem to have these days! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on October 13, 2010 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Thomas Mann: "Science strove, on the plane of decent, objective truth, to confute the dynamic lie; but arguments on that plane could only seem irrelevant to the champions of the dynamic, who merely smiled a superior smile. . . . They could scarcely contain their mirth at the desperate campaign waged by reason and criticism against wholly untouchable, wholly invulnerable, belief."

My own area is biology and I deal with this attitude whenever evolution comes up, but the same mind set applies to just about anything that involves facts vs. fantasy.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on October 13, 2010 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Keeping with the original skit, I'm wondering if we haven't wandered into the room for arguments with the right, so much as entered the room marked Abuse.

Posted by: k488 on October 13, 2010 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

If we went by charts or facts no one would ever vote Republican.

Unless your a white male millionaire who cares about no one else but themselves.

Without lies and myths the Conservative party could not exist.

Fact. Jimmy Carter has a better jobs and economy record than either of the three Republican's that held office after him.

Yet they believe Carter was the total failure.

Posted by: sensistar on October 13, 2010 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

Day after day, day in and day out, we are forced to deal with conservatives who deny facts and who create reality.

We really do live in different worlds.

Is there anything we can do about it, instead of continue to point it out when they do it?

Seriously. As John Cole famously wrote:

I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane.

Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax.

If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

This. Day in and day out.

What to do?

Posted by: terraformer on October 13, 2010 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

"'Contradiction is' ... the hallmark of American political discourse in the 21st century."

No it isn't.

Posted by: Dan on October 13, 2010 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

While I don't disagree with the policial analysis, I think you've missed one level of the Argument Clinic sketch. After Michael Palin's character expresses his frustration with contradiction as a form of argument, John Cleese's character then demonstrates that it _can_ be a valid form of argument, but the counter-example of whether or not Michael Palin's character has paid for another 5 minutes of argument. In effect John Cleese "wins" the argument with the lines:

Palin: I don't want to argue about this.
Cleese: Well, I'm very sorry, but you haven't paid.

Posted by: Dantheman on October 13, 2010 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

The Repulicans' fantasy point of view is aided by the "He said, she said" mainstream media's presentation of the news.

Posted by: Andrew on October 13, 2010 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

This story isn't true.

...and the parrot is sleeping.

Posted by: Shaun Landry on October 13, 2010 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

"No, it doesn't."

At which point, John King/Anderson Cooper/David Gregory would end the discussion with a "We'll have to leave it at that", and cut to commercial.

If there ever was a time when the mainstream needed to actually be liberal, now would be it.

Posted by: 2Manchu on October 13, 2010 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

Here's the video of the above Annoying Peasant by Monty Python: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAaWvVFERVA

Posted by: anon on October 13, 2010 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

Even more apropos is the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Arthur: Your arm's off!
Knight: No it isn't
Arthur (points to severed arm on the ground): What do you call that, then?
Knight: It's just a flesh wound.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on October 13, 2010 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

Keeping with the original skit, I'm wondering if we haven't wandered into the room for arguments with the right, so much as entered the room marked Abuse.

Given the way many of us will be governed by the Right, it's actually gotten to the 'Being hit on the head lessons' stage of the sketch....
I'm practicing my Waaaaa! as I type..

Posted by: MR Bill on October 13, 2010 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

The guy in the Monty Python skit went through the wrong door and met the absurd. But I don't recall going through any door to meet the daily nonsense of the American right wing.

Posted by: Bob M on October 13, 2010 at 8:21 PM | PERMALINK

This was a superb post right up to the final seven words when you fell into the standard media failure to discriminate and assign culpability to the culpable party, i.e. (with this flaw corrected):

"Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes." It's also the hallmark of American [GOP/CONSERVATIVE] political [']discourse['*] in the 21st century."

*i.e., propaganda, plus 'scare quotes' obligatory

Posted by: oaguabonita on October 13, 2010 at 10:11 PM | PERMALINK

My father has a shortcut for when I provide facts that contradict one of his delusions: he just calls me a liar.

Posted by: Zeno on October 14, 2010 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

The Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy shows only a few decades of oil left in the world's proven reserves. The 1300 billion or so barrels will only last around 40 years at our current burn rate.

One right-winger I know told me the numbers were the work of Clinton's people in the DOE and therefore false. Choosing to believe in an infinite resource is more comforting. Selective self-deception is a common human trait.

Posted by: deejaayss on October 14, 2010 at 4:50 AM | PERMALINK

Hello are using Wordpress for your blog platform? I'm new to the blog world but I'm trying to get started and create my own. Do you need any html coding knowledge to make your own blog? Any help would be really appreciated!

Posted by: Russell Armstrong on February 10, 2011 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK



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