Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rove at Rhodes: A Master Class in Sophistry

This past Wednesday evening, exactly one year to the day after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I attended "An Evening with Karl Rove" at Rhodes College. Rove was invited by the Student Lecture Board with support from the Young America's Foundation, and he delivered a "closed" address to Rhodes students, faculty, staff and alumni. As someone very criticial of Rove and the Bush Administration with which Rove was closely associated-- including (but not limited to) his highly questionable strategic involvement in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential campaigns, his manipulation of the Valerie Plame affair, his refusal to answer Congress' subpeona calling on him to account for his role in the suspicious dismissal of U.S. Attorneys, his role as one of the so-called "architects" of our war in Iraq, and his continued justification of the U.S. military's use of torture-- I was initially reluctant to attend his lecture. However, partly out of genuine curiosity and partly out of a desire to model for my students open-minded engagement, I went and stayed throughout the 45-minute-or-so lecture and the considerably longer Q&A session following.

First, I should say that Rove is, not surprisingly, a first-rate rhetorician. He took the podium promptly at 8pm, made a few self-effacing jokes about his status as a "controversial" figure, gave a shout-out to his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers, graciously acknowledged his hosts, and generally set the tone for a warm and relaxed, "folksy" sort of meeting. He opened with a reference to the 2008 elections, a contest between what Rove called a "heroic" man (McCain) and a "historic" man (Obama). As evidence of his characterization of the first, Rove told the story of Colonel Bud Day, Vietnam War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, who was captured and tortured in North Vietnam along with John McCain. 2008 Presidential candidate McCain not only suffered the horror and indignity of the prisoner-of-war camp with Colonel Day, but also demonstrated tremendous courage and compassion towards his fellow-prisoners, at one point even fashioning a makeshift splint out of bamboo and rags for Day's severly injured arm. And so, Rove asked (on behalf of his audience), how did Obama win out over such a hero? Obama "set a tone," he was a "relentless centrist," he promised hope, healthcare and lower taxes. But, according to Rove, Obama was unqualified for the position and he misrepresented himself terribly. Now, we are paying the price for the electorate's error.

The better part of Rove's address (probably the next 30 minutes or so) was an issue-by-issue account of what has gone wrong since President Obama took office. All of the expected targets were there (our grown deficit, bank and auto industry bail-outs, the stimulus package, concession to unions, cap and trade, tax increases), but what struck me most about this portion of his address was the manner in which he framed his criticisms. Rove rolled out a machine-gun assault of statistics and figures-- almost none of them with corresponding reference to their source-- which gave his audience, myself included, the impression of a man with a masterful (even if dizzying) command of the issues at stake. Only, the more the numbers piled up-- 18 million!, 46 percent!, 6.2 billion!, 320 thousand!... dollars! people! losses! lives!-- the less clear it became that there was a perfect, isomorphic relation between a masterful command of the numbers and a masterful command of the issues that those numbers are meant to quantify. This became tragically evident when Rove turned to health care...

I'm not convinced that anyone has accurate figures on the number of Americans living without (more or less adequate) health insurance. In fact, I am completely convinced that the debate over health care is driven largely by the manipulation of (more or less mutable) statistics. The number that we hear most often these days is "46 million uninsured," which is the number put forth by the (presumably) politically-neutral U.S. Census Bureau. Health care advocacy groups will often put that number much higher, sometimes twice as much, noting that we also need to count people who have sporadic or insufficient healthcare coverage. Opponents of healthcare reform will, correspondingly, put the number much lower, insisting that illegal immigrants, people who "qualify" for federal insurance programs but have not opted-in, those under 35 who think they're too young and healthy to need coverage, and the very-wealthy who simply pay for healthcare out-of-pocket should not be counted. Not surprisingly, Rove sides with the latter. But what was surprising was that Rove's projected number of uninsured Americans lowballs even the most conservative estimates. After an arguably fast-and-loose barrage of calculations in his lecture, Rove claimed that there are only 5 million uninsured Americans. That is, hardly enough to warrant "reform."

Again, granting the fact that the number-of-uninsured-Americans all by itself is debatable, the problem with Rove's deployment of his chosen set of statistics was the inference drawn, namely, that we don't have a "healthcare problem" in this country. But, I fear, the audience had already been primed at this point in his lecture-- after the onslaught of numbers accompanied by his alternate appeals to authority ("I actually read these boring documents in their entirety, people") and folksy self-effacement ("I'm from Texas, we're simple people, and we can just do the math")-- to accede that, sure, 5 million uninsured in a country of over 300 million really doesn't constitute a "problem." Nevermind that half of all bankruptcies filed in the U.S. are the result of healthcare costs. Nevermind that the healthcare industry's annual profit margin has grown to an astounding $200 billion. And nevermind that a good portion of those profits are funneled into politics, lobbying to keep us all gripped its ever-tightening vice. That is to say, nevermind that, even if you want to make this a mere matter of numbers, there are other relevant numbers to consider. No, the inference that Rove implored us to accept along with him is that we're being hoodwinked into believing that the "is" of healthcare implies an "ought." Move along people, there is nothing here to be done.

This is exactly the sort of rhetoric of which I spend my days (and, too often, my nights) trying to covince my students to be passionately, vigilantly, suspicious. It's Sophistry 101: the subordination of moral, political, and philosophical truth to what Mark Twain called "lies, damned lies, and statistics." It reminds me of Frantz Fanon's claim, near the beginning of Black Skin, White Masks, that rhetorics like these are, ironically, alienating both for the "duped" targets who suffer the consequences of its funhouse-mirror claims and also for the "duped and duping" perpetuators of those canards. And speaking of funhouse mirrors...

As regular readers of this blog might anticipate, I was most interested to hear whether or not Rove would address the issue of torture, a.k.a. "enhanced interrogation techniques," and whether or not he would defend torture as morally, politically or legally permissable (despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I mean all of it, and still more if it, and more, by everyone, not just me, but even people you wouldn't expect to say so). Rove, without apology or any apparent reservation, did just that. One of President Obama's biggest mistakes, according to Rove, is "treating terrorism as a crime and not a war." I cannot exaggerate how quickly my jaw dropped when Rove, in reference to both appeals for Gitmo detainees to receive trials and the recent arrest of terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber"), claimed that giving terrorist suspects a fair trial is "treating them like they were trying to knock over a 7-11 and not like they were trying to destroy a country." The only way to keep America safe, according to Rove, is to use whatever methods we have at our disposal-- including torture-- to keep enemy combatants (not citizens, not foreign nationals, not prisoners of war... that is, people completely without status or protection) "singing like canaries." According to Rove, Obama simply doesn't understand this, and despite what Obama has promised, Rove speculates that Gitmo and all other detention centers like it will still be open and operational a year from now, if not longer.

(On that last point, unfortunately, I think Rove is probably right. Not because Obama is wrong about wanting detention centers like Guantanamo Bay closed, but because fearmongerers like Rove, with absolutely no respect for the rule of law, still prevail over reasoned discourse on the matter. CLOSE GITMO!)

I've said more than my fair share about human rights and torture on this blog, so let me just note for the record that the most egregriously offensive part of Rove's address was his defense (again) of torture in the name of American democracy. Especially given the fact that he bookended his talk with two anecdotes of the tragic moral, political and personal casualties of war. I think that national security is an important issue in these days of terrorism and non-state actors, and I think that it shows a profound lack of appreciation for the demands of realpolitik when the Left denies that, but that acknowledgement is a far cry from what I saw as Rove's reckless abandonment of many of the core principles of modern, and more specifically, American democracy. If we can so quickly disavow our obligation to the principle of the rule of law for the sake of (erroneously speculative) consequentialist gains, then we ought to explicitly own the consequences of that kind of consequentialism as well. A democracy with no self-imposed and self-regulated obligation to the rule of law or human rights is not a democracy. Full stop.

In conclusion, let me say that Rove's address certainly gave me more insight into the affective appeal of radical conservative discourse, and I was (despite myself) initially impressed with the skill and ease-- not to mention self-assured bravado-- with which Rove performatively enacted the role of a Republican "strategist." But, upon reflection, I think that to describe Rove as a "strategist" is a mistake. He is tactical, not strategic. His are the tools and weapons of the battle, not the war. He sees the trees, not the forest. And so, in the end, his role is but a bit part in the small picture, not the big one. As freshman philosophy students are fond of saying, it's all a matter of one's opinion, really, since no one can legitimately make any claims to "truth." There is, of course, some merit to that claim, inasmuch as it allows us a manner of establishing critical leverage on what we take to be "received" truths, what the Greeks would call doxa (δόξα). But every doxa has a place in some larger logos (λόγος), and it is ultimately that larger structure of Reason, of reason-giving, and of those for-the-sakes-of-which-reasons-are-given that finally constitute the substance of what one takes to be truth that governs action. It is there, in the very heart of the for-the-sake-of-which that I hear Rove as, finally, a charlatan, a sophist, and a deceiver. And it is also there that I heard Rove advocate the very opposite of his host's vision, Rhodes College's Vision, for what it means to be an engaged intellectual and citizen.

According to that vision, we are not ever or only self-interested individuals. We are deeply embedded in, and profondly obligated to, the social and political communities in which we find ourselves. That means, at the very least, that we must steady ourselves to view every human loss as a loss that cannot be counterbalanced, every abrogation of the rule of law as an allowance for injustice, every moral compromise on the basis of calculation as a threat to principled vigilance, and every concession to sophistic persuasion as an abandonment of intellectual integrity. That is to say, we must steady ourselves to see the big picture, in which the idiosyncracies of our individual, personal, or partisan concerns will be judged by history, which dwarfs and ultimately erases the singularity of each of us.

To that end, I think we in the Rhodes community are obligated view Rove's visit as the introduction of an enemy combatant into our midst. By virtue of our own principles, that means we are obligated to treat him with impartiality and fairness... but also to judge him, negatively in the final analysis, for his violations of those same principles.


Emma B. said...

Thanks Dr J. I would never have the energy to engage in this systematic, point by point way with the denizens (even architects) of the right (am I a simplistic and lazy Marxist if I say the relentless slavery to the demands of capital in these discourses is a necessary and screamingly sufficient reason for dismissal?) but I appreciate that you've written this... that's known as service. Bless your philosophical heart!

anotherpanacea said...

I've been missing your voice on the intertubes, so this is not just an engaging analysis, but also a wonderful inauguration of the new semester. The Rhodes v. Rove bit at the end was especially apt.

Lorenzo said...

am I a simplistic and lazy Marxist if I say the relentless slavery to the demands of capital in these discourses is a necessary and screamingly sufficient reason for dismissal?

Whose capital? How defined? Is there only one set of such demands? Is there only one way such putative "demands" can be satisfied?

There are so many problems with Marxism (in any form) it is hard to know where to start. But the complete denial of the reality of politics involved is precisely why it has such an appalling record when put into any sort of practice.

Though the historian in me understands its appeal to an academe that can parade how virtuously "not commercial" it is: all the more virtuous the more really, really, evil commerce (maleficent capital and capitalism) is.

On "enhanced interrogation techniques", we had this debate in the C17th. It is, to say the least, not a good thing that it had to be revisited at all. Though the historian in me notes the similarity with Catholics in Protestant countries and Catholics in Protestant countries in the Europe of the Wars of Religion that Muslims now pose in Western countries and sees why. But reasons are not excuses.

John said...

"We are deeply embedded in, and profondly obligated to, the social and political communities in which we find ourselves." This is a great quote. However I am considering your statement about "every human lose cannot be counterbalanced." as an ecologist and I am curious about how modern philosophy handles the reality of human over population. Do you have any insight for me?

Emma B. said...

Lorenzo: In answer to your set of starter questions I have one word: profit. If there are so many problems with Marxism, why does an analysis that critiques profit (or more accurately calls it by its proper name, expropriated labor) explain so much so well? There's no "moral debate" about the healthcare in the U.S. for goodness' sake - the insurance industry simply has this country by the balls. The rest is ideology. It really is that screamingly simple (and by Marxism we mean a structural critique of capitalist relations of production, not any given set of state capitalist/authoritarian/bureaucratic states that have existed). Praise be for the space academe provides, that lets us think such "unrealpolitik" thoughts!

Lorenzo said...

Dr J, having had my own experience of arguing with somebody who thought waterboarding is just fine, I did a post on torture which included comments about "conservatives" who do not understand the heritage they are allegedly conserving. Dick Cheney's public statement that he is a big supporter of waterboarding has now made that point even more topical.

Lorenzo said...

Emma B: Marxism explains almost nothing well. That people often act out of self-interest is hardly news. Reducing such self-interest to "class" or "profit" is puerile, as any perusal of the history of Leninism on its own amply demonstrates.

The labour theory of value is nonsense, and murderous and tyrannical nonsense at that, since the notion of "one true class" has exactly the same oppressive and murderous implications as "one true sexuality", "one true race", "one true religion" etc.

An analysis of American politics that holds that corporate interests automatically trump union and public sector interests is equally puerile.

What Marxism does is provide a "sophisticated" form of theomachy (the belief that social events are determined by powerful hidden forces--unless one is one blessed with appropriate gnosis) coupled with a belief in the absolute value of one's ultimate goal and a vindication to wage a war against people as they are in the name of people as they are deemed to ought to be.

And yes, it also feeds the academy's widespread anti-commercial prejudices. There is nothing "accidental" about the history of Marxism, or why it is one of those "exploded systems" that, as Adam Smith denounced two centuries ago, live on in academe after vanishing elsewhere.