Monday, January 17, 2005

Of "historical" documents, rutabagas, dental floss and bad arguments.

(I'm curious as to whether this happens with every other liberal, left-wing blogger on the net, or whether it's just my site that seems to have a sign on the door reading, "Welcome, right-wing wankers. Come on in, make yourselves comfortable, and feel free to act like total dickheads." Never mind, that was rhetorical.)

Not surprisingly, I've had a few close friends email me privately, and ask, "Why do waste your time with these conservative bozoes? Just ignore them, life's too short." In a sense, they're right. But in another sense, I'm still tempted to respond, not just for the sake of responding but because I see many of those exchanges as teaching opportunities for exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of conservative rhetoric. And as an example of said intellectual bankruptcy, well, some of the comments to
this piece are absolute beauts.

Now, in all fairness, I'll admit that McHue has a point. In fact, even as I pulled out of my driveway yesterday morning for an all-day drive, I was thinking, "CC, that was kind of unfair. McHue did in fact have a valid point, and you shouldn't have blown him off like that." Unfortunately, McHue's point does nothing to bolster his argument, and herein lies the lesson for the day. (Feel free to take notes -- there will be a test at the end of the term.)

The issue, as you may recall, revolved around whether George W. Chimpster's "National Prayer Day 2004" proclamation qualified as an "historical document." Well, that depends on your precise definition and context of the word "historical", and it's here that both Gatsby and McHue embarrass themselves yet again. (And, no, I'm not even keeping count anymore. Life's definitely too short for that.)

So, what does it mean to say something is "historical"? Well, the first and simplest definition would require something to be, well, old. And, obviously, Smirky's 2004 prayer proclamation fails miserably on that score. End of argument. Can we all agree on that? (Cue sound of most people nodding in agreement, while Jay Gatsby frantically tries to think of a way to change the subject.)

However, it's also possible to define the word "historical" to mean something like "of clearly historical significance regardless of its age," as both McHue and Gatsby quite correctly propose. As Gatsby so pompously suggests as he does his Church Lady victory dance, the recent Iraq War is obviously historic, and no reasonable person would dispute that point. (Although, rather than "Iraq War", I'd probably describe it instead as "the illegal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation by Republican war criminals", but that's neither here nor there. Onward.)

Using this second, perfectly appropriate definition, one can also say that the 2001 terrorist attack of 9/11 was an "historic" event. Ditto the recent "historic" tsunami-related disaster in Southeast Asia. And so on. However, as I've written before, that scraping sound you hear in the background is the sound of goalposts being moved.

Note that we weren't talking about historic events. We were talking about historic documents, a critical distinction both Gatsby and McHue hope you're too dumb to notice. So their reference to recent but historic events is quite irrelevant to this discussion, as I suspect most readers will appreciate. In short, this was the classic, intellectually dishonest, bait-and-switch argument and it failed miserably. So, are we done here? Actually, not quite.

To be fair (and, Lord knows, I try to be fair even when it hurts), let's give Gatsby and McHue the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility that even recent documents can be considered "historic." That is, it's quite possible that a recent document can have major historical value based on some kind of obvious historical significance. For example, one can argue that the Declaration of Independence itself was an historical document right from day one. Can anyone possibly dispute that? I don't see how.

Similarly, the Treaty of Versailles defining the end of the First World War was an obviously important historical document, right from the day it was signed. So what does this do for McHue's and Gatsby's argument?

Sadly for them, absolutely squat, since Admiral Bunnypants' "National Prayer Day 2004" decree has no historical value whatsoever, even under this looser definition. Quite simply, a national proclamation to honour prayer is as historically meaningful as, say, a federal decree promoting National Rutabaga Appreciation Month, or Dental Floss Awareness Day. That is, not at all since, as everyone knows, these proclamations are little more than feel-good political proposals to give various demographics and constituency groups their 15 minutes of fame. Politicians get to suck up, voters get to feel important, everyone gets to think they've done something meaningful and, when it's all over, all you can say is that the whole exercise accomplished exactly zero. As Shakespeare would say, an event "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

In other words, McHue's and Gatsby's argument is utterly worthless, but is the perfect example of the rhetorical shenanigans used by the right -- move those goalposts, toss out a red herring, bait and switch -- and hope like hell no one notices. Sorry, guys -- been there, seen that, demolished it way too many times to be taken in again. Next.

P.S.: You know, it is at least a little amusing to watch this administration pander to their base with things like "National Prayer Day." I don't suppose we should expect to see, any time soon, something like "National Critical Thinking Month", or "Federal Science Education Awareness Week." That would be asking a bit much, wouldn't it?

P.P.S.: It's not like I have any interest in dragging out this torture, but there is one more point I'm going to make, after which I'm moving on since I don't get a lot of personal satisfaction in remedial instruction for conservatives. To paraphrase an old saying, educating a right-wing hack is like trying to teach a pig to sing: it's a waste of time, and it annoys the pig.

Anyway, the point is, even if I were to bend over backwards to give Gatsby and McHue the benefit of the doubt in every aspect of their argument, it turns out that what they suggest is still hopelessly irrelevant for one simple reason.

Even if one grants that Bush's "National Prayer Day 2004" proclamation is an historically significant document and an historically significant event, it has nothing to do with the teacher's case since his defense of historically significant documents was related solely to documents describing the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Even Williams' attorney admits this when he states:

"It's a fact of American history that our founders were religious men, and to hide this fact from young fifth-graders in the name of political correctness is outrageous and shameful."

There. Read that quote again if its significance escapes you. The discussion of "historical documents" in this case was entirely in the context of describing the religious views of men well over 200 years ago, which means not only that Bush's 2004 proclamation is utterly meaningless here, but it also means that, among all their other rhetorical sins, both McHue and Gatsby are guilty of quoting out of context. At this point, one might reasonably ask if there's anything these two haven't done dishonestly.

Now, can we move on? I'm getting really tired of feeling like the boxer who keeps saying, "Now, stay down. I mean it. Just stay down, because if you get up, I'm going to have to hit you again. Aw, man, there you go, getting up again ..."

If it aggravates you two so much to come here and read my posts, there's a simple solution -- don't do it. I don't come and dump steaming turds on your blogs, so why do feel the need to do that to mine? If you have something you want to say, get your own blogs and say it. I'll even post an article linking to them just so people know where to find you.

Signing off now, optimistic that, somewhere, a light bulb is beginning to glimmer, even faintly ... but knowing that, somewhere, goalposts are being moved yet again.

1 comment:

Jay McHue said...

The only goalposts being moved are on your playing field, CC. You say that whether or not presidential Day of Prayer proclamations (which liberals Clinton and Carter issued, too) are historical "depends on your precise definition and context of the word 'historical.'" Instead of using your supposed secret weapon of "research" to find out the context from the teacher in question, you completely fabricate a context that is beneficial to your argument. You claim "we weren't talking about historic events. We were talking about historic documents." One can literally see the goalposts lurch with that gem. Then you compare a presidential proclamation to the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Versailles. Cue the goalposts! That a document is not literally world-changing does not preclude it from being historical. There are numerous examples of this throughout history. Take Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, for example. It was a historical document at the time it was written, but it really didn't do that much at the time. Ah, but you don't bother to consider anything like that and state President Bush's "decree has no historical value whatsoever, even under this looser definition." This determination is not made from any legitimate reasoning, but only from your own prejudices. The presidential Day of Prayer proclamation is a time-honored tradition that dates back to Lincoln and even to Washington. That misotheists like yourself are only now taking issue with it because it is signed by the hand of someone you hate so much only betrays your bias.

And if you really don't like contrary opinions appearing on your blog, then turn off your dang comments or get out of blogging. It's as simple as that.