Here is a simple principle of debate tactics to write down somewhere and remember. One contradiction is worth a thousand facts.
By now you ought to be well familiar with the conservative style of argumentation. The basic conservative tactic may be summarized simply. “Repeat until true.” Indeed, the entire rightwing noise machine is designed as an organized version of this basic approach. That is why rightwing words and phrases spread so quickly. Their cadres understand their job as voices in the chorus, singing the same rightwing refrain.
That the rightwing message is frequently just plain wrong doesn’t matter. The average American, half paying attention to the teevee news, hears the sound bites. He never gets around to investigating the details. Even with the small army of virtual fact checkers right here in left blogistan doing the spade work for him, Joe Sixpack rarely hears the facts that give the lie to rightwing propaganda. He hears those facts only from the corporate media, and then only to the extent that the evidence has filtered up to them. I heard about the Niger yellowcake forgeries — to use a well known example — the very next day, in January 2003. The mainstream media didn’t get around to reporting it, along with the Valerie Plame scandal, until Labor Day.
Even with an opportunity to directly confront a rightwinger with inconvenient facts, they have a simple expedient that works a lot better than it ought to. They just ignore you, and continue to spout the party line. The good news is that it isn’t hard to figure out what the latest sound bite is, what with so many rightwingers repeating it. What is harder is to counteract whatever the message du jour happens to be. Make no mistake, progressive bloggers will unearth the truth, frequently within a matter of hours. The question is whether those facts will ever get heard. The answer is frequently “no.”
Let’s get something straight. Propaganda may be indeed be a “black art,” but it is an art, nevertheless. Rightwingers are very good at it. They understand something progressives only occasionally intuit about the very nature of how people think, and what passes for “knowledge.” People aren’t blank slates. They don’t dispassionately process evidence to reach the soundest of scientific conclusions. Rather, they have heads full of images, narratives, and paradigms that they use to filter incoming information. Facts that fit their paradigms are remembered. Facts that don’t fit are forgotten. In other words, few people think empirically, revising their views as new evidence comes in. Instead, they think metaphysically, accepting or rejecting evidence based on whether it fits what they “already know.” Empirical thinkers modify their paradigms to fit the evidence. Metaphysical thinkers modify the evidence to fit their paradigms. As you may have guessed, the vast majority of people — and virtually all conservatives — are metaphysical thinkers.
Conservatives understand this, which is why they spend so much time appropriating the symbols, narratives, and paradigms ordinary people already carry around with them. As for you, you should now understand why you will never win the debate with facts, alone. Rightwing propagandists tap into the symbols, narratives and paradigms people carry with them — including using those paradigms to tell carefully crafted, and strategically powerful lies. See the “spitting on troops” canard for an excellent example. Mere facts have a difficult time prevailing in an atmosphere where those facts run counter to what people have decided they “want” to believe. Until you learn how to deal with what people want to believe, you will always find yourself on the short end of the public debate.
Now let me repeat the short and pithy slogan that started this article. One contradiction is worth a thousand facts. Facts and evidence are part of the world of what may or may not be true. They are subject to dispute. Any witness to any particular fact is always subject to questions regarding his credibility. A metaphysical thinker confronted with a hostile eyewitness has no trouble at all dispensing with the eyewitness’s account. “He’s lying.” “He’s biased.” “He’s a liberal.” You’ve seen this a thousand times. Contradictions, on the other hand, are a whole new species of argument. Contradictions do not deal with what may or may not be true. They deal with what CANNOT be true — regardless of any question of “credibility.” Contradictions deal with the very validity of those paradigms people carry around, and deal with them in a way so fundamental that something in the mind of your audience simply has to give.
Consider the civil rights movement. The reality of segregation ran directly contrary to American myths about “equality” in the “land of opportunity.” The strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement was simple. Put that contradiction right in front of people’s faces, in such a way, and with such force that the contradiction could not be ignored. Americans had to choose to reject either their paradigm model of who they were as Americans, or to reject segregation. Not surprisingly, they chose to reject segregation. Most Americans didn’t even have to think about it.
The fight against corporate imperialism is similarly stark, and the decision is just as easy. Propping up rightwing dictators, and dictating the internal economic policies of other sovereign nations — especially those with democratically elected governments — is inconsistent with professed American values. Intervention in foreign countries to assure corporate access to other people’s raw materials just doesn’t square with American notions of democracy and self-determination. Neither does torturing prisoners, imprisoning them without trial, or eavesdropping on American citizens. Neither does setting the President up as some sort of superconstitutional potentate who is above the law and beyond the reach of congressional oversight. Interestingly, the foregoing list of abuses is hardest to square with conservative blather about “limited government.”
With that in mind, let us consider corporate imperialism, particularly as it relates to the war in Iraq. As a matter of fact, conservatives are very sensitive when the subject of corporate foreign policy comes up. All you really have to do to piss off a neocon is list the foreign adventures of the US government over the past fifty years. Their reaction is fairly typical being the metaphysical thinkers that they are. Mention the invasion of Guatemala, the coup in Chile, or being for Saddam before we were against him, and you will draw the predictable attack. People who point such facts out are “anti-American.” Retorting that facts are facts, and you’re just pointing them out does you no good at all. Those facts are inconsistent with the rightwing vision of “heroic America,” bringing freedom and democracy to the benighted. To an empirical thinker, such facts are nothing more than evidence suggesting that the rightwing vision is in error. For conservative metaphysical thinkers such a conclusion is unthinkable, and anyway you shouldn’t even be looking for counter evidence. Conservatives look for facts that verify what they already think.
These are the contours of the fight you will always get. If you have any experience at all dealing with rightwingers here in blogland you already know this. The question is how to get the best of them. The answer is to find the contradictions, and learn how to exploit them. Consider the following gem from the message board at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Anyone that doesn’t see the threat of total control of Islam is fooling themselves. . . . You have no problem believing in global warming but you find it hard to believe a ideology wants us all snuffed out. I am amazed at your pedagogical ineptness! The use of the phrase, “global Islamic empire” was used on an expose’ by Beck which aired on CNN, so she just didn’t make all this all up. Grow up hippies, and get a life!!!! strib especially
This is the standard justification for the war in Iraq, these days. It’s “red scare redux.” In fact, it is actually pretty shop worn as a motivator. Back in the forties, we were fighting to “keep you from speaking Japanese.” Conservatives reading this may have no idea just how ridiculous that was. They absolutely do know how ridiculous the “Muslim boogieman” is, and I’ll prove it. I will not prove it by simply saying it. “Am not,” “are so,” is a poor way to debate an opponent. I like to get him to prove it himself. In this case it’s easy.
Here’s a little factoid to start with. The war in Iraq, and the so-called “war on terror” in general, have not cost a single American taxpayer a single red cent. In fact, taxes are lower now than they were before the 9/11 attacks. Every cent we have spent on the “war on terror” is borrowed money — a fair amount of it borrowed from the commies in China. And there’s your contradiction. Do they really believe in the Muslim boogieman? Do you they really believe we are fighting to “save western civilization?” Are they willing to pay for it? The answer isn’t just no, it’s “hell no.” Next time you find yourself in some online forum and some flying monkey starts braying about “saving civilization, the “global muslim empire” or any other such horseshit, here is what you say.
“Really. Because we’ve spent 400 billion dollars of BORROWED MONEY to fight this evil menace. So far, it hasn’t cost you a cent — though it has burdeded your grandchildren. Don’t you think we should pay at least a little something for this ‘war to save civilization’ — right now? Aren’t you willing to make a small sacrifice for this noble cause in the form of tax increase to pay for it?”
They say they want “victory.” In fact, Bill O’Reilly has taken to asking progressives point blank whether want “victory.” Some think that question is rude. I don’t. Here’s the answer. “Why Bill, I want victory just as much as you do. How about it, Bill? Do you want victory bad enough to pay for it?” When he balks — and he will — “like I said, I want victory as much as you do.”
It’s real simple. Real “wartime” is a time of sacrifice — for everybody. In World War II, Americans paid a high marginal tax rate of 94%. You couldn’t buy a new car, because there weren’t any new cars. Detroit assembly lines were diverted to making tanks, jeeps, and B-17′s. Gasoline, sugar, and other commodities were rationed. There were scrap metal and rubber drives. Oh, and we financed our own war through the endless campaign to “buy bonds.” So far, no American who is not in uniform has sacrificed a goddamn thing. These conservatives who tell us about the Muslim boogieman who wants a “global Islamic empire” haven’t sacrificed a goddamn thing. More to the point, they will refuse if you put the question to them, straight up. Then everyone will see the scam for what it is.
And make no mistake, Americans will not be clamoring to make any sacrifices for the war in Iraq, or any other corporate imperialist adventure. That is the ultimate weakness of corporate imperialism. It requires the support of American taxpayers, only they don’t really have much stomach for paying taxes to finance Abu Ghraib or our own Gulag at Gitmo.
So the next time you are confronted with — or even see — some conservative braying about “victory,” and scaremongering about the Islamic devils, here’s what you do. Counterattack. “Really? Are willing to pay for this ‘clash of civilizations?’ No? Then the shut the fuck up.”
And he will. Because what else can he say? He can’t support a “tax increase” — ever, under any circumstances. Tax increases are conservative sacrilege. So he can’t support paying for the war, even it really is to “save western civilization.” That’s contradiction number one. As for ordinary Americans, they damn sure don’t want to pay more taxes for an oil war that will primarily benefit American oil companies. They also aren’t much interested in subsidizing torture. That’s contradiction number two. Put the two together, and you’ve got a one, two punch that will put those neocon bastards right on the canvas. Notice the facts. They are not simply presented. They are woven into the presentation of the contradiction. It is the contradiction, and not the mere facts, that destroys their position.