April 29th, 2021 at 5:27 pm EDT
Yesterday, Biden delivered his first remarks to Congress. He and his team offered a good deal of hard truths in the speech — but also blew it when it came to some specifics. The Associated Press booted up their version of a lie detector test and found plenty of errors, small and large alike, that conservative media could pounce on. Now would be a great time for conservatives to be authoritative and comprehensive in their dissent, too. Biden’s PR numbers are roughly equivalent to those in Bill Clinton’s first term, an era known less for its partisanship and more for its prosperity. He is also painfully boring and doesn’t look the part at all of the radical the far-right claims he is, which makes conjuring votes from anger and fear more and more difficult.
But instead of substantive criticism, one quote has made its way through the noise. You could set your watch to how reliably and quickly conservative media find out-of-context sound bite to strawman. This go around, it happened to be an opportunity to bring up 9/11, too.
The New York Post ran a compilation story on the attacks, perfectly coordinated and fixated on Biden’s reference to the January 6th attempted coup as the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” Cue contrasting list of other tragedies and attacks on our country, from domestic threats to international ones. Sound the alarm for a Pearl Harbor reference.
The cheap use of past violence as rhetorical pawn, when a writer knows better, amounts to incredible disrespect. It’s odd that after a feverish season of lawsuits that even Trump-appointed judges threw out because they were actually quite anti-democratic, far-right hosts would confuse the word “democracy” with “America.” Oh, there have been plenty of more egregious terrorist and wartime attacks on our country — but attacks are only in part about the violence the days of. At whom an attack is directed, and to what end, are independent metrics worthy of consideration. Including them, you’ll notice an altogether different category of attack, one where an anti-democratic attempted coup may threaten our democratic vote itself, the backbone of the country.
A successful takeover that only kills one or two, but replaces a democratically-elected government with one earned only by force would constitute a long-term evil affecting every American for decades.
But no matter; subtlety is for losers. The talking heads talked, and the opinion writers opinioned. Their strawmanned versions of what Biden said allowed them to look the part of history buffs and Biden to appear a forgetful coward.
Even if the resulting op-eds were written poorly or earned few clicks themselves, another popular brand of story furthers a memetic mischaracterization’s reach without seriously jeopardizing a publication’s own journalistic integrity: we now often see stories about the published opinions and how frequent they are, just like The New York Post‘s compilation. Headline verbs such as “ripped” and “slam” come out of the shadows — “The right slams X for saying Y” — and we all end our days dumber than when we started.
In rhetoric, “paralipsis” is the mentioning of a point by stating outright you don’t plan to mention it (“I’m not going to even mention the fact that you…”). It’s an outright goofy method. I can’t help but think of paralipsis when I see stories like the Post‘s: rather than write another opinion on an event, compilation stories get into our hard news feeds and propagate these opinions anyway, seemingly without betraying any bias.
“The story about the story” isn’t new to 2021. It is, however, more common in an era of hard-lined identity politics. How “the other side” or “your side” reported on a news event becomes a part of the news itself. As long as we keep clicking, publications will keep publishing. We are often in awe that the other side may or may have said one thing or believed another. We shake our heads at how wide of a swing and a miss political opponents commit. We commiserate over just how absurd the swings were each day.
Both sides by no means are guilty of strawmanning to the same frequencies or degrees. Who is worse, I won’t speculate here, not without concrete facts to offer. Moreover, it’s a fool’s errand either to pretend there are only two sides on the field or to assume that either team is monolithic in approach and strategy.
As for this week, it sure looks like the right will earn the award for most effective mischaracterization. Boy, are they angry. And who could blame them? Didn’t you hear? Biden actually forgot about Pearl Harbor.
Clipped sound bites.
Full transcripts and lie detectors.