Joe Scarborough And The Straw Man Problem

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 29, 2011

Joe Scarborough And The Straw Man Problem

Joe Scarborough has an op-ed in Politico premised entirely on the false premise that left-wingers who once "condemned [President Bush] as an immoral beast who killed women and children to get his bloody hands on Iraqi oil" have now "meekly went along" with President Obama's Libya intervention.

Now, there are all kinds of things wrong with this argument. For one, there are some massive differences in the two cases. Scarborough describes the Libya intervention as an "invasion," but that's quite a stretch given that no ground troops are involved. Libya is a multilateral response to an imminent massacre, while Iraq was neither. Third, and worst of all, those who most fervently opposed the Iraq invasion -- the blood for oil folks described by Scarborough -- are all opposed to the Libya intervention. Has he not been following the debate on this?

The whole failure of Scarborough's argument points to one of my professional hobbyhorses, which is the need for opinion journalists to quote the people they're criticizing. It's a really simple step, but it's absolutely vital, one that allows your readers to see if the belief you're attacking is actually held by anybody influential. If Scarborough decided to find some examples of lefties who were wildly denouncing Bush as a wanton murderer of civilians driven by a lust to steal Iraqi oil who also supported the Libya intervention, he'd have quickly discovered that there aren't any, and that his whole argument is based on a false premise.

Indeed, at the end of his op-ed, Scarborough does cite one real life-example -- Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who he calls "one of the few liberals to take a principled stand." But she's not the exception. She's just the one actual case study he bothered to look at.

Now, calling people out by name is sort of rude, and the most prestigious outlets of opinion journalism tend to shy away from it. I believe New York Times columnists are actually instructed not to argue with each other in print, which leads to these weird "Tell Joe I won't pass the salt until he apologizes" indirect debates. It's probably no surprise that a chummy guy like Scarborough would only want to name liberals he praises, while leaving the targets of his criticism unnamed. But this is a habit of opinion journalism that leads to terrible, straw man arguments.

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posted in: jonathan chait, libya, bush, joe scarborough, katrina vanden heuvel

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