One of the biggest issues with the type of aggressive approach that the New Atheists prefer is the pressure that it puts on the person being aggressive, even though many of the New Atheists who advocate that approach don’t see that and end up being hoist on their own petard. If you are going to go after a point, or argument, or person strongly, with a sense of courageous certitude, you had better be right. Because if you aren’t right, and either get their argument wrong or make an argument that itself doesn’t work, the stronger a position you take the more embarrassing it will be for you, and the easier it will be for people to dismiss you completely. Thus, if you say that someone is saying something obviously wrong, it had better be so … and that goes double if you say that the person or the argument is stupid.
Unfortuntely, Amanda Marcotte provides an excellent example of taking a strong stance and coming out looking really bad in doing so. She decides to take on some things that S.E. Cupp has been saying lately, and starts from the position that the New Atheists are supposed to strenuously denying they take: attacking the person, and not the argument. After all, the very title of the article is “Is S.E. Cupp The Dumbest Pundit Working? An Examination.” And before you argue that maybe she didn’t choose the title, the very first line is, again, asking if she is the dumbest pundit. So, she starts by calling S.E. Cupp dumb … not her arguments. Shame, shame.
But, okay, let’s look past that rhetorical flourish and look at her examination of the arguments themselves. She starts with a comment Cupp made about Chris Christie. Now, Cupp’s comment, from the video, is that if Christie was involved in the retributive blocking of a busy bridge and if that information might come out, the best thing for Christie to do is to admit to it and resign right now, and then focus on preparing for a Presidential campaign. Marcotte thinks that this is, well, incredibly dumb:
Now, I realize part of the pressure of being a pundit is trying to come up with novel arguments that stand out from the crowd, and this certainly achieves that goal. However, novelty should always come second to not sounding like a complete idiot. I don’t want to have to explain why this is the stupidest idea ever, so here’s the short version: If you want a story to die, the last thing you want to do is make it the defining moment of your career that was so all-important it forced you out of office. You definitely don’t want it to be what every reporter asks you about every time you go out campaigning, which will happen if you resign. You absolutely do not want reporters asking you why it is that you think you can be President when you were such a failure as governor that you had to resign.
Now, look back at how I summarized the argument above: assume that Christie was directly involved, and assume that that information will come out. If he admits to it, apologizes, and resigns now, the issue will die down within a few weeks, giving plenty of time for it to fade from the public consciousness before his potential Presidential campaign. Now, imagine that people keep investigating this, and they find proof that he was directly involved right before the campaign … while he kept denying it for all of that time. Does Marcotte really think that that would be better for his Presidential hopes? Sure, if he wasn’t directly involved or is pretty confident that no one will ever be able to link him to it directly, then admitting and resigning might not be the better option, but if we assume that he will be linked to it, then admitting it and resigning now allows him to say that he made a mistake — as Cupp herself said, I think, in the video — admitted to it, paid the price, and has learned from his mistake. Which is a lot better position for him to be in than being “found out” right at the worst possible time for him.
Now, Marcotte could have made a decent argument, saying that he shouldn’t admit and resign because being linked to this sort of action is just so bad and so terrible that just being linked to it will kill any chances he has. That’s a fair argument, and one that actually has some legs. However, that wouldn’t make Cupp’s suggestion stupid even if Marcotte had made it … and Marcotte didn’t make it.
Look, he’s going to be asked about this no matter what happens. But as a number of baseball players have learned, it’s better to admit your wrongdoings and ask forgiveness — and willingly accept the consequences — than it is to deny and fight them all the way. In the end, it might not help, but that doesn’t mean it’s a stupid idea either.
And next, Marcotte goes after selections from a post Cupp made about Colorado legalizing pot. She starts with this, um, interesting analysis:
Will pot smokers become a sought-after voting demographic?
You’d think they just granted suffrage to pot smokers.
Okay, let me break this down for you, although most people probably won’t need it to be broken down that much. See, Colorado didn’t legalize pot because they woke up one morning and decided that, hey, it just makes sense … even if they say that’s what they did. One of the main reasons to do something like this, and especially something that’s going to get this much attention, is because you figure that if you do it you’ll be able to point to it as something you did and get votes (if it wasn’t voted in directly; as a Canadian, I don’t spend much time researching Colorado drug laws). So, then, if they think that at the very least doing this isn’t going to cost them votes, then it’s reasonable to ask if a stance like this could become a differentiator in politics, meaning that if one party promises to legalize pot they’ll get a boost in support. Well, they might or they might not. But Marcotte herself, in her haste to attack, actually justifies the claim later:
Nearly half of Americans admit to having smoked pot. Most of the other half wisely decline to discuss their illegal drug use with strangers over the phone. I don’t know if you could create more drug users, honestly.
If most people smoke pot or at least have tried it and think it mostly harmless, then wouldn’t that be a very big block of voters that you could potentially appeal to by offering to legalize pot? After all, we do know that single issues can greatly impact elections, so could this be one of them. Probably not, because most people are likely to have much bigger concerns than legalizing pot … but that’s a counter-argument, and one that you need to make because, well, the argument isn’t inherently stupid or wrong, but might just be empirically wrong.
Now, let’s put that drug quote into context:
Will liberal supporters suffer when the law change inevitably creates more drug users?
Nearly half of Americans admit to having smoked pot. Most of the other half wisely decline to discuss their illegal drug use with strangers over the phone. I don’t know if you could create more drug users, honestly. Though, being full of derp, Cupp probably will think the inevitable spike of people admitting to pot use now that they’re less afraid of going to jail for such an admission should be treated as an actual rise in the number of “drug users”. (By the way, alcohol and caffeine are also drugs. So, really, is aspirin. But even if you limit your scope to people using drugs for their mind-altering purposes, the “problem” of “drug users” is already near-universal.)
Okay, anyone who knows anything about the War on Drugs debate knows that one of the main arguments given for keeping pot illegal is that it is a gateway drug to the harder, more addictive drugs. So, if someone was actually trying to argue against the post or, in fact, demonstrate that it itself is stupid the first thing they’d have to do to have anycredibility is accept that she probably means “hard drug users” by “drug users” here. Which makes the entire paragraph in brackets utterly pointless. As for the first part, Marcotte would have to be denying that the fear of getting caught and going to jail isn’t going to deter some people from, at least, smoking pot regularly, which seems a rather unsafe assertion. Thus, more people may try it or take it up, which even under the broader definition of “people using pot” would falsify Marcotte’s point, and if pot really can lead to the harder drugs then under the stronger definition Marcotte’s point would again be falsified. She can argue that pot doesn’t lead to the use of the harder drugs … but she didn’t.
See, and that’s the problem. I’m not sure if Marcotte realizes that that is probably what Cupp is after and just ignoring it to try to make her look stupid, or if she really did miss that. But even if I take the most charitable option — she missed it — look at how that impacts the discussion. Since Marcotte is considering this to be an indication of stupidity, the fact that she seems to be arguing a rather obvious strawman (ie not the argument Cupp was making) makes her look really, really bad. If, however, she had just said something like “If Cupp is saying that the number of pot users will increase, since over half have admitted to having at least tried it and more probably aren’t saying that’s probably not going to be all that big an increase” then if Cupp comes back with “No, I meant hard drugs” all Marcotte has to do is say “Oh, my bad …” and move on from there. But an “Oh, my bad …” is insufficient when you’ve used that misunderstanding to call them an idiot.
The piece goes on like this at length. The entire thesis appears to be, “As a reactionary, I know I have to be against anything that liberals are for. So, uh, yeah, pot bad. Liberals bad! Pay me!”
Um, no, that’s not what the thesis is. The thesis is that there seems, to Cupp, to be a contradiction between pushing to legalize pot and some of the other stances that liberals take. Marcotte goes on to take aim at Cupp’s point this out for gun control and for banning trans fats, and Marcotte is dismissive of the points:
She declines to offer that evidence. Maybe she means, by “reducing crime”, that Stand Your Ground laws, by legalizing cold-blooded murder in many cases, reduces the number of murders they have to bother prosecuting. Needless to say, she displays an inability to understand the difference between laying dead on the ground because of a gunshot and laying in front of your TV mindlessly watching cartoons for an hour because you hit the weed a little hard. Someone who cannot understand that difference does not need to be a paid pundit expressing opinions.
It’s a fair point to say that Cupp hasn’t given the evidence that more guns equals less crime. Unfortunately, right after that sentence Marcotte goes right off the rails in what looks more like a rant than an argument, talking about people being able to get away with cold-blooded murder — without evidence, I will note (and note that the Trayvon Martin case doesn’t count, since she says “many”) — and then heading into a comment about someone being dead because of a gunshot versus sitting in front of the TV, which is no longer an argument about legalizing pot and legalizing guns and their relation to actual crimes, but is again a rant about consequences. It’s okay to make that argument, but please admit that you are drifting from what was said in the post into other topics, huh?
And, as Marcotte says, it gets worse:
But for other Democrats who, like him, promote an expansion of the health nut state, but want to also support legal marijuana use, does it really work to rail against trans fats and restrict the smoking of cigarettes but allow pot smoking (and the sloth and munchy-induced snacking that comes with it)?
S.E. Cupp appears to believe that liberals intend to throw people in jail for possessing trans fats.
Um, they do want to ban them, which means that they want to be able to restrict what people can do to themselves because of the health impacts … and yet, one of the arguments for legalizing pot is that you shouldn’t restrict people’s choices on what they do to themselves, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. So, yeah, there’s a potential contradiction there, one that liberals might have a problem with. Her reply is a total non sequitor, dodges the point, and makes her look, well, there’s no polite way to say this … dumb. Well, either that or dishonest, as Marcotte either misses the obvious points or deliberately ignores them so that she can call Cupp an idiot and laugh. If the latter, that plays well to people who don’t, you know, actually read what the person she’s calling an idiot actually said, but not so well to those who do. Who are the people who are doing what New Atheists and skeptics are supposed to want everyone to do, right? So then how bad is it to write an article that only works if people don’t do that?
Again, if it was presented as disagreement with less rhetorical bashing, then a discussion could ensue over the things that each side gets wrong. What in the world is so hard about not saying “You’re an idiot” and saying instead “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why”?