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September 12, 2005

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I'd be interested to know if any of the commenters here can cite, or even merely recall, a case where Alterman conceded a substantial point in response to a direct personal disagreement from another political pundit (or well-known blogger). Again, by "personal disagreement" I don't mean "ad-hominem attack." I just mean a case where someone wrote, "I think Eric Alterman, specifically, is wrong." Just one case where his reply was, "You know, on further consideration, I think you're right."

Granted, the political pundit who enjoys admitting they're wrong is a rare beast indeed. Still, wouldn't it be remarkable to find one who had never done it? Not ever? Especially one who's written as extensively and for as many years as Alterman has.

Ann Coulter recently wrote a column titled “Iraq the Vote” for FrontPage Magazine, in which she writes: “In order to have free elections [in Iraq], apparently we would have to...reach out to the French!” So, is she claiming that we must “reach out to the French” to hold elections in Iraq? Of course not; she’s ironically paraphrasing a position that John Kerry took during the 2004 election where he favored international consensus in Iraq. This was written on February 3rd, 2005…I’m assuming either Mr. Nyhan missed that improper usage, or else read it just ignored it. For the amount of righteous indignation flowing from his correspondence with Mr. Alterman (including trips to his Thesaurus and Allwords.com), I’m surprised he missed Ms. Coulter’s missive.

So, perhaps in addition to there being a history of Mr. Alterman’s using the phrase “in order to,” there is also an ignored history of that phrase being used ironically? But really, you don’t even need to be familiar with Mr. Alterman’s work to see that this is irony. (and it is not satire, it’s a deliberate ironic representation of Mr. Alterman’s opinion intertwined with the actual history of US military action post 9/11…far from unusual as you can see from Ms. Coulter’s writing).

Now, I’m also fairly disappointed by Mr. Alterman’s Ad Hominem attacks, as descriptive words like “foolish” tend to lower the intellectual level of discourse. But I can understand his frustration, as someone lifting a quote without representing the tone can be irritating – if I say “This beer tastes like dog piss,” I don’t want some a-hole going around saying I’ve tasted dog piss (a logical, but flawed deduction). It is irony, and metaphor…something that writers (as is my understanding) use quite frequently. You don’t need to be a mind reader (or even a regular Altercation reader) to see that. Therein lies Mr. Alterman’s accusation of “bad faith.”

Alterman keeps quibbling in order to make an ass of himself.

alterman uses the rhetorician's trick of defamatory innuendo.

While I enjoy much of Dr. Alterman's writing, I could do with less extreme ranting, and a *lot* less of his ego. I'm regularly disappointed at how poorly he takes criticism. Please don't let his reaction wear you down.

Alterman - sounds like the term you'd use for an alterboy who kept his job even though he grew up.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone," it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."

...and that's what it's all about, folks!

With some glee, I must take the side of Brendan on this one. I have found the smug and arrogant Alterman to be a contemptuous fool for quite some time. To see him get his panties in such a bunch over something minor like this when all he had to do was admit to a minor mistake (I'm an editor. I fix writers' mistakes all the time. It's expected that writers make mistakes.) says a whole lot about his lack of character.

I will say, though, that while I really enjoy and appreciate Brendan's work (Spinsanity was great while it lasted) this kind of nitpicking about blogs doesn't seem like a terribly productive use of his time. Blogs can and should be off the cuff, so mistakes are much more forgivable (if the writer has the integrity to admit to them, at least). But such mistakes are far less forgivable in "printed" media. I'd much rather see Brendan focus his "language cop" skills on edited and published rhetoric.

"Sigh. This reminds me of the time Spinsanity attacked Al Gore because he called the press a fifth column -- the press wasn't, Spinsanity observed, literally in the pay of a foreign government, so Mr. Gore, Spinsanity reasoned, was guilty of a vicious smear. Mr. Nyhan and his former Spinsanity buddies believe a word or phrase has only one meaning and that therefore metaphor and sarcasm debase public discourse."

Thank you for posting this. One of the biggest reasons I dislike "truth squad" efforts like Spinsanity is that they inevitably spend their time on pedantic minutiae like this, rather than trying to uncover the truth about larger falsehoods whose corrections might make a difference in the world.

at this point, he's just trying to maximize the intimidation (or inconvenience) factor so that you're less likely to criticize him in the future; to him, what's important now is that you leave the situation so frustrated and fed up with dealing with him that you never write another critical word about Eric Alterman. Don't back down from him in the future.

I think Brendan did pick up that Alterman was being sarcastic, and has his own blogger style. That misses the point. Alterman is trying to have it both ways. Using the phrase "in order to," allows him to suggest that Bush is either creating terrorists intentionally, or is too stupid to notice it happening, though it is patently obvious to everyone. (Everyone that Alterman talks to, anyway.) Then when called on it, he tries to retreat into a claim that everyone should know he didn't mean it literally. He tries to get the full benefit of insulting Bush without having to take the heat.

Weasel words. Weasel words. This is precisely the sort of double game the critics on the left have used so often that they no longer see the import. I suspect that Alterman is being quite candid and honest in professing to see nothing wrong. He lives in a culture which believes this misuse of meaning by switching at will between connotative and denotative meanings is fine -- for criticising conservatives.

I am generally sympathetic to the right and I hate Eric Alterman but to be honest I have to side with him here. I believe a reasonable interpretation of what he wrote is that he was being sarcastic. Brendan Nyhan is being extremely unreasonable.

However to be honest I somewhat sympathize with what Bredan is doing because the left/liberals are always unreasonable in their responses and interpretations. They are frequently outraged, hysterical and purposefully misinterpret statements to fit their worldview. For instance look at how Chomsky savaged Keenan by taking his words out of context. Or better still look at how John Kerry got outraged that Republicans criticized his patriotism when all they did is criticize his defense policies. Liberals have also mastered the whole outraged thing amazingly well. Unfortunetly or maybe fortunately conservatives are just too well-mannered and reasonable to engage in protests and outrage the way the Left does. I don't think we should unreasonably interpret statements the way the Left does. We should act in good faith like Eric says. I just wish the Left/liberals would act in good faith.

Alterman's defense is such sophistry. And I'm actually more interested in the scare quotes around the word "terrorists." So I suppose he's not impying anything there, either?

Ad hominem attacks and demagoguery ("foolish," "the little language cop," "idiotically," etc.) are so common that they are taken as actual arguments by some. On many sites, in fact, there is little else, so that the only message of the site becomes "reinforce our point of view, or we will attack you". (This, by the way, is why Alterman finds his readers 'all agree with him', no real surprise.) And now the "sarcasm" card is trotted out here in the comments. (Sarcasm, of course, is a concept beyond Mr. Nyhan's feeble comprehension, which explains why he cannot see it when it is placed before his eyes. Poor fellow! Why not expand his horizons by breaking this sarcasm down for him, then?).

I remember the old Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" Point/Counterpoint segments in which Dan Ackroyd would devastate Jane Curtain with this argument: "Jane, you ignorant slut." This always got a big laugh because, of course, it was over-the-top and clearly not an argument at all. Jane was wrong because she was, well, ignorant, and because she made questionable sexual choices. Dan did not document his statement (some photos of the latter part of his argument might have boosted ratings), he merely had to make the accusation in the most overbearing manner possible. This was, of course, a joke, not a debate. (And not sarcasm, either, which is something else entirely.) Unfortunately, many in this online medium use these same tactics and are too emotionally invested in their own arguments to recognize how foolish they appear.

Language is such a poor instrument to begin with. Try to describe the feel and smell and emotion of a bouquet of flowers, or the first smile of recognition by a baby, and almost everyone collapses into cliché. ('Sweet, beautiful, soft, cute'... does any of this carry the weight of the things which are most meaningful in our lives?) This is the struggle of poets and philosophers, and it's humbling how bad most of us really are at this.

Therefore, using language precisely, in a medium where there are no other cues to meaning (body language and so on), is more than critical. It's all we have. In striving to achieve precision (for those who choose to do so) we also hone our perceptions, continually asking ourselves questions such as: 'is that what I mean?' 'is that consistent with other statements I've made?' 'are people drawing ideas I did not intend from my statement?'

These questions, if we ask them, make us better thinkers and writers. Nyhan is being precise and rigorous. Alterman is being lazy (and his defenders here equally lazy in using 'sarcasm' as an excuse). Since there are millions of bloggers and very, very limited time, I do not care to invest any in discovering that Alterman (or anyone) is only lazy 'sometimes' or when it suits him. Sorry, but I want a blogger's best effort, or I'll simply not bother. Instead, I'll look in and see how Mr. Nyhan fares in his examination of himself and the world around him.

Brendan may take some comfort in this: What really seems to bother his tormentor is his youth. Flaunt it, baby.

Alterman's book "What Liberal Media" refers to the mainstream media as the So Called Liberal Media, which he abbreviates as SCLM. I borrowed the book-on-tape from the library, read by Alterman himself, and he pronounces this abbreviation "slick-um," entirely without aknowledgement of the error. It kind of bugged me, like finding a mistake in a crossword puzzle--too small to complain about, but too obvious to ignore.

I'd like to say it's more evidence of sloppy, lazy thinking, but really I just wanted to get it off my chest.

In general, I want the folks I agree with to be polished and flawless. Hats off to the language cops who push them toward that goal.

Brendan,
My position on this controversy has changed somewhat. At first I thought that the phrase 'in order to' clearly meant only 'for the purpose of'; thus I supported your position with one exception I'll get to in a moment. Now I think you and Eric each have a point. The most commonly understood meaning of 'in order to' is indeed 'for the purpose of', which implies intent. Your Spinsanity model of language critique however, while useful for many purposes, especially when it notes errors of fact, is questionable when it judges styles of argument other than gross and unambiguous errors of logic on the order of 'correlation denotes causation'.

Please consider: the sarcasm of Eric's point is arguably more effective to a powerful critique of the Bush administration than the possibility of a few literal-minded readers' misconstrual is a liability. We all have intellectual habits, so what I now regard as your erroneous approach is understandable. But I do think there is an arrogance in your approach revealed in a related but distinct example--namely, your criticism of Matt Yglesias. Your citation of the social science literature on emotional associations is a valid point but not a conclusive one, yet you treat his rhetorical choice as an unambiguous error when a case can be made for his usage. There are things one can convey more clearly by reference to his analogy than without it, even if the analogy can be interpreted in other ways and can have other effects. The psych references were, in fact, a bit strained as an argument (although I have acnowledged their relevance up to a point), because unlike some extremist political writers, Matt was very careful to contextualize and narrow the frame of reference in which he made his analogy, which you unfairly noted only in passing.

The exception to my early agreement with you noted in my first paragraph, describing when I was only focusing on the common meaning of 'in order to', refers to your blog statement "I did not say Alterman thinks Bush intentionally tried to 'create more terrorists and let bin Laden get away.'" In fact, however, and I will quote you in a moment, you implied that Alterman either did so or did something similar. You wrote: "The phrase 'in order to' clearly implies that the Bush administration wanted to 'create more terrorists and let bin Laden get away.' Alterman would no doubt claim that he's just being sarcastic, but that's an easy excuse that allows him (and people like him) to make this sort of vile suggestion." Focus for a moment not on the first sentence in this excerpt, on which you have based your defense, but on the second sentence.

I can see where you were coming from at the beginning in noting a possibly confusing usage, but Alterman's angry response and your focus on only part of what you said seems to have produced in you an instance of confirmation bias, or only seeing the way in which you are right and not the broader implications of your argument. Alterman is right that it was a serious accusation. He may have been unwise to use sarcasm in the ambiguous way he did, but as I wrote above, a case can be made for it. Literalism (if I may describe your rhetorical criticism philosophy that way) has its own dangers, and I think that despite your kind comments about Eric when not referring to this disagreement, you aren't displaying any effort to see the current dispute from his point of view. Sorry this post was so long, and also for any confusing ways of putting things it contained, but I really think I'm on to something here.

I've almost never read Alterman before, and have often disagreed with what he's written.

But reading the passage in question, there's a clear, plausible meaning of what he wrote - sarcasm - which you dismiss for no good reason. Instead, it seems like you've bent over backwards to find the least charitable reading of what he wrote.

Is it possible to agree with both you and Eric? When I read his post I didn't take from it the intentionality it implied - I did the necessary inner-edit that got to the way he meant it. Of course, you are right on the facts.

As far as Eric's ad hominen its a mixed bag. The foolish adjective as applied to you is defensible only to the degree that it describes you in a foolish act or opinion. I don't know if he thinks you are always foolish or foolish over fifty percent of the time but I assume not since he doesn't have opportunity to observe you that much. Employing my inner-edit again I take him to mean you were foolish to post this critiscm of him. I've already decided that you are right on the facts so that's not foolish. But, to criticise someone who is going oblige you to long, pointless posts and endless e-mails, well, that may have been foolish.

I don't know if you are little but you picture shows you to be thin and to those of us that aren't really, well, "thin" the use of little can be useful but also misleading if you are particularly tall. Little probably best describes someone who is both thin and short and I don't know if it applies. I will say that as a discription it's value neutral in that its neither good nor bad to be little though its utility varies with circumstance. It's easier on the furniture and negociating around small spaces but one is forced to get a step stool when reaching for a cookbook above the kitchen cabinettes.

My inner-edit was working on the language cop part. That is the hat you were wearing in your criticism of Eric so the description, if limited to this instance, is apt. I mean, your not really a law enforcement officer who enforces language laws for a living, are you? Anyway, people like that are called editors.

I think Eric's use of idiotically was out of bounds, though. I know idiots. Some of my best friends are idiots. You sir, are no idiot. You're way too literate for one thing.

Imagine if all of this energy had been put toward something productive. Alterman is a foul-tempered guy, and not a very gifted stylist. This much has been known for some time. You called him, properly if a little hyperactively, on a poor use of grammar. The best thing to do after that is move on to bigger and worthier targets.

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