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The Bottom Line: Special Straw Man Edition


Say What?!?


The daily Minyanville take on news, commentary and opinion from around the world:

In today's Wall Street Journal, Peter Wehner, deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives takes on "a small group of current and former conservatives -- including George Will, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Francis Fukuyama -- [who] have become harsh critics of the Iraq war." He says, now is "the wrong time to lose our nerve."

  • Bottom Line: Hello, straw man!

A straw man fallacy is a rhetorical technique where a person's position is intentionally misrepresented in order to allow for easy refutation. The name is derived from the former military practice of using "straw men" in combat training.

Here is an example of the straw man fallacy:

Wife: I want you to clean up the garage, it's dirty.
Me: C'mon! We cleaned out the garage seven years ago! Why do you have to have the garage cleaned out every single day? What are you some kind of obsessive compulsive garage neat freak?
Wife: I don't want the garage cleaned out every day, we last cleaned out the garage in 1999! You just want to have the dirtiest garage in the history of the world!
Me: It's not the dirtiest garage in the world! Like anyone can even know that.

In the example above, both "Me" and "Wife" have engaged in the straw man fallacy rhetorical technique. All "Wife" wanted was for "Me" to clean out the garage. To counter "Wife's" argument that the garage was dirty, "Me" re-framed "Wife's" request as an unreasonable demand to clean out the garage every single day. Then, "Me" accused "Wife" of having a distressing and highly specific form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifested in a desire for ultra-clean garages.

Not to be outdone with "Me's" use of the straw man fallacy, "Wife" used the technique as well, re-framing "Me's" argument as the desire to possess the dirtiest garage in the history of the world. "Me" correctly pointed out that fallacy - "Like anyone can even know that" - because it is technically impossible to accurately judge which garage in the world is really the dirtiest since no one keeps statistics on such things.

Going back to Peter Wehner's piece in the Wall Street Journal, it is easy to spot some of the straw man techniques at work. He employs the rhetorical device in the following ways:

1) "The wrong time to lose our nerve."
The title, "the wrong time to lose our nerve," immediately attempts to rhetorically define the context for the author's straw man attack against those disagreeing with the administration's war prosecution by explicitly defining the crux of the debate as a choice between two polar opposites:

a) Having "nerve"
b) Losing "nerve"

To "lose one's nerve" is an insult, of course. It connotes a loss of courage, weakness, shame. In the straw man fallacy here, rather than outlining the alternative war prosecution options presented by George Will, William F. Buckley Jr. or Francis Fukuyama, the author sets up the conditions as a choice between having "nerve" and agreeing with the administration's position, or "losing nerve" or, implicitly, choosing cowardice.

2) "The war is lost."
Here, Wehner uses an outright straw man misrepresentation as a catalyst for attacking Will, Buckley and Fukuyama's position. Wehner quotes Buckley: " Our mission has failed." Leaping from a failed mission to "the war is lost" is a calculated misrepresentation and exaggeration. Wehner here attempts to elevate his argument by virtue of an implied comparison to defeatism and hopelessness. Again, the polar opposition is created by the straw man fallacy:

a) Wehner (the administration) has hope, optimism
b) Those who disagree believe "all is lost," defeatism

3) "Critics have offered no serious strategic alternative."
In concluding his piece, Wehner reaches for a straw man fallacy coup de grace and declares that none of his opponents have offered a serious strategic alternative. Rhetorically, this is a straw man within a straw man.

Because Wehner initially framed the debate in deceptive terms, as a choice between "having nerve" and "losing nerve," and then misrepresented his critics viewpoint as an implicit, yet fundamental, disagreement in outlook - optimism vs. defeatism, he set up the final straw man to be knocked down himself. Consequently, it is a misrepresentation when he asserts, "critics have offered no serious strategic alternative," when what Wehner is doing here is simply omitting the presentation of his opponents' strategic alternatives altogether, and then using this omission to back up his assertion that critics have presented no serious strategic alternative.

While it is easy to pick on Wehner here, the fact is the straw man fallacy dominates public debate and media in our society, whether applied in politics, finance or tabloid journalism. In finance, be wary whenever someone attacks "the bull case" or "the bear case" in general. In the real world I encounter very, very few people who can be defined as a "bull" versus a "bear." The truth lies somewhere in between.

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