Sophistry is alive and thriving. As a Patriot that makes me angry.
My anger is about a form of sophistry relying on intellectual dishonesty which – as I look over issues of faith, politics, science, culture, and history – is rampant. When I hear ignorant, pandering and self-serving comments from liberals or conservatives or about the nobility of the Confederates’ sacrifice and evils of Sherman’s March, or from Birthers, religious fundamentalists, the NRA, PETA, Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh my blood boils.
Most of what is passing as insightful punditry is really intellectually dishonest sophistry.
Sophistry is practiced without restraint in the capitals, boardrooms, and news-tainment centers across the United States. Today, society labels sophists as pundits, spin-doctors, political hacks, partisans, commentators and consultants. Their role is to create an “argument that seems plausible, but is fallacious or misleading, especially one devised deliberately to be so”. Their goal is not the truth but rather the perception of “truthiness” to maintain control, power and wealth. The goal of a modern Sophist is to take the truth and rebrand it so that it undermines all legitimate democratic debate.
Following 9/11, the citizens of the United States came together against a common enemy. However, as the Bush administration moved us towards war, responsible and legitimate questions were raised. The political Sophists in this country responded to these questions not with answers but with rhetoric and hyperbole that undermined the legitimacy of the people asking reasonable questions. The goal was to discredit the individual by questioning their loyalty, integrity or motivation with intentionally disingenuous responses that didn’t address the concerns being raised. This is more than politics, it is a distortion of the truth in order to mislead the citizenry. It is treason.
In reality Sophistry depends on intellectual dishonesty to work. It relies on an individual’s emotional desire to believe that it requires a conspiracy to assassinate a President when all reasonable evidence points otherwise. It leverages an individual’s fear of doctors or government or strangers.
In some respects, it is my own fault.
I use to naïvely believe ignorance was the result of a failure of education and society. I embraced the Enlightenment ideals that humans are basically blank slates that through proper tutelage, faith and love we could address issues of crime, poverty, racism and war. I believed in the saintliness of Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Adams. I believed in the heavenly ascension of the Founding Fathers, the freedom loving Pilgrims and the evils of socialized medicine. I believed in the ability of the market to decide right from wrong. I believed in the wise leaders seeking wise counsel to make wise decisions. I wanted to believe – it was easier, it was convenient and it was Patriotic.
It was also intellectually dishonest.
Embracing the idea of how the west was won certainly makes me proud to be an American. It fills me with pride in our nation’s destiny. Because we “won” makes people feel good and that is all we really want to know about our country’s history. The reality is we didn’t “win” the west. We conquered several million indigenous peoples over 200 years, we fought the British, the French, the Spanish and the Mexicans. We didn’t win – we forcibly took. I know it isn’t a popular perspective but any other perspective is intellectually dishonest.
For example, when the Ohio State Buckeye’s beat the Miami Hurricanes to win the National Title Game in 2002, Miami fans raged about what they perceived as a bad pass interference call. When the jumbo-tron in Sundevil Stadium replayed the call their “boos” were lost in a sea of scarlet and gray cheers. Today many Miami fans still feel that game was lost through a bad call even though sports experts such as sportswriters, the National Association of Sports Officials and ESPN have all reviewed the call and report it as a legitimate call. Referee Magazine even selected the call as one of the “Best 18 Calls of All Time”. In the face of all the evidence, all the experts and even the actual replay, Miami fans still believe it was a bad call. This is intellectual dishonesty.
Socially it is this same intellectual dishonesty that fuels groups such as Birthers, the 9/11 Truth Movement, believers of the fake moon landing, JFK Conspiracy buffs and Holocaust deniers. Well researched and documented scientific issues such as evolution, global warming and embryonic research are hijacked by Sophists using the intellectual dishonesty of disciples to increase ratings and maintain power. It isn’t about truth – it is about truthiness. These are logical fallacies that rely on an argument from personal conviction. Essentially, a Sophist, and followers, argue, “because I personally find a premise [unlikely, distasteful, anti-xxxxx, unbelievable, heretical, inconvenient, etc] then you are wrong.”
This is the perspective of right-wing Birthers. They are so opposed to President Obama’s election they choose to ignore all of the evidence including copies of the birth certificate, testimony of the Republican Governor of Hawaii, the local newspaper report of Obama’s birth and hospital and county records. Essentially they are saying, “I believe Obama was not born in the United States and no amount of evidence will convince me.” This is intellectual dishonesty. Sophists such as Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, et al devise scenarios without evidence to continue raising ratings and money. A modern Sophists mantra is, “It is not the truth that matters but what you do with the truth.”
When I was younger I would evangelize about the obligation of mankind to enlighten society. That the role of our nation was to loosen the shackles of ignorance and complacency and drag the uncouth out of the cave (against their will if necessary) into the sunlight. When exposed to the Light of Truth they would see their “stupidity”, acknowledge their faults and embrace this opportunity to help others and create a better world.
I also believed in Santa Claus, the little people and the free market. Then I entered preschool and all of these illusions were shattered.
Intellectual dishonesty is a choice. We choose to turn the other cheek to the truth. We choose to lock the door when the truth comes knocking. We choose to stick our fingers in our ears and loudly chant “LA-LA-LA-LA” repeatedly until they other person tires and walks away with their head shaking in disgust. We don’t want to know. We don’t want to know the truth about why we are in Iraq. We don’t want to know who the government is listening to on wiretaps. We don’t want to know why the Governor is in hiking the Appalachian trail. We don’t want to admit our spouses are having an affair with. It is simpler, easier and less scary not to know.
Overcoming intellectual dishonesty is to to be willing to work at learning, to sacrifice the ego and say, “I don’t know and I could be wrong”, and to acknowledge our own weaknesses, biases and prejudices. “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem” wrote Thomas Szasz, educational psychologist, “That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.”
This is intellectual dishonesty. This is a choice. The Sophists who seek to divide us are using it against us in a short sighted and greedy attempt to gain at our expense. This is why I’m angry.
For example, recently StupidPeopleHater contributed an article to http://www.Shitheadery.com entitled Obama: We are not a Christian Nation. In his editorial he parroted the slogans of a political ideology – “Obama is on a mission to destroy our country because he disagrees with the fundamental ideas this country was built on” and Obama “is putting this country on its knees for the rest of the world to gather strength and once again attack us”. At no point does StupidPeopleHater provide evidence or examples. He simply shares his opinion trying to couching it authoritatively as fact. He ignores the reality of five thousand years of human history – we are and always been a violent species. He ignores the reality of modern science and technology and blames Obama and his supporters for a future attack – an attack that if history is any indication will happen eventually. It is not an issue of who is in power. It is the reality of modern conflict and a flat Earth.
Unfortunately, like modern TV, blogs, newspapers and daily news-tainement entertainers, he shares his feelings and opinions and couch them as facts and hyperbolic extremes as average examples. On television the chicken-hawks cry crocodile tears, regurgitate half-truths about the deficit and spin incomplete stories over health care.
For example, the life expectancy is longer and infant mortality rates lower in Canada. However, Sophists present only the most atypical examples as truth. They would have us judge the validity of the entire system based on the merits of extreme cases. They do not discuss the merits – or drawbacks – of our current system against countries other than Canada or England. They do not discuss Japan or France or Sweden’s system in comparison. They are feeding half-truths to a group predisposed to be intellectually dishonest. They make their case without having to offer solutions for the roughly 46 million Americans that have no insurance and receive substandard care every day.
The article continues on a path of regurgitating convenient pseudo-history: the United States was founded as a Christian nation, the founders of this country were fleeing religious persecution and my personal favorite the Pledge of Allegiance and the idea of “one nation under God”.
In his defense StupidPeopleHater acknowledges he is not a history major – repeatedly. In other words, he has created a fallback position that allows him to address any intellectual dishonest with the position of, “I never claimed to be a history major.” This allows him to repeat and reinforce intellectually dishonest positions in an attempt to gather support. This makes him a modern Sophist.
This is the problem with intellectual dishonesty. You can say anything you want and argue for a perspective without ever feeling obligated to learn the facts. It doesn’t bother me he has a different perspective then myself. That isn’t what makes me angry. What makes me angry is he appears to have no interest in overcoming his ignorance. He could easily have done a little homework – a little research – and discovered for himself where he was intellectually dishonest but it is easier to write an opinionated paper than a researched paper.
Let’s pick a few examples of intellectual dishonesty in Obama: We are not a Christian Nation.
The United States was not founded by people attempting to create a world free of religious persecution. But I can understand the confusion. The Pilgrims get all the press.
They were called “Puritans” because their original goal was to purifying the Church of England from liberals. They were run out of Europe because they were intolerant of people who refused to conform to their strict ideology. They were the first true “fundamentalists” in North America. Considering the slaughter of local New England indigenous tribes and the strict physical punishment inflicted on those that wandered from the flock, tolerance was not their goal. In this respect they have more in common with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban than with the founding fathers.
The goal of the Puritans, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban all had/have was the same – the creation of God’s Kingdom on Earth and the establishment of a centralized theocratic rule – even if they had to kill and torture to achieve the shinning city on the hill. As a sidebar, the Puritan crime of going “native” and adopting Native American customs and habits was punishable by death. For example, it was illegal for men to grow long hair or to question the teaching of the church leaders. In pre-war Afghanistan it was illegal to convert to another faith.
Lastly, with the exception of a small group of Puritans, North America was largely settled by business men and adventurers looking to turn a profit. Almost all of the framers of Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were business men not religious men. Read Franklin’s autobiography to see how little he thought of religion and its practitioners. “The government of the United States,” wrote George Washington, “is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”.
Of course, there are those who would prefer to remain ignorant. They will read this and scoff and bluster about – not because it is historically inaccurate but because it challenges their intellectual dishonesty and their ego and pride will keep them trapped by their thinking. They will wave the flag in my face and call me a friend of our enemies, a coward or a liar. They will accuse me of being in league with Satan or a member of the “blame-America first crowd” or even a traitor. What they won’t do is address the facts or the truth. What they won’t do is address their own intellectual dishonesty. It is easier to wrap themselves in the flag and use words like “Patriot” and “American” and “Leader” to describe themselves. They will do this all in attempt to distract their followers from the truth. That as a Sophist, they are nothing more then snake-oil salesman selling little bottles of deception.
The tragedy for humanity is it works.