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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How do you know a putz when you see one?

Or, a putz by any other name is a putz.

Sometimes we refer to a certain stupid verbal phenomenon as the straw man fallacy. It is when one person makes up a bunch of stuff about someone and then attacks that someone for possessing all the fabricated things attributed to him or her. Often people who make up things about other people come to have a pathological belief in them. The delusions become part of their creed. The things they make up and believe in originate in their ignorance, prejudice, and innate human need to hate, but they worship them devoutly.

If you want examples of their liturgy, go to a thread at South Dakota War College on the Argus Leader review of Jon Lauck’s book Daschle vs. Thune You will see a multitude of comments in which a few stalwart souls try to engage in a somewhat reasoned discourse with people who merely wish to attack the straw men they created and now threatens their world. The rational ones tend to sign their names to what they post. The others cower and snivel and hurl abuse from behind their cyber anonymity, like belligerent children hiding behind their mamas.

There is much name-calling and maligning of character and personality on this thread, as is characteristic of blogs and discussion boards in general. Most people who frequent blogs don’t know the difference between naming—the proper application of nomenclature to the thing being described—and gratuitous name calling—the infliction of harm and abuse on someone by terming them something denigrating and odious. People get exercised by the name-calling and insult. They tend to forget that when a person calls you a name or imposes an image on you created out of their mental failings, they are giving anyone who cares to notice a map of their mentalities, a window into their essential character, a printout of their mental processes. These individuals have the right in our culture to express their minds. We have the right to note the shortcomings of their minds, but we need to learn how wasteful it is to engage them. Some call that elitism. In our age anyone with brain cells that function seems to be elitist.

The blog discussions of Jon Lauck’s book are largely inane. The “reviews” of it have said little about what the book actually accomplishes and how it does it, thus not fulfilling the function of a review. So, much discussion has been taking place and no one seems to know exactly what it is they are discussing.

In noting what information is available through a review, I made the point that the focus of the book on the Argus Leader as a medium of partiality seems to obscure the fact that all of the news media in South Dakota tend to let partisanship determine their news coverage. The review in the Argus Leader overtly informs the reader that it will not deal with the substantive materials in the book—somewhat strange for a book that purports to be history—and concentrates on the book’s treatment of the Argus Leader. I said nothing regarding the worth of the book, but comments I did make excited fellow-blogger Prof. Jon Schaff to break open a bale of straw and erect an effigy in my name.

He states, “Of course, it is unlikely that Newquist would approve of any review that didn't trash the book and discuss the degradation to American civilization caused by the scurrilousness of Lauck's Orwellian fascism.” While I admit there is a crude likeness in this image, it is still a very crude straw man which represents Prof. Schaff’s thinking, and certainly not mine.

I have a reverence for books and expectations for essays which presume to review them. Jon Lauck’s book has not yet received a substantial review that gives readers a descriptive overview of the book and examines its premise and its achievement. That was my point.

I don’t know how the book treats Lauck’s role in the Daschle/Thune campaign, but I know that he was a paid blogger while a professor at SDSU and much of his blogging was devoted to character assassination and appeals to the ignorance, prejudice, and mean resentments of a very provincial culture. People like blogger and commenter Jer Bear have saved examples of his work.

Scurrilous? I don’t know of a better word to describe the example. Or the comment thread at South Dakota War College on the alleged book review.

Fascist? Fascism is undergoing a renaissance in the 21st century. It has pervaded American politics. Our current regime is fascist in many aspects. It espouses a belligerent nationalism. It is militaristic. It is moving toward totalitarianism with its warrantless wiretaps, its advocacy of torture, its systematic defamations of its opponents and its repressive policies and actions, its control by a corporate hierarchy that is allowed to set policy and rig the economy to only its advantage, It fits the descriptive taxonomy that defines fascism. Anyone who supports the ideologies and political machinations that define fascism might be said to be a fascist as a legitimate denotative term, not as a gratuitous epithet. I don’t know just how far Lauck’s conservatism accommodates fascism, and I wouldn’t call him fascist, although he seems to embrace fascist principles and totalitarian propaganda techniques. And I don’t think his boss is cerebral enough to be self-consciously fascist. He is just obedient to those who give him his marching orders.

Orwellian? Jon Lauck was part of a campaign based upon misdirection, defamations, and misinformation designed to appeal to the fears, peevish resentments, and small-mindedness of an exceptionally provincial electorate. When college freshmen from small communities in South Dakota return home for vacations, they find that their former classmates and friends, except for those who also went off to college, regard them with suspicion and resentment, as leaving the community for college is a snobbish affront. If they succeed and make their way in the outside world, it is regarded as an unforgivable sin. When a political leader goes to Washington, his/her constituents begin to suspect that they are being betrayed. If that leader gains success and recognition, the folks back in the province get resentful and feel neglected and betrayed that anyone would dare fix on horizons beyond their parochial vision. This, among other appeals to petty jealousy and resentment, was used effectively against Tom Daschle, as it was George McGovern before him and crops up against Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. It was a very effective tactic. The question is whether it is intellectually and morally defensible.

Daschle supporters are often told that the election is over and to get over it. It was not Daschle’s loss that is the issue. The issue is that the campaign n that won adopted the propaganda philosophy and perfidious techniques of the worst and most repressive political regimes of the last century or so. It has left the stain of malice on the state and nation.

There is no doubt that, from hindsight, the Daschle campaign made some mistakes. I was involved in the campaign and participated in the canvassing of the eastern part of South Dakota. We knew there were problems and knew what they were. The ruling attitude of the campaign was that the majority of voters would not be swayed by disinformation and phony issues raised by the Thune campaign and would rise above them. This was a tactical mistake, but not a moral one.

A cursory look at Daschle vs. Thune did not reveal that much is said about the thinking and strategy on which the campaign operated. Rather, it seems to focus on the alleged partialities of the Argus Leader and its portrayal of Tom Daschle as a dissembler. No reviews have so far ventured to deal with those claims.

Words and books exist in semantic and historic contexts. For example, as we are in the holiday seasons, we can examine how those contexts work by looking at our most familiar carols:

“Hark, the herald putzes sing”

“Joy to the putz”

“O, little putz of Bethlehem

“Deck the halls with boughs of putzes”

“Silent putz”

Most people can recognize the semiotic nonsense in those titles, but they are not as adept as recognizing it in political discourse and books.

Daschle vs. Thune exists in a context of semantic intent and historical fact. It has not been examined in those terms to date. It will be, if it is taken seriously as a contribution to history.

In the meantime, we’ll keep our putz dry.


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States