Rhetorical Absurdities
by Kim Petersen

December 29, 2003

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We are oft to blame in this, --
’Tis too much proved -- that with devotion's visage

And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself.

-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet



Actions speak louder than words. Literary sleight-of-hands aside, this idiom focuses conspicuously on hypocrisy as embodied by the disconnect between ideology and kinesics; in other words, the disconnect that emerges between words and the actualization of the words.


A case in point is the power of the people demonstrated by the outpouring of millions worldwide onto the streets in mid-February that gave pause to governments whose policies advocated war. Although many others sympathized with the anti-war sentiments they nonetheless stayed at home. This hypocrisy was supremely manifest in China where despite Communist Party declamations against an invasion of Iraq, ordinary Chinese were not permitted to demonstrate in support the government stance.


It seems a never-ending battle to refute the logically inane mutterings of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and some may well ask, “Why bother, the guy’s a lost cause?” Well, the cause isn’t Friedman but the wide readership enjoyed by him. He is a best-selling author; his books are even used, according to his website, in some universities and high schools; his articles are in wide syndication, including the local Chronicle-Herald; he evens appears on PBS’ “News Hour.” It is a televised forum in which to spout his vitriolic nonsense. For example, when discussing “the security fence [sic],” in Occupied Palestine, he opined that it represents “... a triumph of the notion that all we can hope for is a wall to divide us.” It was a foreclosure on peace, a foreclosure on anything approaching justice. Preeminent was the security of the occupiers although the fact that the occupation was filliping the security threat was unmentioned. Clearly he reveals his sympathies with his own words. And the words are important; just look at how a wall equates to a fence. I don’t recall anyone in the west ever referring to a Berlin Fence although it was less than half the average height of the Israeli Apartheid Wall and hundreds of kilometers shorter. 


Friedman tendentiously whined about the difficulties his children would face in the near future when Palestinians outnumber Jews in the Holy Land. “Imagine when they have to argue against the principle of one-man, one-vote,” lamented Friedman. Yes, it’s a sad day when one has to argue against moral principles.


In his column of 28 December Friedman writes:


No wonder then when young Poles think of America, they think of the word “freedom.” They think of generations of U.S. presidents railing against their communist oppressors. There is a huge message in this bottle. In the Arab world, because of a long history of U.S. support for Arab autocrats, who kept their people down but their oil flowing to us, America was a synonym for hypocrisy. In Poland, where we have consistently trumpeted freedom, America means freedom. We need to remember that. We are what we stand for.


Friedman fails to take into account the distinction between words and action. In essence, what Friedman is explicitly saying here is: we are what we say and not what we do. He offers a “long history of U.S. support for Arab autocrats, who kept their people down but their oil flowing to us” without refutation. Now this support was obviously not mere rhetoric but deeds. Mere words will not protect dictators for long. Sooner or later someone will probe to see if there is a response. Thus, US policy was “hypocrisy.” But, by inserting the word was in the sentence, one must surmise that Friedman is trying to instill the impression that this was a historical aberration that no longer exists. Really? When is the last time a Jordanian ruler has been elected? There are only words hinting at democracy in Saudi Arabia, and only a grudging nudge in that direction in Kuwait. Are we to assume that Hosni Mubarak rules Egypt through legitimate democratic means? Yet these are the closest US allies in the Arab world.


Such are the absurdities purveyed by Friedman to so many media consumers.




The way in which these absurdities can come to be encompassed was explained by Plato’s protégé Aristotle. In his Rhetoric Aristotle examined the artful persuasion of logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos refers to the persuasiveness of thought through language, which, as has been idiomatically stated, loses its efficacy when not backed up by deeds. Nonetheless, the mere act of giving form to words is in itself, arguably, an action of which the ancient Greeks were undoubtedly aware. Friedman corrupts the appeal of logos. Although the word logic is derived from the Greek logos, the language as manipulated by Friedman is too often devoid of logic.




So what the readers and viewers of Friedman are left with is ethos, an attempt to persuade based on the character of the rhetorician. After all Friedman does write for the establishment flagship the New York Times; he is a university graduate; he has been to all these far-flung places; he is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes; he is a regular on PBS’ “New Hour.” He must know his stuff, right? Whether he knows his stuff or not is moot. The best gauge would be to analyze his writings or listen to his television spots. Most important, however, is what he presents for the public consumption regardless of what he knows or doesn’t know.


Writing for the New York Times guarantees no bestowal of journalistic authenticity as I wrote in an earlier article. Neither does being any kind of prizewinner necessarily confer respectability of character. Erstwhile Times journalist Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 based on his coverage of the Soviet Gulag. Lubomyr Luciuk a teacher at the Royal Military College in Ontario, Canada characterizes Duranty as popular but “corrupt -- a pervert, a drunkard and a satanist.”


Duranty’s crime, according to Luciuk, was his cover up of the Stalinist genocide of Ukrainians. After receiving his Pulitzer award, he reportedly admitted to British embassy officials in Moscow “that as many as ten million people may have died of famine over the last year.”


Even the highly vaunted Nobel Peace Prize has been relegated to ignominy by awarding it to characters like Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Simon Peres, Yasser Arafat, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and other questionable recipients.


As for university degrees, suffice it to say, George Bush has a couple of those.


The fact that PBS’ “News Hour” refers to the Apartheid Wall, averaging 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) in height as a fence can only be construed as a self-administered undermining of its reputation.


The point of this is not to criticize the character of Friedman, only to refute the notion that a reputable character can be deduced from one’s media connections or awards. 


The danger is that too many people base their beliefs based on information promulgated by the corporate media (and PBS long ago gave up its independence when it began accepting corporate sponsorship). Just ask some of the majority of Americans why the US attacked Iraq and most likely they’ll tell you it was because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or that Iraq was behind 9-11, or that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were in cahoots. These are patently falsehoods but many Americans believed this according to the polls. Why? Because they are obviously relying too much on what the trustworthy characters in the corporate media are telling them.


So how do we recognize purveyors of absurdities? Look at the premises underlying their arguments. Aristotle analyzed arguments in a logical order. If A is a part of all B, and B is a part of C then A is also a part of C. Simple, as long as the premises are true.


Now let’s analyze how Friedman applies his logic. For example, Friedman states in the same article that within the EU “anti-Americanism is in the drinking water.” The conclusion is that since Poland is about to become an EU member it too will be disposed to becoming anti-American. There are glaring flaws in Friedman’s reasoning. Now for an argument to be logically cohesive the premises must hold water. So we here have an argument presented by Friedman along the lines: EU members are anti-American, so if Poland becomes an EU member it too will become anti-American. Well, one has only to note that Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK are part of the “Coalition of the Willing.” Are we to believe that EU coalition members are anti-American?


What exactly defines anti-Americanism for Friedman? Is opposition to waging war on Iraq anti-Americanism? Doesn’t that conversely imply that those who favored an aggression of Iraq are anti-Iraqi? To refer to a country as anti another country because they are opposed to the policies of its government is gibberish.


Yet Friedman falls on his own sword when he criticizes the French or the EU. Is Friedman, therefore, by his own logic, not anti-French and anti-EU?


The whole exercise of criticizing others as anti-American is engaging in ad hominem, the abject level of name-calling. This is not discourse that is taken seriously by a questioning intellect. Okay, so Friedman is not pandering to the intellect. He is after all purveying absurdities.




Friedman’s hero President Bush best exemplifies pathos. The appeal to emotion is the card effectively played by Bush. Bush isn’t the brightest bulb burning, but neither is he a moron. He managed to dupe a little less than half-of-voting Americans with his self-portrayal as a “compassionate conservative.” This was after his years of signing off on a record number of executions in Texas and after his blood-curdling, spoiled, frat-boy mimicry of a death-row woman pleading for mercy.


This commander-in-chief vicariously enjoys giving the orders to rain death down upon Iraqis while distancing himself as far as possible from American blood spilled in imperialist adventurism. This warrior of the intellect is trying to win hearts in Iraq with an iron hammer while simultaneously passing himself off as a follower of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.


This is hypocrisy that demands exposure.


Kim Petersen lives in Nova Scotia and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk

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