Thursday, October 09, 2008

On the "Open Letter to Obama"

[An "open letter to Obama" was posted to the neighborhood mailing list, as something that "makes a lot of good points." Rather than respond on the list, as that really is not what the list is for, I put my response here. My comments are in brackets.]

The important question to ask about the letter is whether it is "rational," meaning: does the author define crucial terms, or, at least, use them consistently, and apply principles consistently? If he does not, then it is irrational. One can also ask whether the author gives reasons for the criticisms, as opposed to argument by association.

So, how would an informed but neutral person read the letter?

The short answer is that this is what is called "display" rhetoric--it would not persuade an informed and intelligent opposition or neutral audience. It might, however, make a person already opposed to Obama feel better about themselves, especially in terms of the race issue. The author describes the same behavior in the Republican candidates and the Democratic ones, but praises it in the former and condemns it in the latter. So, the author is a moral relativist (or simply completely irrational).


Dear Mr. Obama,

It is August 30, 2008. My name is Mark Gregg. I am a 50 something conservative white male. I have followed your campaign closely, including the speeches you and others made at the democratic national convention. I am respectfully providing you with seven simple (probably shallow) reasons why I could never vote for you. I believe my opinion is shared by many people. While there may not b e quite enough to prevent you from becoming president of this nation, I do think there is an awakening to the fact that you are not a (the) messiah that the media and liberal Hollywood entertainers are trying to portray you.

[This is an attempt at a smear. There's no real argument here, and no evidence. The author identifies himself as hostile to Obama, immediately, with his self-description, but also his equation of supporters with "the media" or "Hollywood entertainers." It's irrelevant.]

1. I hear your mantra of change, change, change. Yet, you picked a long term, liberal, Washington insider (Joe Biden) to be your running mate. This is NOT change. It is a move that hypocritically refutes the very thing you supposedly stand for. Your campaign then slammed McCain for picking Sarah Palin, apparently, because she is NOT a Washington insider. She is a maverick who cleaned-up Alaska's quagmire of political scandals. Which way is it, Barack? Is it okay for you to pick a Washington insi der under the mantra of "change", but not okay for John McCain to pick a smart,
aggressive, reformer?

[This is where the author uses inconsistent standards. If Biden is a "Washington insider" and to be condemned for that reason, then McCain should also be condemned just for being who is. But, the author does not condemn McCain--only Biden is a problem. That's moral relativism.

The author gives no evidence to support the claim that Palin is a maverick, or that she "cleaned up" Alaska--evidently the author has not looked into the issue that she tried to use her political power to settle personal grievances, nor that she left a debt as a mayor, or other evidence that she is fiscally irresponsible. What right, exactly, does she have to the title of "reformer" other than her description of herself as such?

Keep in mind that, until McCain picked Palin, the least experienced person ever on a ticket, he condemned Obama for being inexperienced.

Also note that he refers to Obama by the first name, but not McCain. Racists conventionally refuse to grant the same civilities to blacks that they do to whites; in the south, it was conventional to refer to an adult black man by his first name, but a white man by his full name. Note that the author does this.]

2. You have the single most liberal voting record in the senate. This
indicates to me and others like me that you may very well be an angry black
man seeking to punish our country for sins of a different generation.

[How does one get from liberal to angry black man? Is Ted Kennedy (who is generally considered more liberal) an angry black man? Or Barney Frank? This is a non sequitor, and a very disturbing one. Why is Obama's race at issue? Logically, there is no connection between being "liberal"--another term he doesn't define, nor does he say where this factoid is from--and being angry, let alone being angry.]

I am
not racist.

[I teach a class on racism, and the first thing I tell students is that "I am not a racist" is never something a person needs to say unless they are racist or about to say something racist.]

I have some biases just like you and every other human alive. Unlike the Democratic party who claims to be for the minority (but their record heavily refutes this), I will give any person who truly needs help, help. I married a "minority" girl 35 years ago (she is Hispanic) and have seen the evils of prejudice first hand. However, I have also seen my wife and my children and others in her family throw off the veil of self imposed prejudicial bondage and move ahead. They love our country and do not view
themselves any different than I view myself as a citizen of this country. Your lovely wife so disappointed people like me during this campaign when she stated it was the f irst time she had ever been proud of this country. She apparently never noticed the massive aid we give dozens of other countries. She apparently never noticed the sacrifice of literally millions of veterans who helped make this country a free nation and helped liberate other nations from brutal dictators such as Adolf Hitler. She apparently does not remember that she attended Ivy League universities with scholarship
money that ultimately (at least some of it) was paid for by our taxes. This troubles me more than you know. She is an angry black woman who appears to not like her country very much. I don't want her representing me to the rest of the world.

[Why does her race matter so much to this author? He has taken her statements out of context, and made a series of completely unrelated assertions. What is his point in this paragraph? The only point, as far as I can tell, is that Obama and his wife are angry and black. Well, McCain is a much, much angrier man, so this author has no problem with white political figures being angry. He is only bothered when African Americans are angry. Why?]

3. You claim Christianity but apparently do not realize that the Bible teaches that he who does not work, does not eat.

[Note, again, that the author doesn't give a cite. Presumably, he means 2 Thessalonians 3, a passage probably written by a follower of Paul (see, for instance, the book on First and Second Thessalonians, by Beverly Roberts Gaventa)--it's one that a lot of conservatives are using to argue for ending caring for the poor. Most theologians explicate that pseudo-Paulian passage as being about everyone in the church sharing their resources.

It's important to note that Jesus never said anything along those lines; he said the opposite, in fact. Personally, being a Christian, I think that what Jesus said is the center of my faith, and not some follower of Paul. I guess the author doesn't see Jesus' words as especially important, though. (For more on ministry to the poor and Jesus' teachings, see Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, or the doctrines of mainstream Christian denominations like the PBUSA or ELCA. A quick google search turns up dozens on sermons that cite the relevant Scriptural texts. Here's one, for instance:]

The Bible does not say or even suggest that he who CANNOT work, should not eat. Yet, your liberal policies reward people who are capable of working, but choose to not do so.

[The first sentence is only barely comprehensible, because of the number of negatives. More important, both sentences are sheer assertion: he has neither shown that "the Bible" says this--note the lack of Scriptural reference--nor that Obama's policies actually do anything along those lines.]

This bothers me. I know that if you are elected our taxes will spiral upwards.

[Whoever is elected will have to do something to cover for the extraordinary debts that Bush has created, through the Iraq War and tax rebates. And Bush promised to balance the budget:

One might ask: how does the author know what Obama will do? Not because Obama has said it; not because it is a logical inference from what Obama has said. And certainly not because of Obama's voting or policy history. The author, one assumes, just feels it very strongly.

Meanwhile, the author, were he really concerned about debt, should perhaps think about this:]

You should heed the words of Winston Churchill: "We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle." If I like anything about you, it is your campaign promise to balance the federal budget. Unfortunately, we have heard this a huge number of times from a number of different politicians and we realize that when you energize the very liberal Nancy Pelosi, Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, etc, etc, and the many other
Democrats like them, a balanced budget will never, ever happen on your watch.

[Could they do worse than Bush has? Democrats are, historically, good for the economy. Republicans, historically, are not.

It's worth wondering how concerned the author really is about a balanced budget--did he oppose Bush's rebates? Or fiscal irresponsibility? Is he concerned that we have to bail out banks? Has he looked into the possibility that the current economic situation is a direct result of bank deregulation?]

4. During your question and answer session with Rick Warren of Saddleback Church your answer concerning the question of where does life begin, stunned me: "Above your pay grade?" Does this mean when something bad happens as President of this nation that you are going to look at your salary to determine if you can respond? I am sorry, but this was the most serious gaffe I have seen you make. Frankly, it shows me that you are pandering in the most obvious manner. You will choose your words not from your heart, but from an agenda that I believe is still hidden from the American people.

[I'm not even clear where the pandering comes into play. I'm not sure the author understands what the word means. It was a joke; if the author were to condemn McCain for any joke, I would believe that the author actually cares about this.]

5. If anything stands out about you it is probably your appeasement mentality. In this era of rampant, radical Islamic extremism and with the latest stunt pulled by the re-energized Russian government, I am not sure appeasement is healthy. I again revert to the words of Winston Churchill: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."

[Note that the author simply accuses Obama of appeasing, with no definition of the term, nor evidence to support the claim. I don't even know what he means by this argument, except it's an attempt to smear Obama with an ugly term.]

6. You and your party tacitly believe that a 13 or 14 year old girl must have the parents approval to have the school nurse provide them with a Tylenol when they have a headache at school.

[What does it means to "tacitly believe"? It means, as far as I can tell, that the author is interpolating.]

Yet, this same girl can become pregnant and the school can skirt her off to a clinic and abort the child in her body without the parents knowing or being notified. This scares the hell out of me. You have two little girls. Would you be upset if this
happened to them and you were not informed? Then why do you stand for this? It makes no sense to me.

[It makes no sense to me that Palin and McCain and the other Republicans who support "abstinence only" education pretend that they care about teen pregnancies. Perhaps Obama is concerned enough about his daughters to try to ensure that they have good information about birth control; perhaps he is interested in preventing pregnancies, so that abortions are unnecessary only in rare cases. If this author is so very "scared" about girls getting abortions, then he should support candidates who try to prevent pregnancies, not ones who advocate educational methods that have been demonstrated to increase teen pregnancies.]

7. My seventh and final point (for now) is your supporters. I have watched the Hollywood entertainers that support you, systematically embrace Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and others like him. I see the continuous smut and garbage produced by Hollywood, the very people who promote you the most vigorously. It is not a positive point to me and others like me to see these over-paid, bizarre, poor examples of human existence fawn over you and push you and your liberal agenda as hard as they do. The way that I see it; When the devil is for you, we should question whether or not we should be against you.

[This is a classic example of a really sloppy way of thinking. Obama is bad because some of the people who support him are a sort of person--note that he doesn't name the names of the people who support Obama and Chavez--who support another sort of person. Well, there are people who support McCain who have said that they would like nuclear war in the middle east as soon as possible because they think it will bring about the second coming of Christ. There are people who support McCain who think that we should execute gay people. There are supporters of McCain who are openly racists. Are those good reasons to vote against McCain? Unless the author is a moral relativist, he has to say yes. Because, by his logic, since some bad people are for McCain, the devil must be for McCain, and so he should question whether he should be against McCain.

But, I don't. I think one should for or against McCain on the basis of his policies, not on any kind of guilt by association. And I would say the same about Obama.]

In closing, I just want you to know that you scare me.

[That's clear. The author is scared of Obama, but not because of Obama's policies, as he only mentions one that Obama actually has. He isn't afraid of politicians who are angry, as he isn't afraid of McCain. He is very concerned with Obama's color--he doesn't mention McCain's, after all. So, that makes me think that he is, in fact, afraid of an intelligent black man. Does that mean his racism, presuming I'm right (and it really is just an inference), is why he is opposed to Obama? I don't think so; I suspect he's opposed to Democrats, and would be just as opposed to McCain if McCain were the Democratic candidate. My suspicion is that this is just about party affiliation, and not about policies.]

I cannot vote for
you. It is not because of your skin color. It is because these items and
many, many others like them. Do not claim that my dislike for you is race
based. It is because I do not feel you have the best interests of this
nation at heart.

[The last sentence is apt--this is about what the author feels. Not what he thinks, nor what he has investigated, and certainly not what he has logically thought through. It is, further, an appeal that would feel good to someone who is really uncomfortable with Obama and wants to feel okay about that discomfort. This is not an attempt to persuade anyone informed about Obama's policies, as it's inaccurate, sloppy, and illogical. It's written to an "in" audience to confirm their feelings.]


[That made me laugh.]

[I removed the author's name. He calls it an open letter, but I'm sure he didn't expect it would go to anyone who would try to look at it as an argument.]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wal-Mart Boycott

On some aspects of the Wal-Mart controversy, I claim expertise. This issue--whether ANA should call for a boycott of Wal-Mart--I do not.

My area of scholarship is really public deliberation. That is, I work on productive (and unproductive) models of community deliberation. But, a boycott is not about deliberation; it's about bargaining. And I've read only a few things on bargaining, and only a few things on political action. So, what I say is worth nothing more than what anyone else has to say--I'm talking through my hat, and I don't have a better hat than anyone else does on this.

The next part is the pedantic part. Some folks like it when I give mini-lectures on rhetoric, and some people feel their boot itch. So, skip to the next section if you're in the latter category.

Pedantic Blather on Deliberation v. Bargaining

Political theorists distinguish between a "deliberative" situation and a "bargaining" one. (Mediation is yet another category, but that isn't what we're talking about, so I won't say anything about it.)

Deliberation is characterized by the giving of reasons. If someone doesn't grant that the given reason is relevant, then the giver has to "redeem" it, or the discourse has to move to something else.

In other words, if I say, "Wal-Mart is great because I like it," and you say, "Thanks for sharing, Trish--do you have any other reasons?", I am obligated to provide other reasons. If we're both operating in good faith, then I do. (And, if we're both operating in good faith, then you don't ask for unreasonable evidence.)

So, one of the problems with deliberation is that it relies on participants having good faith.

(I've partially talked about good faith argumentation in an earlier post, but I keep promising to write a longer one with more. I'm still promising.)

If, however, people aren't willing to engage in good faith argumentation, then the deliberative model falls apart.

Bargaining doesn't depend on good faith, and it doesn't depend on reasons. It depends on threats. That is, if we're bargaining, we're talking about finding some place between what you want and what I want, and where we end up will depend on who can threaten worse consequences. (A union threatens to strike; a company threatens to fire everyone.) For a threat to work, it has to be credible, and it has to be consequential. My threatening to think really bad things about you probably won't get me very far, but neither will my threatening to have wild dogs attack you. I don't control any wild dogs (I don't even control any domesticated dogs). You don't care if I think bad things; you care about being attacked by wild dogs, but that threat isn't credible.

So, is a boycott a good idea?

Here are the arguments as I see them:

Is it a credible threat? Well, surprisingly, yes. I didn't think that when RG4N called for it at their meeting in January, as I thought we aren't their target market anyway. But, the whole point of this new kind of Wal-Mart is that we are their target market. (This is explained, with sources, in the post called "Email from a lurker.") So, yes, a boycott from people like us would bother them.

Is this a wise action?I'm a sucker for experts, so, personally, I intend to defer to the attorney. The other person to whom I would defer on this matter would be Al Norman, of Sprawlbusters, as he's someone who's been successful at stopping Wal-Mart.

Should people boycott Wal-Mart? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. And they should let Wal-Mart know that they are. But, that doesn't mean that ANA should call for a boycott. If it does, the motion should be very carefully worded, and approved by the attorney.

Well, that's my hat.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Wal-Mart Compromises (or maybe not)

The recent meeting among Wal-Mart, Lincoln, RG4N, and various neighborhood associations was represented as a significant step in the right direction, as willingness on the part of Wal-Mart/Lincoln to compromise. And, initially, I accepted that.

It was reported that:
  • [1]Lincoln increased the traffic counts closer to what they found at the WalMart on Ben White and I-35 and found them to come out at an acceptable level with the execption of the Burnet Rd and Anderson Ln intersection. As a result, they have agreed to add more turning capacity at that intersection.
  • [2]Lincoln will explore modifying Foster from Shoal Creek so that it's not a straight shot into the development.
  • [3]Add a turn lane into the development from Northcross drive.
  • [4]Wal-Mart would route Wal-mart truck traffic up 183 to Burnet and down Burnet to enter at Northcross Drive. Anticipate 89 deliveries a week, 1/2 of which would be Wal-Mart 18 wheelers.
  • [5]They will reduce the square footage of the Wal-Mart form 224,000 to 219,000 sq feet.
  • [6]Wal-Mart is willing to consider closing from 1:00 to 5:00 a.m.
  • [7]The new elevations showed sidewalks and greenspace along the eastern side of the Wal-Mart structure
  • [8]They said revised site design comes closer to complying with the City's recent design standards,
  • [9]Willing to modify the design to allow for small stores at the ground floor of the WalMart parking garage,
  • [10]have a rainwater capture and water quality system for runoff
  • [11]will not have gas or tire & lube operations as part of the development
  • [12]no RV parking
  • [13]24-hour security camera
  • [14]Lincoln and Wal-Mart showed the revised elevations - it did not look like a typical WalMart
  • Okay, looks great, right? I certainly thought so. Then I started looking at it more closely. Now, one of the things they teach you in Rhetoric classes is: look out for empty comparisons. Any time someone starts using "more" or "er" and doesn't finish that clause (more than WHAT), you put your hand on your wallet and back away.

    So, my question is: how many of these "more" and "er" statements are real comparisons, and how many are empty? Is this a compromise?

    And here it gets interesting. If you go back through and label them, and keep a hand on your wallet, what you find is:

  • 1. Even Wal-Mart and Lincoln admit that the Anderson/Burnet intersection will have unacceptable traffic.
    So, will a turn lane make any difference? I don't see how it will; that's no compromise--that's called admitting the major argument and then throwing a bone.
  • 2. This is a lesson I learned multiple times. An oral argument isn't worth the paper it isn't written on. Agreeing "to explore" something is rhetorically brilliant because it looks good but actually doesn't obligate you to anything. I can "explore" an option by spending three seconds thinking about it while I'm stuck in traffic--that's like a boss saying s/he'll "think about" a raise.
  • 3. That's something that benefits the project--that's like my saying, "Hey, as a special deal, I'll take my normal commission on this sale!"
  • 4. How would they route traffic? They would tell their 45 trucks a week to pleeeeeeze stick to Burnet. The other 45 that they "anticipate" (note no obligation incurred there either) Get really dirty looks if they drive down Woodrow or Shoal Creek? Have people think very bad thoughts about them?

    This one looks good, but, if you push on it, you notice, once again, Wal-Mart has done nothing other than said they'll try to be nice. They "anticipate" a certain number of trucks, but haven't agreed to be limited in that regard, so, oops!, they might be wrong! And they've said they'll tell people to do things a certain way, but haven't said what they'll do if those people fail to listen.

  • 5. Okay, this one walks, quacks, and smells like what is called "bad faith argumentation." From the beginning the plan was for a 219k site. So, to me it looks as though they did the classic (bad faith) bargaining strategy: when they started getting pressure, they moved the plan up in size, so that they could "compromise" back to what they wanted all along. Look here for the size of the project (check the date):
  • 6. See 2 (and 4). They'll "consider" it. Yep, and I'll "consider" letting my son stay up till ten. Just did. He can't.
  • 7-14. True comparisons? False comparisons? Another classic strategy is to put forward an intentionally bad plan, then you reveal the real one (this is the basis of many "Dilbert" jokes). Do we have a site plan that is different in any of these regards?

    For instance, would someone like to persuade me that they ever had a plan that didn't involve a 24 hour security camera? And notice that they have not promised to have that camera manned. So, great, a camera--because everyone knows that, when a camera sees someone committing a crime, it leaps off the wall and arrests them...or maybe not.
  • 14 is especially savvy, because this was never planned as a traditional Wal-Mart--that's the whole point (see my earlier post on that). This isn't a traditional Wal-Mart (at least not right now, more on that later), so it wouldn't look like one. So, this is presenting something as a compromise that was part of the initial plan.

    Okay, I was a fool of the first order. This wasn't a compromise. This was a very cunning move on the part of Wal-Mart/Lincoln, and I, for one, am backing away with my hand on my wallet.

    (I swear--the more I look into pro-Wal-Mart rhetoric, the more rabidly anti-Wal-Mart I get.)