Monday, April 18, 2011
Attack of the Ad Hominem Attacks
I like to imagine that somewhere out there is a dead languages fanatic who thought to copyright the term "ad hominem" years ago and who's suddenly wondering why only now, with the rise of our perpetually outraged political discourse, he's seeing royalty checks pour in. When it comes to partisan debate these days, especially on the internet, accusing someone of making an "ad hominem attack" is, ironically, as cliché as calling somebody a Nazi.
So it's not surprising that Andrew Breitbart's misnomered "Big Journalism" site is howling at anyone and everyone who's given up trying to debate the actual arguments of its illustrious founder, claiming that they're engaging in ad hominem warfare. Among that anyone and everyone: yours truly.
From a piece written by Alexander Marlow and posted late last month on the site:
"Here are some examples of these emotive, anti-intellectual smears against Breitbart himself published at… the Huffington Post itself. I did a good-faith search through the (AOL/)HuffPo archives to isolate ad hominem they have published against Breitbart... Chez Pazienza, Editor of Deus Ex Malcontent, Author, in his piece 'ABC News to Redeem Guy With No Redeeming Qualities':
'[Breitbart] is... a serial liar and a scam artist. [...] he’s a raging maniac [...] he’s ignored facts, knowingly created phony scandals, willfully aided, abetted and perpetuated hoaxes engineered by irresponsible con-men like himself [...] He’s a pompous schoolyard bully [...] jackass..."
The point Marlow's trying to make is that I and those like me who no longer bother to debate issues with Andrew Breitbart and by now simply consider the source and reference that source in our criticism of him make statements that should be immediately dismissed -- all because we're employing what's widely considered to be an argumentative fallacy. Here's the thing, though: It's possible for someone to damage his or her reputation so profoundly that after a while it actually becomes acceptable to hammer the person rather than the argument he or she is making. In the case of Breitbart it works something like this: It isn't even necessary to fight with him anymore -- to try to refute his arguments and to debate him like he's an actual adult -- because he's fucked his credibility so entirely, over and over again, that for the most part his views don't even merit consideration. I didn't dislike Breitbart to begin with and now verbally beat up on him because of it; he's earned my derision over time and through a whole lot of inexcusable behavior, and that's made any viewpoint his name is attached to almost instantly suspect.
For the record -- and I've said this before, ironically in the very piece Marlow quoted from the Huffington Post -- I couldn't care less if Andrew Breitbart has an opinion different from mine. Not only is he entitled to believe whatever the hell he wants, he has every right to shout his beliefs from the highest rooftop and to poke those who disagree with him with a stick if that's what gets him off. Being a provocateur isn't a sin and, to his credit, Breitbart's very good at it. Just about everyone who does the online political pundit thing these days is partially in show business; it's the nature of the game. What separates Breitbart from the rest of the pack, though, is his blatant disregard for the facts and his willful lack of shame when it comes to perpetuating hoaxes that take a real-world toll on the innocent. I've said before that as a guy who makes a habit of pissing people off, I actually have a kind of fondness for him; I can certainly identify with that, even though I think Breitbart takes it to truly silly and juvenile depths and tends to behave like a cheap bully. But the crap he's pulled and perpetuated -- for me it began with his refusal to admit his complicity in James O'Keefe's ACORN tape fraud and culminated with the Shirley Sherrod lie -- tarnishes his ability to be taken seriously to the extent that it doesn't even make sense anymore, when addressing him and his behavior since, to waste your time dredging it all up.
It's easier to just say that he's full of shit -- and saying so is no longer an ad hominem attack or an argumentative fallacy, it's just reality. And I wasn't the one who made it that way. I didn't screw Breitbart's credibility -- he did.
Related: DXM: The Notorious "Big"/2.4.10