Rules for Polemicists

Great article on polemics. Heres the rules:

  1. “Forget about trying to convert your adversary. In any serious ideological confrontation the chances of success on this score are so remote as to exclude it as a rational objective.”

    This one is incredibly disapointing as it seems like I should be able to find agreement with my close friends and with people with whom I share a common culture. I would reframe this as try to reframe the dispute so you are not adversaries. No, I don’t know how to do this one easily.

    On the very rare occasions when it does happen, it will be because the person converted has already and independently come to harbor serious doubts and is teetering on the edge of ideological defection. This is due, more
    often than not, to some outrageous action by his own side or some shocking revelation: witness the effects on members of Communist parties in the West of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Khrushchev speech
    of 1956.

    Perhaps revelations of the NYTimes misrepresentations are good enough (see prior post), but I doubt it.

  2. “Pay great attention to the agenda of the debate. He who defines the issues, and determines their
    priority, is already well on the way to winning.” Totally! Rather than let the debate drift to lots of different accusations without conclusion, I pick one of the accusations an pummel it to death. Really, I should try to reframe to get on top of the general claim being made and try to work from there. Allowing the debate to drift into the question of lying rather than the question of justification is a failure.

  3. “Preaching to the converted, far from being a superfluous activity, is vital. Preachers do it every
    Sunday. The strengthening of the commitment, intellectual performance, and morale of those already on
    your side is an essential task, both in order to bind them more securely to the cause and to make them
    more effective exponents of it.”

  4. “Never forget the uncommitted: almost invariably, they constitute the vast majority. This may seem obvious, but intense polemical activity is often a coterie activity, and in the excitement of combat and lust for the polemical kill the uncommitted are often overlooked[…] whenever you think of something that strikes you as particularly brilliant, at
    least consider seriously the advisability of suppressing it in favor of something which projects moral and intellectual seriousness in a straightforward way.”

  5. “Be aware that, at least potentially, you are addressing mutiple audiences. Decide whether, on a particular occasion, you want to make a broad appeal to many audiences, which will usually involve compromise and restraint in presentation, or whether you want to make a sharply focused pitch to a particular audience, even at the risk of alienating others.” Does this blog have too many audiences? Josh was feeling insulted earlier about posts to which he was extraneous. See Clay’s comments on Fork World.
  6. “Be prepared to go around the block many times. When you have a good point to make, keep repeating it. Success in ideological polemics is very much a matter of staying power and will, and the same battles have to be fought over and over again. ” True and Ugh.
  7. “Shave with Occam’s razor. Knowing what you can afford to give away is one of the great arts of polemic.[…]The willingness to concede or ignore what is inessential will make it harder for others to characterize you as dogmatic, and is likely to make a favorable impression on the uncommitted.” Amen.
  8. “Be very careful in your use of examples and historical analogies. More often than not, their illustrative value is outweighed by their distracting effect.” Godwin’s Law anyone?
  9. “When bolstering the authority of what you are saying by the use of quotation, give preference wherever possible to sources which are not identified with your case.” Notice my use of NYTimes quotations in the last post.
  10. “Avoid trading in motives as an alternative to rebutting the opposing case.” Also, note when other’s violate this rule. “Motives can explain error, distortion, and falsehood, but they cannot establish the existence of these things.” The left attack on Bush and “its all about oil” violates this rule.
  11. “In any polemical exchange, make sure that you know several times more about a topic than you can conceivably use or show.” Done. The upshot is that opponents frequently claim ignorance as a defense (as dinner companion did last night). Ignorance is not a defense. It is a failure.
  12. “Take particular care to understand the position of your adversary – and to understand it not in a caricature or
    superficial form but at its strongest, for until you have rebutted it at its strongest you have not rebutted it at all.” This one is violated by the left all the time. Rather than engaging the actualy arguments of the Bush administration, they instead make up straw men e.g. imminent threat, nuclear WMD, Saddam-9/11 etc.

11 Responses to Rules for Polemicists

  1. ooghe says:

    reading these rules- it’s interesting to me how so many believe they cannot communicate in a socially relevant way unless they feel they are doing so on the behalf of an ideology.

    one of the things in your blog i agree with is your rant against the enlightenment- although in a more fundamental way than you address. i keep waiting for it’s promise to materialize- that the spread of knowledge and the application of reason are the sole human qualities that lead to the Good Life.

    the rules you list above are, of course, a restatement of platonism. or they could almost read like the military doctrines used during WWI.

    i wonder if you really believe them- your most interesting posts seem to be when you are raising questions and engaging with real social concerns- your less interesting posts seem to be when you are busying yourself with ‘defining the topic’, ‘ignorance is failure’, etc.

    something about this makes me think of a quote from Lionel Trilling:

    “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”

  2. diane says:

    The claim that the war is about oil is not an a claim about motives. If it were, then only private individuals would stand to benefit from the invasion. But this would ignore the strategic dimension. Being in control of Iraq means being in control of all the nations that depend on Iraqi oil — China, Japan, the EU. It means having our hands on the spigot.

    By means of the war, the Bush White House is implementing a geopolitical vision thirty years in the making. The war is, as Clausewitz would be the first to recognize, a classic case of “politics by other means.”

    That’s not a “motive,” unless you think all grandiose geopolitical agendas are just “motives.”

  3. Diane, if the US cut off access to Iraqi oil, do you think that China, Japan, and the EU would not simply buy oil somewhere else and drive up global oil prices? Do you think the US has an interest in driving up oil prices?

    Who do you think is trying to disrupt Iraqi oil production now?

    Under what circumstances would it ever be in the US interest to do so?

  4. ooghe says:

    I actually agree with Alex on this one. The problem with many oil theories is that if the US ever actually attempted to manipulate access to oil, the strength of the US dollar would suffer enormously. Most countries in the world that do not possess stable currencies denominate their financial reserves in US dollars because the dollar is tied to price of a barrel of oil. If the US took over Saudi Arabia and threatened a rival power with an oil embargo, the US dollar would no longer be a reliable currency, and a worldwide run on the dollar would ensue as countries sold off their reserves and denominated them in some other currency- like the euro. Many economists think that this would precipitate a worldwide economic depression that would make the Great Depression seem mild by comparison. That being said, the US *does* have a great monetary interest in securing Saudi oil fields from destruction- as does the world financial system.

    On a sidenote, one conspiracy theory I heard bandied about prior to the Iraq invasion held that Saddam’s greatest sin was denominating his UN escrow in the euro during the oil-for-food program. In 2000, this seemed like a spiteful act that made no economic sense, as the value of the euro was incredibly low and dropping. However, when the euro strengthened and there was a question as to whether the UK and Norway would join the EU, thus making North Sea oil an entirely euro backed commodity, that it became imperative for the US to prevent OPEC from deciding that it was in their interest to redenominate the world’s oil supply in the euro as well, and US control of Iraqi oil became absolutely necessary.

  5. ooghe says:

    correction- not join the EU- adopt the euro

  6. diane says:

    Thanks, Robert. I didn’t know about the value of the dollar being tied to the price of a barrel of oil. That connection makes things more complex for sure.

    My point was not that by invading Iraq, the US intended to cut off any single country’s access to Iraqi oil. My point was only that the US wanted to exert more control over this oil, which is a different thing.

    What if Iraq’s oil industry could be secured and then privatized? Would that spell doom for the dollar, too?

  7. diane says:

    Loads of links re: it’s about oil:

    The links go to articles mainly by journalists and policy people (pick your poison). Some of the articles are even reasonably substantial, with the notable exception of a screed republished in what appears to be atrocious translation from al-Jazeera.

    I didn’t find any articles connecting oil and US currency values; maybe that’s an avenue no one’s gone down yet? Robert, is there a good article you can point me to?

  8. ooghe says:

    There were two articles I was thinking of when I wrote that… the first “Not In Oil’s Name” was in Journal of Foreign Affairs- and had to do with the various myths and realities in considering oil policy:

    The theory I alluded to, I believe I saw off of Counterpunch a year ago- It’s a of a read- but I found it again at:

    While I was searching, I saw an article at Globalist that might be a more distilled version of this:

    although I have yet to read it…

  9. ooghe says:

    >What if Iraq’s oil industry could be secured >and then privatized? Would that spell doom for >the dollar, too?

    I think the CPA reluctantly decided not to privatize the oil industry, due to organizational realities (like the fact that it seems to be staffed with insurgents). I’m no expert, but I think that whatever happens with Iraq’s oil- it’s six of one and half dozen of the other- because whether the oil were owned by the iraqi government or dick cheney himself, it still gets sold to texaco at OPEC’s price (tied to the dollar) and the US needs to keep the price of gas stable, so it’s not like they can fiddle with it too much. Can Texaco own the oilfields outright? I have no idea- but I don’t think so, although I’m not sure why- I think the reason is that ever since 1973 the US wouldn’t want to see this happen because of the weakening of the petrodollar that would ensue.

  10. Diane and Robert, are either of you familiar with the details of the Oil-For-Food Program/Scandal or the deals Iraq made with Total-Fina/Elf?

  11. ooghe says:

    I’m familiar with the basics of the oil-for-food skimming (from Safire and from the Economist), and have no trouble believing that actors within the UN (especially the US and France) are capable of these kind of antics. The naked self-interest evidenced during the Rwanda genocide is testament to that.

    For the record, I do not actually believe the Iraq invasion was motivated by the petrodollar claims (because it would tend to imply that Paul O’Neill should have been more on board with the Administration than he was). My point was that the relationship between oil and the dollar is quite complex whoever is the President, and that while I think the term “oil war” is generally a simplification that breeds conspiracy mongering, the degree to which Saudi Arabian and US economic interests converge bears real scrutiny, as does US energy policy (and Dick Cheney’s Skull-and Bones-esque level of candor about an Energy Policy Task Force that acted entirely in the interests of Big Oil certainly doesn’t help allay the “It’s About Oil” suspicions)

    Diane, thank you for the link. I’ll check those articles out.

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