Mark Hyman recently added his voice (well, sort of . . . more on that later) to those right wing bloggers working themselves into a tizzy about a recent story that appeared in a major newspaper about an internal controversy at the ACLU regarding document shredding. As is typical, Hyman's purpose isn’t to actually make a valid argument, but to simply sling mud at an organization that's one of the uber-bogeymen lurking in the radical right’s collective imagination.
Hyman (and his brethren) claim the ACLU is hypocritical for shredding documents when it fights for government transparency and openness, and darkly suggest that that some something unethical is going on. A quick read of the actual article shows that what’s going on is an attempt to negotiate the conflicts between two valid and important goals of non-profit organizations: the need to maintain complete and open records of its actions and the need to protect the personal information of its members and donors. Such a conflict, common though it is in many organizations, is obviously one that must be approached with particular care by a group whose raison d’etre is to lobby for both institutional openness and privacy rights. The article suggests that some at the ACLU haven’t established enough oversight over the casual use of shredders to dispose of documents, but nowhere is there any allegation that the organization has actually done anything wrong. Rather, it’s a matter of maintaining the ACLU’s organizational ethos.
But again, to simply show that the charges made against the ACLU are hype is to suggest that Hyman’s argument is made in good faith. It’s not. Neither Hyman, nor his fellow ultra-cons, care much about the validity of their accusations (or lack thereof). What matters is that they can make them. The news article, when stripped of context and detail, allows a superficial justification for their bleating. And when this bleating is taken up by multiple voices feeding off of one another, the result is cacophony that, although based on nothing of substance, makes very real noise.
This use of discourse as a mere cudgel or stone to be flung at an enemy rather than a form of social interaction rests on two assumptions: one philosophical, the other practical. Philosophically, it means that one must accept the idea that basic tenets of interpersonal ethics and decency don’t apply to communication. When it comes to the use of language, ultra-conservatives are thoroughgoing moral relativists.
More pragmatically, it means that you want to get as many people throwing stones as possible. If one doesn’t bother with the subtleties of making a valid, coherent, ethically and logically sound argument (or denies that there is any meaningful or coherent way to distinguish sound and unsound arguments to begin with), that means that the only true way to make an argument persuasive is to have it repeated by as many people as possible. When skill is taken out of the equation, argumentation becomes simply a numbers game.
Thus we have Hyman’s participation in the larger noise machine of the far right. This is not a right wing conspiracy, per se, but a loose confederation of people who share both a right wing political ideology and a belief that language is merely a means to an end, not a social interaction that requires acknowledging some shared assumptions about decency.
The result is what we see so frequently in many quarters of the “blogosphere” as well as the larger public forum: the parroting of ideas by multiple sources in an effort not to add to the quality of our ongoing collective conversation, but to its quantity. In the case of the ACLU story, all you have to do is Google the phrase “ACLU and shredding” to see this at work. What starts out at Drudge gets picked up by Newsmax, the Freepers, and other right wing folks (including white supremacist websites, which is interesting if only because the ACLU has been attacked for its willingness to fight for the rights of KKK members and neo-Nazis).
The goal is to give the impression that there is a huge story (where there’s smoke, there’s fire) not by using facts, but by simply turning up the volume. One of the downsides of this tactic is that sometimes the results of this intellectual inbreeding are so obvious that they reveal the mindlessness of the process.
We’ve got an amusing case in point in Hyman’s editorial. Here’s an excerpt from Hyman’s commentary:
What is ironic is that this self-righteous group of litigants has a different
view of preserving documents when it comes to preserving its own records. The
ACLU has been shredding documents over the repeated objections of its records
manager and in conflict with the organization's longstanding policies on the
preservation and disposal of records. In this case, the ACLU's own practices are
inconsistent with its public positions. Imagine that!
Now, here’s an excerpt from a post that appeared on the rightwing website Redstate.org:
Imagine that. This holier than thou (oops, I forgot about the
separation of God and ACLU), self-righteous group of litigants may actually be
trying to coverup its own lawlessness.
Imagine that! This self-righteous group of right wingers just boilerplates from each other’s arguments!
Despite the fact that the Redstate.org post is dated June 4, and Hyman’s editorial is dated June 15, I’m sure the Redstater is cribbing from Hyman. After all, we know our Mark is nothing if not an avowed enemy of plagiarism.
But this is just a more egregious example than most of what you can discover from a quick perusal of “Point” commentaries: they are culled from whatever the current screed-du-jour is on the radical right. Want to know what Hyman will be talking about next week? Read Drudge or Newsmax this week.
Which raises the larger issue: if Hyman’s “commentaries” are not local, not well done, often incoherent, and not even original, why must local viewers have them foisted upon them by Sinclair? Hyman uses his two minutes of airtime (between 5 and 10 percent of the average local newscast) to vent his spleen (or spleen he has borrowed from someone else) on those who occupy the pantheon of perceived enemies of the right wing. What could be less in the public interest than that?
Oh, and one last bit of trivia on this matter you might find amusing: about the only entity that comes in for as much regular abuse as the ACLU in Hyman’s commentaries is the New York Times (always charaterized as a liberal elitist rag by Hyman). But guess what publication broke the ACLU shredding story (to the extent there’s a “story” at all) and has served as the basis for not only Hyman’s commentary but of all those other ultra-con treatments of the issue?
Yep, the Gray Lady herself.
And that’s The Counterpoint.