American Mockingbirds

Derision isn’t persuasion, and mocking someone’s absurd views will not shame them into changing those views. They’ll just get angry that you made them look bad and then find any way they can to show you that they’re right. They’ll admit nothing, and if, in the end, they really cannot justify what they have contended, they’ll fall silent, or mock you right back. Perhaps they’ll call you names. Bill O’Reilly would end up calling Jon Stewart names – a hack, a fool – or he’d point to his own ratings. More people watch him than ever watched Stewart, which doesn’t have anything at all to do with his contention of the moment, that there’s an actual War on Christmas or whatever. But that doesn’t matter. No one will concede anything when mocked.

We’ve had years of this. O’Reilly sneers at liberals, but they don’t watch his show so they won’t change their minds about anything he says. They may hear about it later. They’ll dismiss it. Stewart and Stephen Colbert for years made gentle and often subtle fun of conservatives of all kinds, and each week Bill Maher still sneers at the same crowd and mocks them mercilessly, but that doesn’t matter either. They’re not paying attention. Each side is speaking to their own folks. It’s a bit tribal and a bit of a public service. Provide your folks with a way they can pat themselves on the back. They need that. Tell them they’re not crazy, the other guys are.

That’s comforting in these trying times. No one will ever agree on anything, but they will feel fine – right and righteous – and our public life comes to a standstill. Public debate about the issues of the day isn’t debate at all, if it ever was. Few are skilled in argumentation – laying out an argument and explaining its rationale, then offering verifiable supporting evidence for that argument, then considering objections and dealing with those, ceding points that are well made and adjusting for those, until the argument is rock solid and everyone agrees. That’s hard work. It’s easier to quarrel in quips. People generally quarrel because they cannot argue, and prefer to offer, for your approval, the force of their argument – they really, really, really believe it – not its grounds, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton of course.

This is intensified in an election year. Republicans want to make Obama, and by extension all Democrats, look timid and weak and confused, and not careful but cowardly. They’ll be the “real men” here, and after what happened in Paris they know that’s a winner, because Americans are angry and frightened. The guy who says be careful in what you do, because bad things could happen if you get what you want, can be painted as morally reprehensible – something had to be done and he wouldn’t do a damned thing, or wouldn’t do enough of what everyone now thinks he should have done, and the bad guys are going to kill us all. Vote Republican.

This is a useful campaign narrative. Refusing to take in even one Syrian refugee fleeing the hell we set in motion over there, unless they’re Christian, will radicalize another generation of young Muslims, now certain that white Christian America hates Muslims. That’s rather obvious, but Dana Milbank reviews the current state of play:

Gov. Bobby Jindal on Monday signed an order trying to get his state of Louisiana to block the settlement of any Syrian refugee, while Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, proposed we “wake up and smell the falafel” and said House Speaker Paul Ryan should resign if he can’t block the refugees’ arrival. Candidates Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and John Kasich also joined the jingoistic bid to block Syrian refugees.

In a particularly pernicious twist, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz both floated the notion Sunday of admitting Christian refugees from Syria but not Muslims.

The religious test for refugees originated, as nasty things often do, in the mouth of Donald Trump, who proclaimed in July – falsely – that Christians fleeing Syria “cannot come into this country” but Muslim refugees from Syria “can come in so easily.” Trump, later alleging – again falsely – that President Obama wanted to admit 250,000 Syrians, said he would deport refugees, who he speculates are “mostly men” and perhaps part of an Islamic State terrorist plot. (On Monday he said he would “strongly consider” closing mosques.)

This isn’t just talk: In September, Rep. Mike McCaul (Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, led a group of Republicans in introducing legislation that would legalize discrimination against Muslims fleeing Syria by giving priority to Christians and other religious minorities.

And then there are all the governors trying to keep Syrian refugees from their states, and Milbank is not happy:

This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939. It’s perhaps the ugliest moment in a primary fight that has been sullied by bigotry from the start. It’s no exaggeration to call this un-American.

But it’s understandable:

Perhaps the GOP hopefuls are having trouble differentiating themselves from Obama on the broader issue of Syria. For all the criticism of his approach to the Islamic State, several supposed alternatives are things that have already been tried: airstrikes, arming the opposition, Special Forces, social-media propaganda. Other ideas would require combat ground troops in Syria, which no candidate but long-shot Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) has championed.

There’s a solid case to be made against Obama’s handling of the Islamic State that doesn’t require Republicans to go nativist.

Maybe so, but there’s this:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) addressed President Obama directly while speaking to reporters Wednesday, telling him to “come back and insult me to my face.”

Cruz was responding to Obama’s recent criticism of Republicans suggesting there be a religious test for Syrian refugees seeking entrance to the country, a plan he called “shameful” and “not American” while in Turkey for the Group of 20 summit.

“If you want to insult me, you can do it overseas, you can do it in Turkey, you can do it in foreign countries. But I would encourage you, Mr. President, come back and insult me to my face,” Cruz said, staring directly into the camera.

Cruz got even more schoolyard, challenging the President to a debate any place, any time.

“Let’s have a debate on Syrian refugees, right now. We can do it anywhere you want. I would prefer it in the United States and not overseas,” the Republican presidential candidate said. “We’ll do it on any station.”

Cruz also called Obama’s remarks “utterly unfitting of a President.”

He later said that the president “does not wish to defend this country” and so on – but Cruz is on solid ground:

Most Americans want the U.S. to stop letting in Syrian refugees amid fears of terrorist infiltrations after the Paris attacks, siding with Republican presidential candidates, governors, and lawmakers who want to freeze the Obama administration’s resettlement program.

The findings are part of a Bloomberg Politics national poll released Wednesday that also shows the nation divided on whether to send U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State, an idea President Barack Obama opposes, and whether the U.S. government is doing enough to protect the homeland from a comparable attack.

Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults in the survey, conducted in the days immediately following the attacks, say the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Just 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists, while 11 percent said they would favor a limited program to accept only Syrian Christians while excluding Muslims, a proposal Obama has dismissed as “shameful” and un-American.

Paul Waldman is puzzled by this:

Before we go any farther, we should acknowledge a simple fact: If you’re concerned about stopping ISIS from committing an act of terrorism in the United States, the 10,000 Syrian refugees who will be admitted after a rigorous vetting process is one of the last things you should be worried about. It’s possible (though far from necessary) for a member of ISIS to get to Europe by posing as a refugee, since large numbers of Syrians are somewhat chaotically making their way to places like Greece, and once they’re on European soil they can move freely between countries. But the process of getting to the United States as a refugee is completely different.

You can’t just get in a rubber boat on the Mediterranean coast, wash up in Manhattan, and be allowed to stay. Someone who wanted to come to the U.S. to commit a terrorist act could do so with a student visa or a tourist visa; there’d be no point in going through the lengthy, multi-layered vetting process to gain refugee status, which involves both the United Nations and the U.S. government, and requires up to a two-year wait. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t thoroughly check those refugees seeking to come here. But that’s exactly what we’re already doing, and will continue to do.

I assume (perhaps naively) that most of the politicians rushing to stoke fears of refugees have some understanding of those basic facts. But they’ve seen their political opportunity and they’re seizing it, with some truly ugly ideas and rhetoric about supposedly dangerous foreigners who need to be kept out to keep us safe.

But there’s this:

There is one way this period of fear-mongering could come back to haunt the Republican Party. While for the moment their anti-immigrant sentiment has been directed away from Latinos and toward Muslims, don’t think Latino voters (along with Asian-Americans and many other groups) aren’t paying attention. Next fall, when the Republican nominee comes before those voters and says, “We want to be an inclusive, welcoming party where you can find a home,” these minorities won’t have forgotten the vile anti-refugee rhetoric we’re hearing today. And the GOP’s task of winning more Latino votes than they have in the last couple of elections – without which they absolutely cannot take back the White House – will be that much harder.

But for now it is ugly:

Following comments that his city should reject refugees in the way the U.S. interned Japanese-American citizens during World War II the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, has lost his spot on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s Virginia Leadership Council.

Davis Bowers had been on the Virginia committee since early October, but a Clinton source confirmed he is no longer on the committee.

A Clinton campaign spokesman slammed Bowers’ comments in a statement.

“The internment of people of Japanese descent is a dark cloud on our nation’s history and to suggest that it is anything but a horrible moment in our past is outrageous,” said Josh Schwerin, a Clinton campaign spokesman.

Are these people, and a clear majority of Americans, crazy? Should we call them crazy? Keven Drum thinks not:

Here’s the thing: to the average person, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of admitting Syrian refugees to the country. We know that ISIS would like to attack the US. We know that ISIS probably has the wherewithal to infiltrate a few of its people into the flood of refugees. And most voters have no idea how easy it is to get past US screening. They probably figure it’s pretty easy.

So to them it doesn’t seem xenophobic or crazy to call for an end to accepting Syrian refugees. It seems like simple common sense. After all, things changed after Paris.

Mocking Republicans over this – as liberals spent much of yesterday doing on my Twitter stream – seems absurdly out of touch to a lot of people. Not just wingnut tea partiers, either, but plenty of ordinary centrists too. It makes them wonder if Democrats seriously see no problem here. Do they care at all about national security? Are they really that detached from reality?

It might be time for argumentation, not snarky quips:

The liberal response to this should be far more measured. We should support tight screening. Never mind that screening is already pretty tight. We should highlight the fact that we’re accepting a pretty modest number of refugees. In general, we should act like this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about and then work from there.

Mocking it is the worst thing we could do. It validates all the worst stereotypes about liberals that we put political correctness ahead of national security. It doesn’t matter if that’s right or wrong. Ordinary people see the refugees as a common sense thing to be concerned about. We shouldn’t respond by essentially calling them idiots.

And then he got slammed on Twitter:

Mockery is a reasonable response to the ridiculous.

It’s the equivalent of the Japanese internment hysteria, it deserves ridicule.

“Syrian terrorists” may be an existential threat, but gun waving rednecks are more likely to shoot me. Mock them? Gimme a break!

Many “ordinary” voters are racists and know-nothings who do not want to be educated or calmed. Listen to callers on talk radio.

Let’s remember that it is politicians we are mocking.

Those are just a few of them, and Drum isn’t happy:

Sure, this is just Twitter, not exactly famous for reasoned and thoughtful debate. Still, what’s disheartening about this is that I don’t think there’s any disagreement on substance here. We all agree that we should accept Syrian refugees. We all agree that screening ought to be rigorous. We all agree that Republican fearmongering should be fought.

There are really only two disagreements. The first is whether fear of Syrian refugees is even understandable. … I’d suggest that anyone who thinks these concerns are just ridiculous bedwetting is pretty far out of touch with ordinary folks.

Second, how should this fear be addressed? Here’s the problem: people won’t even listen to you unless they think you take their concerns seriously. That’s why, for example, liberals mostly dismiss conservative posturing about race: we don’t believe they even take the problem of racism seriously in the first place. And probably the best way to convince people that you don’t take a problem seriously is to mock it.

That’s the real problem here:

Maybe it’s true that we’re only mocking some of the most egregious politicians. And maybe it’s true that they deserve it. But who cares? Ordinary voters won’t make the distinction – they’ll just hear the mockery – and it doesn’t matter what anyone deserves. What matters is what works. On issues of interest only to wingnuts, go ahead and mock. We’re not going to persuade them of anything no matter what. But on issues like this, where a quite understandable fear is shared by a broad slice of the electorate, mockery is death. We can persuade these folks, and the way to do it is to acknowledge the problem and then fight the fear with facts.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not – but it’s got a way better chance than mockery does.

But what if we only know mockery? What if both sides only know mockery? Drum also addresses that:

President Obama’s remarks yesterday are a pretty interesting case study of both the strength and weakness of mockery as a political tool. First, here’s what he said about refugees at a press conference in the Philippines. I have a reason for including a very long excerpt, but feel free to skim it since the details aren’t that important.


Because you have this vibrant, modern, open, diverse, tolerant Western city that reminds us of home, that reminds us of our own cafes and our own parks and our own stadiums, I understand why the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened there.

And it is important for us to be reminded that we have to be vigilant, that rooting out these terrorist networks and protecting the homeland is hard work, and we can’t be complacent or lulled into thinking somehow that we are immune from these kinds of attacks. That’s why we built an entire infrastructure over the last decade-plus to make it much harder for terrorists to attack us; to go after terrorists where they live and plan these attacks; to coordinate with our partners and our allies; to improve our intelligence. All the work that we’ve been doing in our intelligence communities and our military over the last decade is in recognition of the fact that this is something we should be concerned about and we’ve got to work hard to prevent it.

But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well-served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media.

Understand, under current law, it takes anywhere from, on average, 18 to 24 months to clear a refugee to come into the United States. They are subjected to the most rigorous process conceivable. The intelligence community vets fully who they are. Biometrics are applied to determine whether they are, in fact, somebody who might threaten the United States. There is an entire apparatus of all of our law enforcement agencies and the center that we use for countering terrorism to check and ensure that a refugee is not admitted that might cause us harm.

And, if anything, over the last several years that the refugee crisis has emerged in Europe, we’ve been criticized that it is so cumbersome that it’s very difficult for us to show the kind of compassion that we need to for these folks who are suffering under the bombings of Assad and the attacks of ISIL. They’re victims of this terrorism.

And so if there are concrete, actual suggestions to enhance this extraordinary screening process that’s already in place, we’re welcome — we’re open to hearing actual ideas. But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn’t admit three-year-old orphans – that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians — proven Christians — should be admitted – that’s offensive and contrary to American values.

I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop.


That was the first two minutes of Obama’s remarks. He acknowledged the problem. He also acknowledged that a renewed fear of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks was understandable. He explained that our screening process for Syrian refugees is extremely stringent. He said he didn’t want to play into the hands of ISIS by stoking fear of Islam, and he criticized politicians who did so. No mockery – just plenty of education and some tough words for partisan fearmongers.

But then Obama said this:

And I would add, by the way, these are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.


That’s mockery. And here’s the problem. Obama started off by speaking for a full two minutes calmly and rationally – exactly what I think he should have done. Then he briefly offered up a bit of mockery. I actually think that’s okay too because it was prefaced with a deep and sustained acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

But can you guess how much of that first two minutes has been quoted? Can you guess how much of the mockery has been quoted? That’s right: barely any of the former and mountains of the latter.

This is hardly surprising. The explanatory stuff is boring. How many of you read it all the way through? The mockery, on the other hand, is short and it makes great copy. Of course that’s what everyone is going to focus on.

On the bright side, this means Obama got some press and the liberal base got stoked. On the downside, it means that your average reader got the impression that Obama tossed out a few jibes at Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and that was it. You don’t even have to quote him out of context to make it look like he doesn’t really care much about fears of refugees.

That means that mockery is dangerous:

Used on its own, it makes ordinary people feel like you’re clueless and condescending. But even if you do it right, as Obama did, the way it’s reported can end up having the same effect. And that effect is exactly the opposite of what liberals would like to accomplish.

That’s useful to remember, but it’s also useful to remember what Drum also notes – mockery is short and it makes great copy. That’s what everyone is going to focus on, because even when done well, argumentation is pretty damned dull. People not only don’t quarrel because they cannot argue. They don’t argue because, when they do, everyone tunes out, and of course, now, we’re used to derision as debate. We’ve come to think of them as the same thing, which makes both Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly insufferable. And the Syrian refugees will just have to die.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to American Mockingbirds

  1. Rick says:

    I must confess that I like mockery, actually. In fact, I was quite proud of the last line in my very long comment on Tuesday. After a long recounting of the history of the MS St. Louis, the German ship that sailed back and forth across the Atlantic, unsuccessfully seeking a safe place to drop off 900-some Jewish refugees in Cuba and the U.S., finally got permission to deliver them to Belgium:

    Researchers later determined that, of the 620 returned passengers, 254 died in the Holocaust.

    But it’s probably just as well that none of them ended up in my own state of Georgia, since for all we know, one of them might have been a Nazi.

    Yes, it was snarky. I suppose I was thinking somebody who was against our taking a chance on accepting Syrian refugees would either read it and realize the errors of their ways, or else maybe would feel terribly insulted, a feeling I decided they richly deserved.

    Still, Kevin Drum does have a point when he says liberals who mock conservatives are practicing bad politics:

    Maybe it’s true that we’re only mocking some of the most egregious politicians. And maybe it’s true that they deserve it. But who cares? Ordinary voters won’t make the distinction — they’ll just hear the mockery — and it doesn’t matter what anyone deserves. What matters is what works. On issues of interest only to wingnuts, go ahead and mock. We’re not going to persuade them of anything no matter what. But on issues like this, where a quite understandable fear is shared by a broad slice of the electorate, mockery is death. We can persuade these folks, and the way to do it is to acknowledge the problem and then fight the fear with facts.

    Will it work? Maybe, maybe not – but it’s got a way better chance than mockery does.

    Does my mockery work? Depending on what my goal was, probably not. But I know I was not trying to persuade my Republican governor, Nathan Deal, nor any of his fellow travelers, since my experience tells me hardcore conservatives are not open to persuasion about anything, especially once they’ve taken a public stand. If, after hearing all the arguments from hospitals and others in the state, he still refuses to expand Medicaid, I’m sure I won’t be able to talk him into changing his mind on accepting these refugees, even with my soberly reminding him of a shameful time in our history when Americans turned away Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis, sending many of them to their deaths.

    But Drum’s real argument isn’t about persuading politicians, it’s about swing voters — well-intentioned people who might not be keeping up on the news and haven’t given this issue all that much thought, who just might not be all that invested in the anti-refugee position being adopted, one by one, by Republican governors. These people, it’s believed, might just see the lampoonery as rude and insulting, and would put them off.

    And therein lies a major problem behind the concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people: How can a country be run by The People when The People aren’t paying attention to what’s going on?

    No, I don’t want to push voters away by insulting them, but what chance do any of us have of convincing them to have enough courage to trust their country, and all those American values that we learned back in grade school, to think and act like the good guys we are?

    There seems to be an almost irresistible allure to the (especially right-of-center) idea that, to fight the bad guys, we have to become bad guys ourselves — which, if you think about it, is exactly backwards. Despite our occasionally falling off the wagon, what Americans need to be proud of is a history of often being the good guys — of appealing to, as Abe Lincoln put it, the “better angels of our nature.”

    It’s what we like to think of as what sets us apart, that we are somewhat handicapped in fighting our enemies because, unlike them, we refuse to chop off heads. But when given an honest and free choice, what people would freely choose to be ruled by folks who chop off people’s heads?

    Even in that MS St. Louis story, contrary to the popular urban legend of FDR refusing to allow the refugees to land, the real story was how hard he and his administration worked to get around our deeply-embedded xenophobic immigration laws that were leftovers from the twenties, working with other governments and with American Jewish groups to try to save the lives of those refugees, and ultimately mostly succeeding.

    Where this leaves me is, while Kevin Drum is right on the politics, one can hope to sway only those independent souls who are already seeking the truth, and the few of them that there are out there should be smart enough to figure out the right path without any help from me.

    Besides, as those kind of people are precious as hen’s teeth these days anyway, I think that, instead of trying to proselytize amongst the unconverted, I’ll just stick to trying to give comfort to those who already agree with me by assuring them that, yes, those conservatives on the other side are indeed as whacky as they seem.


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