Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In which Karl Rove is a frighteningly talented commentator.

So I was listening to an interview with Karl Rove on Fresh Air, and what struck me most was that the man is absolutely incredible at framing issues. When they start talking about his anti-gay agenda, he managed to cast it quite effectively as support of traditional marriage, rather than opposition to gay marriage, let alone actual anti-gay rhetoric and sentiment. And when the conversation shifted to the war in Iraq, he deflected criticism about WMDs by talking about the "broad bipartisan consensus" on the subject, had the gall to argue in favor of the war in terms of Hussein's flouting of the international community, and explained away the rise in insurgent violence in terms of worries that democracy in Iraq would mean a loss for al-Qaeda (he cites a letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden to make this point).

And here's the thing -- he actually got me to go and fact-check his claim about the letter. It seems to be somewhat true: Zarqawi seems to be making the point that as long as al-Qaeda is fighting against the United States, they have some support within Iraq, but if democracy gets strong enough that the US can pull out, their war with the Shi'a (whom he considers at least as important an enemy as the US) will lose some of its backing. It's worth noting, though, that the word "democracy" is used only once, and it's not entirely clear what it means to Zarqawi: elections? The general principle of empowering people to make decisions for themselves and their communities? Whatever it is that the US is pushing for?

Did you see what just happened there? I got caught trying to justify (or at least make sense out of) internal al-Qaeda communications. Why the fuck did I do that? Who the fuck cares whether Zarqawi said that? Was there any doubt in any of our minds that fucking Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is an asshole?

And that's exactly the problem: Rove was so effective in portraying this as a decision between the United States and "the terrorists" that I actually thought it was worth looking into whether fucking al-Qaeda was really as unreasonable as he said they were. And Terry Gross took the bait too -- she asked him if he really thought what they were scared of was democracy rather than the US invasion, and it was easy for him to answer that, yes, in fact, Zarqawi did write that shit in a letter.

So he got two reasonably well-educated, intelligent, vaguely left-minded people to take the bait by implicitly assuming that (1) Zarqawi spoke for the insurgency; (2) people couldn't be radicalized into opposition to actual Iraqi democracy as a result of opposition to the forces arrayed in favor of Iraqi "democracy"; (3) it even makes sense to talk about the invasion of Iraq as though the real problem with it is the resulting increase in the numbers of Muslim extremists. And the conversation got to the point where the only apparent way to challenge him was to side with al-Qaeda.

I will never be as good at this as Karl Rove. If I get in a debate with him about Iraq, I will lose. I admit this is partly because he spends all his fucking time figuring out how to argue in favor of killing and torturing brown people, and I actually have to spend some time at a real job. But it's also partly because we've been culturally conditioned to accept all these tiny little assumptions like the three I mentioned above, and so it's really fucking easy to swing the focus of the debate in ways like that.

I dunno -- at this point, I think I would revert pretty quickly to, "Just stop. Please. Really, you don't have to do this. We believe you're very tough. Now step back from the lectern." Does anyone have any better ideas?


  1. I thought the exact thing. He really took control of the interview, and I was sort of shocked that Terry never really called him out, when she has called out other guests before on the show for spewing misinformation.
    Even when she tried to make him admit to using anti-gay rhetoric. The thing is, that even if Rove didn't strictly oppose gay marriage, but was only pro-traditional marriage, he wasn't telling the people who supported his campaign by stirring up anti-gay sentiment to stop. I was surprised that Terry Gross didn't question him in that way.
    I wish that Amy Goodman would get a shot at interviewing Rove. It will never happen, but I think that she would rather have a five minute interview that ended in confrontation instead of an hour interview of a really brilliant guy manipulating the truth.

  2. I don't think it's entirely fair to blame Terry Gross for this. I agree that she could have done more to challenge him, but it really would've taken a remarkable amount of both preparation and wit to give him a real challenge -- because it's not so much about his misrepresenting facts (although he does that) as it is about his framing of issues.

    But yeah, I'd like to see Amy Goodman get a shot.



To the extent possible under law, the person who associated CC0 with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.

However, he believes you have a moral obligation to comply with the restrictions of the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

Look here for clarification.