Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Michael Gerson: Brilliant Rhetorician

Recently I started another blog on live journal that I was going to use as an ongoing thought process whilst completing my degrees at uni (or university, in case any of you think I'm speaking of unicorns, Jay knows what I'm talking about). It was going to cover Mathematics and Logic and Philosophy of Science. I was going to cover arguments, rhetoric, math, or whatever I fancied in that area. However, today I spotted a whopper of an article in the Washington Post that I just had to share. Usually I try not to weigh in on American politics but I will on this occasion from a rhetorical perspective.

Michael Gerson is, in my opinion, one of the truly great modern rhetoricians. He has coined some brilliant rhetorical terms while a speech writer for the White House, including 'Axis of Evil'. Today's article is entitled "A Phony 'War on Science'". I'm not concerned with whether Gerson's argument is sound. I'm concerned with his ability to persuade a specific audience. So, I'm going to look at some aspects of the article that he uses to that end - rhetorical devices. Some of them even tie together.

Rhetorical Questions

Gerson uses rhetorical questioning three times in a row:

Does anyone really believe in a science without moral and legal limits? In harvesting organs from prisoners? In systematically getting rid of the disabled?

The opening paragraph is an example of overstatement. It states:
There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a "war on science."
What he is saying is that if you conceive at any time that the Republicans are conducting any sort of ideological battle against science than you are an irrational illogical, fanatic. Even if you came up with real counterexamples, then his rhetorical argument has already beaten you to the punch.

Irony and Sarcasm

It is hard to detect sarcasm through writing. It is also hard to know the intent of the writer when they use scare quotes (see the use-mention distinction). Gerson writes the following:
Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled "anti-science." Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as "theological" and thus illegitimate.

Liberal views are "objective" while traditional moral convictions are "biased." Public scrutiny of scientific practices is "politicizing" important decisions.

As mentioned above it is hard to know whether Gerson is being sarcastic or ironic to prove his point or that he is using real examples. I would say he is trying to be sarcastic as the comment about liberal views and traditional moral convictions comes across as an ironic straw man.


He uses figurative language such as "new eugenics" in comparison to the older Nazi eugenics. He also claims science is a political power: "... science can easily become the power of some over the lives of others." He also talks of "oracle of science," "dark paths" and back to the first paragraph by claiming that accusations of a war on science were "faith-based."

In finishing, I think this article is disingenuous. If Gerson has a problem with unrestricted science from the left, then he should also agree there is problems with unrestricted science from the right. In form of biological warfare, weapons of mass destruction, military technology, and so on. He also claims there is no attack on science from the right. Yet he is trying to tie together his ideological enemy with the scientific method. For instance he couples Science and Liberalism together by using Yuval Levin's argument which states "... belief in the power of science is central to the development of liberalism." He then goes on to state that science itself is a form of nefarious political power by stating "... science can easily become the power of some over the lives of others." It is debatable if Gerson's article is an attack on science itself. It certainly is a smear on it by tying together his sworn enemy with science and then also claiming science is an unchecked Pandora's box that alludes to the fact that it needs religious values to keep it under control.

Personally, I think both sides of politics should stay the hell away from science (but that, and ethics within science, is for another post).


Jay@Soob said...

An excellent breakdown and analysis. Gerson does wander a bit as he begins with the intent to illustrate that science isn't being attacked by the right (and indeed he lays examples to the contrary out) but then veers off and indeed starts swinging at liberal ideals using science as a bat. The bit about eugenics is certainly disingenuous as it seems to hold "liberals" solely accountable for what was a widely accepted ideology and practice.

"Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world." Theodore Roosevelt.
Certainly not a liberal by todays standards. He's also conveniently conflating the early 20th century form of the term "progressive" with today's.

An side:

A quote from his article states; "In America, the lives of about nine of 10 children with Down syndrome are ended before birth." That's a rather frightening number. I'll have to dig a bit and discover if it's entirely true. If it is then his reference to modern day eugenics isn't entirely off base.

ortho said...

M├╝nzenberg, fascinating analysis. Thank you for alerting me to Gerson's article.

Soob, I can't find statistics on the correlation between Down Syndrome diagnosis and abortion. I found a 2007 NY Times article that states, "About 90 percent of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion" ( Unfortunately, the article does not provide a footnoted source for this assertion.

Of course, I have written about "cybernetic eugenicism" with my characteristic flair for hyperbole and rhetorical flourishes:
[1] Further "outlines of cybernetic eugenicism"
[2] further and further outlines of cybereugenticism
[3] more "outlines of cybereugenticism
[4] "Outlines of a Cybernetic Eugenicism"