The wizened old librarian-curator who lives in the back of my head said that he was prompted to dredge this up by the talk that Gavin Newsom would make an excellent Democrat presidential nominee:
March 3, 2004
“Everybody’s always giving me guns.” — Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep
In the preceding essay on this subject, your Curmudgeon mapped some of the ground over which an honest man engaged in political debate must travel. That journey was stimulated by an important Mark Alger piece, which gave an example of a scurrilous rhetorical tactic used by leftists, and counseled disengagement from dishonest persons in debate.
But the Left has more than one arrow in its quiver. Regard the following reportage by Michelle Malkin, concerning an exchange between San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave on the Larry King Show last week:
When Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, the Colorado Republican sponsoring a federal marriage amendment, bluntly confronted Newsom with his criminal behavior (“I’m going through the deliberative legislative process, Mr. Mayor. You’re defying the law.”), he pursed his lips and snorted: “I’m hardly defying the law.” Hardly? Fact: In 2000, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 22, the state’s Defense of Marriage Act. Despite Newsom’s issuance of 3,500 marriage licenses to homosexual couples, Prop. 22 remains the law today.
Musgrave didn’t back down: “You’re making a mockery of the law.” Newsom wheedled in response: “I think you’re making a mockery of this country and our values of diversity, and bringing people together and uniting people.”
Ann Coulter nailed this one in her book Slander: Liberal Lies About The American Right. The mouthpieces of the Left will always advance as if under the threat of attack.
Musgrave simply called Newsom on his defiance of the law. When Newsom tried to ward the thrust by denying it, and found that Musgrave would not relent, he changed the subject and went on the attack against Musgrave’s motives, and by implication, the motives of all those who consider him a lawless and culpable man.
Chess players call this a zwischenzug: a move which interrupts the opponent’s developing combination by forcing him to attend to a threat or possibility he hadn’t included in his thinking. In this case, Newsom was trying to compel a change of subject to avert the need to defend his actions, while simultaneously seizing the rhetorical initiative and throwing his opponent on the defensive.
It’s legitimate in chess. It’s not legitimate in political discourse.
An honest man who’s been called to account for his actions stands his ground. Newsom couldn’t do that; California state law is plainly against him, and he has cheerfully defied it. He didn’t want to defend a position that was so obviously indefensible, so he had to derail Musgrave’s train of attack. The best way to do that was to invoke the Left’s rhetorical standby: its claim of good intentions, which implies the bad intentions of its opponents.
The Good Intentions Gambit is usually effective against the Right, because we of the Right:
- Almost all have good intentions ourselves, and therefore extend that presumption to others;
- Are too gentlemanly to call a lying scoundrel a lying scoundrel in public, where it might hurt his feelings.
Your Curmudgeon will pause here until you’ve stopped laughing.
If we compare the underpinnings of the Newsom maneuver to the explicit pronouncements in the Benjamin Hellie rant cited in yesterday’s Curmudgeonly emission, we can glean important intelligence from it, both tactical and strategic. Hellie explicitly articulated the fallback premise of the Left: “We’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys.” To review, Hellie’s actual words were:
The goal of the right wing is to perpetuate and worsen a system in which a small number of people control obscene quantities of wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority, whereas the goal of the left wing is to distribute wealth and power more broadly. For short, the goal of the right wing is perpetuating and increasing injustice, whereas the goal of the left wing is increasing justice.
The veracity of the claim to one side, this amounts to an appeal to emotions based on the elevation of intentions above all other things.
The amazing part of this is how effective it can be. Psychologist and author Peter Breggin has repeatedly lectured pro-freedom groups on the perceived importance of good intentions in political outreach. Broadly speaking, the target of a political pitch will judge the speaker on his perceived intentions more predictably than on anything else about him. If the target judges the speaker to be callous or cruel, the pitch will fail; indeed, it might rebound to disastrous effect.
Scant wonder that the Left, which has a uniform record of failure in all things this century past, should recur to the Good Intentions Gambit so regularly.
The most effective tactical counterstroke has much in common with the one suggested in the preceding essay: call the violator on his violation, where everyone can hear. It would go something like this:
[Hearty chuckle] Mayor Newsom, it’s clear that you can’t defend your conduct on legal grounds, and equally clear that you dislike being put on the defensive about it. But those are the facts, and in time you will be called to account for them. Your protestations of superior virtue on the basis of your supposed good intentions are just a cover for your unwillingness to conform your conduct to the law as a good citizen should.
The Good Intentions Gambit is the Left’s innermost line of defense. Should it fail, leftist generals have nowhere to retreat. Strategically, this implies that freedom advocates may choose between battlegrounds:
- We can lay siege to Fort Good Intentions, by pointing out at every opportunity that the Left’s vanguard’s response to its policy failures is always to evade them, usually by defining them out of existence or attacking the motives of its critics. Thus, it preserves its ego and its power at the expense of the persons it claims to want to help. This is not the behavior of a movement animated by good intentions. Pursued consistently, this strategy will separate the Left’s followers from its vanguard.
- We can bypass the fortress and bring the facts about leftist failures, leftist deceits, leftist arrogance, and leftist power-lust to the largest possible “lay” audience, simply and clearly. Pursued consistently, this will remove the Left’s support among the general populace.
In both sites, the correlation of forces is favorable to us. There are enough of us to try both. Choose — and strike!
The exchange quoted above took place when Gavin Newsom was the Mayor of San Francisco. Show it to any left-liberals you might know. Ask them “Do you think he’d make a good president?” Gauge their honesty and trustworthiness from their reactions. (And I know: most of the links no longer work. Don’t bother berating me about it.)