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Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2008
Category: Non Fiction

In 1928, a heckler shouted at presidential candidate Al Smith, "Tell ‘em all you know. It won’t take long." Smith shouted back, "If I tell them all we both know, it won’t take any longer."

In 1960, critics charged that John F. Kennedy’s father was going to buy the election for him. Kennedy responded by producing what he said was a telegram from his father: "Jack, don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide."

We don’t need Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein to tell us that political discourse isn’t what it used to be — Dick Cheney’s immortal line to Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor is repeated millions of times each day (though almost never with attribution).

But this is an election year, and we can expect fresh twists on the great warhorses of political rhetoric — the straw man, Orwell’s “big lie” and the rest of that vulgar ilk. Cathcart and Klein, the over-educated gents who gave us a cheat sheet to philosophy in Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, have thoughtfully stepped in to decrypt the rhetoric that will soon, by turns, elevate and sicken. Soon, instead of saying “bullshit” every time a pol opens a mouth, we’ll be able to bestow some gravitas on that bullshit. How cool is that?

Cathcart and Klein are not partisans. That is, they take the high road. That is, they figure “it’s more important to get the clearest possible insight into how politicos perpetrate their tricks than to review the damage they’ve done.” Translation: The Bush Administration pretty much gets a pass.

Well, sort of. You’ve got to start somewhere, and in the kindergarten of rhetoric, we find doublespeak, like Dick Cheney’s explanation of the conflicting realities that 1) Britain would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and 2) President Bush was selling the idea of a troop surge to Iraq. Here’s the Vice President:

Well, I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well. In fact I talked to a friend just the other day who …found the situation dramatically improved from a year or so ago, sort of validated the British view that they had made progress in southern Iraq and that they can therefore reduce their force levels.

And here are Cathcart and Klein on that rhetorical move:

If things aren’t going your way, you shoot a bunch of holes in the barn door, and then draw a target around them. Then you claim that the outcome was the one you were aiming for all along. In this way, failure becomes success.

There may have been times when you heard a politician blather about something you actually know about. And you’ve said, “That guy knows nothing! What a moron!” Yes, he is. But how much more elegant if you refer to his ignoratio elenchi — ignorance of the issue. Or if you loftily announce that this public figure has delivered an argumentum ad ignorantiam — argument from ignorance. The recent gold medalist in that category? Donad Rumsfeld. His “absence of evidence” remarks are, Cathcart and Klein say, “the rhetorical equivalent of the triple lutz.”

There are excellent jokes along the way, as well as a generous serving of the groaners we have come to expect from this duo. There are New Yorker cartoons. There are sentences you mark: “A weak analogy is like a congressman stumbling in a hailstorm.” And, most important, there are terms you can use to make yourself sound smarter than the average blog reader: “naturalistic fallacy” and tu quoque and — a no-brainer for the students of Aristotle — kairos

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Oddly, both mean the same thing: In a political argument, don’t mess with the reader of this book.

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