I’ve written before of the tendency of our mainstream media to engage in false equivalence—the compulsion to demonstrate impartiality and objectivity by saying “both sides are to blame,” when, demonstrably, the blame really lies far more on one side than the other. The canons of objective journalism require non-partisanship, and non-partisanship in practice means that if you report on the foibles and transgressions of one party, you need to do what you can to find equivalent bad things to say about the other.
I couldn’t help thinking of false equivalence while reading Nicholas Kristof’s op. ed. on the Iran deal yesterday. What he does is not exactly false equivalence, but it’s closely related: I call it misguided even-handedness. Kristof favors the deal, and makes some strong arguments in its support, but he tries too hard to be even-handed: he can’t resist giving the other side more than its due.
Following a number of other commentators, Kristof faults President Obama for making this a partisan issue. He quotes Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Texas Republican senator, who claims that “At this point, the president has made it impossible for a Republican to vote for it.” But wait a second: didn’t the Republicans invite a foreign leader to address Congress to express his opposition to the policy of the President of the United States? Then, in another unprecedented, mind-boggling stunt, the overwhelming majority of Republican senators told another foreign leader not to count on the United States keeping commitments made by the current president. And then the Republican presidential candidates unanimously announced their determined opposition to the deal before they could possibly know its details. So, President Obama has every right to charge that the Republicans from the beginning have demonstrated knee-jerk partisanship on this issue.
Kristof also criticizes Obama for saying that the opponents of the agreement are making common cause with the Iranians who chant “death to America.” Not a gentle thing to say, I suppose, but it does just happen to be true: the deal is encountering strong opposition from the most intransigent, retrograde forces in the Iranian power structure, while garnering the hopeful support of the more moderate, outward-looking elements, including most Iranian exiles. This is a significant fact, one which should light some bulbs in the minds of deal opponents. Why shouldn’t Obama point it out?
Kristof’s language reveals a preference for even-handedness over logic. He says “To me this deal is ugly and flawed—and infinitely better than the alternatives.” I guess that is supposed to be some kind of clever paradox, but if the agreement is far better than any possible alternative, why is it ugly or flawed? Yes, it ‘s not ideal from the US standpoint; it doesn’t give us everything we’d like, but that is in the nature of international politics and diplomacy. If indeed it is “infinitely” better than the alternatives, then “ugly and flawed” is a truly weird characterization. In another display of dubious logic, Kristof says “The criticisms of the deal strike me as reasonable, but the alternatives critics propose seem unreasonable and incoherent.” Huh? If the critics can’t propose any reasonable or coherent alternatives, how can we regard their criticisms as reasonable? Kristof undoubtedly thinks that he is strengthening his credibility by showing his fair-minded appreciation of the other side, but instead he is undermining his case by overstating the other side’s very slender merits.
I don’t know if I would have viewed the Kristof column in the perspective of false equivalence had there not been another recent Times column, in last Sunday’s Review section, which really got me ticked off. So ticked off that I wrote a letter to the editor, which appears (abbreviated by the editors, of course) in today’s Times. The column’s author, Gerard Alexander, excoriates Jon Stewart as a “patron saint of liberal smugness.” Stewart’s offense, according to Alexander, is that he aims his mockery far more at Republicans and the right than at Democrats and the left. This imbalance, Alexander thinks, not only helps inform “the condescension and self-righteousness with which liberals often treat conservatives.” It is also unjustified, because “both ideological camps contain fools.”
But is that really true? Do the two parties and their respective ideological camps really offer equal opportunities for satire? Alexander calls Stewart out for “fixating” on figures like Sarah Palin and Todd Akin, but the fact is, there are no Sarah Palins or Todd Akins on the Democratic left, not to mention Trumps, Santorums and Carsons. Has any leading Democrat said anything as hateful and absurd as Mike Huckabee’s comparison of the Iran deal to Nazi gas chambers? No Republican candidate for president can admit to a belief in climate change or evolution. Are there any prominent Democrats who similarly deny any important body of scientific findings? As I have pointed out many times, there is a craziness factor in today’s Republican Party that simply has no counterpart on the other side. Sure, there are wackos on the left, but they’re mostly on the fringes of the Internet, not dominating the discourse in one of our two major parties.
So, good for Jon Stewart: he aims his barbs at appropriate targets. Alexander would prefer a patron saint of false equivalence.