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Partisanship vs. Advocacy: A Meta-Discussion on Blogging Politics

Posted by Rick · June 5th, 2004 · 4 Comments

There’s been occasional — some might say more than occasional — talk on this blog about the onerous aspects of the Bush Administration, particularly as concerns Iraq, al Queda, Homeland Security, terrorism and other aspects of living in a free, democratically-driven society located in a sometimes dangerous world, but also as concerns domestic issues such as jobs, corporate influence on governmental policy choices (e.g., energy policy) and the economy.

While it’s important to talk about these things and while I hope that people take what is said about them seriously, it’s also important to understand what is not being said, how that impacts what is said and, when such things occur (e.g., in comments), how discussions get conducted.

In thinking about what is not being said, at least in the articles I’ve personally penned on this topic, there are both “meta” issues and the issues themselves. “Meta issues” are somewhat more philosophical thoughts about things like the choice of a blog topic, the structure of a blog article, the language used, the choice of source material and the ways that this may (or may not) generate various implications. From these implications, by definition not explicitly stated, readers draw various inferences. Sometimes the inferences are not things I intended to say. (One reason this blog allows comments — not all do — is to provide opportunities for people to comment upon things they’ve inferred from my writing and allow for discussion.) Sometimes, I’m sure, there are inferences people could draw that are perfectly legitimately ascribed to me, but which I was unaware I was implying. The issues themselves are (usually) pretty obvious: “So-and-so said such-and-such. This is important because [fill-in-the-blank].” Meta-issues and issues are not independent critters; hopefully, though they are often subtly or inchoately intertwined, the meta-issues do not confuse the reader by warping the point.

This blog entry, as you may have guessed from the title, is about meta-issues and their impact on blogging about politics. Many people eschew discussion of meta-issues, because such discussions are normally complex, deeply philosophical and “boring.” But an appreciation for their presence and some understanding of them is important because meta-issues are one of the primary difficulties in getting “discourse” to work.

The most clear-cut demonstration of this occurs when you google a topic and most of the pages returned are written in a language you either don’t read, or don’t read well. The choice of language used to convey the concepts is not, merely because of your inability to understand it, wrong. Nevertheless, there is a difficulty. The writer cannot communicate her ideas to you, because of a meta-issue: the language chosen to communicate those ideas is not one you understand. Much more of a problem is created with meta-issues involving languages you do understand. There is a greater tendency in those situations for things to do wrong because, understanding the words and grammatical structures, you may overlook other “problems” with the writing.

When discussing politics, meta-issues particularly include things like advocacy, which is often confused with — because it can shade into — partisanship. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “partisanship” thusly,

the quality or state of being a partisan : as a : adherence to a single person or thing (as a cause, group, political party) b : a strong or sometimes blind and unreasoning adherence to a single cause or group : BIAS, ONE-SIDEDNESS, PREJUDICE <choose between violent partisanship and … cool detachment — J.F.Muehl> <seen … clearly and in due proportion, freed from the mists of prejudice and partisanship — John Galsworthy> c : conduct or attitudes resulting from or characterizing such adherence

While “partisanship” is often unreasoning, “advocacy” is not necessarily so. “Advocacy,” as meant here, is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary as,

the action of advocating , pleading for, or supporting <devoted a lifetime to the advocacy of economic reforms> <a consequence of his moving advocacy — W.O.Douglas>

And so there’s no confusion about it, the same dictionary defines “advocating” this way:

transitive verb : to plead in favor of : defend by argument before a tribunal or the public : support or recommend publicly
intransitive verb : to act as advocate

Note that there’s nothing inconsistent about advocating in a non-partisan way. In fact, I would argue that the most useful — if not always the most effective — advocacy is non-partisan.

It’s important to note that something doesn’t become “partisan” merely by the fact that it frequently targets the same issues, problems or ills. A doctor, for example, who specializes, is not thereby engaging in “partisanship.” Closer to home, a writer who always writes fiction focused on particular ideas — such as John Grisham, Stephen King, or Ann Tyler do — is not ipso facto “partisan.” These may not be the best examples, because neither are these folks, by adhering to a particular genre of writing, thereby necessarily “advocating” anything, either. Yet my point is that it’s not the focus around particular things that differentiates “partisanship” from “advocacy.” Partisanship is differentiated from advocacy by the characteristic failure to argue or promote one’s ideas with — or “via” — reason.

I do not mean to, hope to, try to, or otherwise intend to hide the fact that I frequently advocate particular points of view on the issues about which I write. I do not intend even to hide the fact that I’m particularly concerned about what I see are the important ways in which the Bush Administration has harmed us; in my mind harmed us even more than the Reagan Administration which, the first time Reagan ran for office, I helped bring to power.

On the contrary, it’s one of the reasons I write. (I’ve noted before that another reason is because I believe writing is one path to learning.) If I were completely uninterested in advocating, I would write more privately. Instead, I have chosen to blog. And while I find labels — especially as used by partisan writers — to be blatantly misleading and plainly incapable of properly characterizing most things, I recognize that they are the inevitable consequence of humanity’s attempt to simplify the world so as to make quick decisions. So I’ll tell you up-front that my advocacy would likely be labeled by many (again, not entirely correctly) as “liberal” — at least as to most social issues.

On the other hand, I actually believe requiring some kind of IQ or history test before allowing people the right to vote would not be an altogether bad idea. And although I’ve not given it incredibly deep thought, I’ve floated the idea of a similar requirement before allowing citizens to procreate. These — particularly that last thought — are hardly “liberal” ideals.

Therein lies the rub.

Because of this weakness, labeling is a common indicator of the presence of partisan writing. While labeling does serve an occasionally useful purpose, by allowing us to quickly gain a surface understanding of “the gist” of things, it can also get in the way of reasoned arguments. I can remember when I studied philosophy how irritating it was to me to read that something was “Lockean” or “Cartesian.” “What the heck does that mean!?,” the beginning philosophy student, who has not yet become familiar with Locke or Descartes, thinks. This was particularly irritating when the phrasing was “antiquated Kantian ideas.” You don’t need to understand Kant to know, right there, that whoever wrote that phrase intends to put down a particular philosophy. Yet something even worse happens here. The “meta” message here, at least for students not yet familiar with Kant, may be read as “It is not worth wasting time reading Kant.” This can happen even when the writer does not harbor — and so did not intend to communicate — such a belief herself.

Worse still is when the writer does intend to communicate such a belief, even to promote such a belief, and does not say so. The message in the example of the last paragraph may or may not be a deliberate attempt of a philosophical writer to discourage a reading of Kant. Nevertheless (one hopes), a philosophical writer is likely to go on to explain what it is about the ideas that one finds to be “antiquated” and “Kantian.” This is not always the case in political discourse. The use of such a rhetorical device in political discourse is often unaccompanied by any reasoned argument. This is particularly true, for example, when someone states that a certain candidate for the Presidency is “a Botox-addicted French poodle” without any explanation of what it means, why it’s bad thing and what relevance it has to that candidate’s expected performance as President. More subtly, the same difficulty is present when one refers to a particular candidate as “a Liberal.” Does this mean that, like me (because I’ve been called that by the same people who call “Botox-addicted French poodles” “Liberal”), the candidate advocates sterilization of people who cannot pass an IQ test? Does it mean the candidate believes anyone without a basic understanding of history and the Constitution of the United States should not be allowed to vote? I don’t think so.

Another meta-issue concerns the ways in which arguments are presented. The same character, for example, who likes to attack a certain Democratic presidential contender by merely labeling him and leaving it at that, occasionally presents ideas in “argument form.”

An argument may be defined as:

2 a : a reason given for or against a matter under discussion : a statement made or a fact presented in support of or in opposition to a proposal or opinion ; specifically : the middle term of a syllogism b : a form of rhetorical expression intended to convince or persuade — Definition 2 of “argument” in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

But even though here — as opposed to the rhetorical device of labeling in lieu of arguing — we seem to be using reason, meta-issues are important. This was recently demonstrated in comments made by gNat Dawson on this blog about the imaginary “American protester’s section” of a Ho Chi Minh museum and also (in that same thread) about a news story showing that, during one particular month, the Kerry campaign raised twice as much money as the Bush campaign. In the first instance, gNat quoted an article containing claims from a group with the Orwellian name of “Vietnam Veterans for the Truth.” (The name is “Orwellian” because the government in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, frequently named things in a way that was opposite to, and deceptive of, their true function.)

The Vietnam Veterans for the Truth claimed that the communist government of Vietnam “clearly recognize John Kerry’s contributions to their victory,” by putting up a picture of him “in a section devoted to American war protesters whose actions and words encouraged the VC.” The picture was taken in 1993, when Kerry went there with a “high-level delegation to Vietnam to press for more progress on unresolved POW/MIA issues….along with Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel Gober and Lt. General Michael Ryan, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs….accompanied by leading representatives of the four largest veterans organizations.” Someone I don’t know (at least I don’t think I do), who almost never writes comments on this blog said,

Just to add a little information to this, since I have seen the contents of the exhibit in question. Right next to the picture in question is a picture of Lt. General Michael Ryan, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time and member of the delegation. On the other side of that picture is a picture that has all 4 leading members of the Veterans Groups were on this very trip.

The comments about “Kerry, the nominee of the party that is always griping about “fairness” [having] a 2:1 spending advantage” was similar. In that instance, I pointed out that while during the month of April Kerry had raised twice as many funds as Bush, the incumbent President (uh…that would be Bush) had raised and spent much more money than Kerry. In fact, some news stories indicated that Bush was possibly spending money too fast and was going to run out before completing the job of campaigning and would need to ask for more, not unlike what has happened with the war in Iraq. At least he’s consistent!

(By the way, that’s a further demonstration of my point about meta-issues; my choice of wording for those last two sentences helped further a message, without necessarily arguing a point.)

So, with both gNat’s comments, the choice of which material to present and how to present it, which is a meta-issue, severely twisted the issues. In fact, it created issues that didn’t exist in reality. In the first case, it created the false issue — to call a spade a spade, it lied — that Kerry is a communist sympathizer who actively provided succor to the enemy during the Vietnam War. In fact, Kerry fought against the Viet Cong during the war and was awarded several honors, including three Purple Hearts:

Kerry first met intense combat on December 2, 1968, when the small boat he skippered encountered the Viet Cong and engaged in a firefight. Kerry’s M-16 jammed, and as he bent down to get another weapon, a hot chunk of shrapnel flew into his arm. The wound didn’t cause Kerry to miss any duty, but it did qualify him for his first Purple Heart.

Shrapnel again hit Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry, this time in his left thigh, on February 20, 1969. Kerry’s boat spotted enemy combatants on a riverbank and fired. A grenade hit the boat, causing shrapnel to bore into Kerry’s leg and earning him another Purple Heart.

His last Purple Heart came from injuries sustained on March 13, 1969. A mine exploded under Kerry’s boat and wounded him in the right arm. Despite the injury, Kerry rescued a Green Beret and assisted other damaged boats while braving sniper fire from the riverbanks. This incident earned Kerry a Bronze Star with Combat V for “calmness, professionalism, and great personal courage under fire.” This final injury was the most severe and gave Kerry pain for years. — Ask Yahoo!, “What wounds did John Kerry receive to be awarded three Purple Hearts?”

It remains for another blog entry to explain why certain veterans — some of whom were not wounded in battle at all — would like to de-emphasize the meaning of Kerry’s military honors. Suffice it for now to say that “The PURPLE HEART is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.” (from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the only congressionally-chartered veterans organization exclusively for combat veterans, “The Purple Heart: What Is It?”) My grandfather, killed during World War II by a sniper bullet, received one, but the award is not intended only to honor people who are killed or seriously wounded. It is intended to honor people who were close enough to the action such that they could have been seriously wounded or killed. That shrapnel hit Kerry in the arm or the leg instead of in the head, heart or some other vital organ does not detract from the fact that he was wounded by people who were shooting at him — and not because of their deep desire to honor him for succoring them.

In the second case, the meta-issue — gNat’s choice of how to present the fact that Kerry’s campaign raised twice as much as Bush’s campaign during the single month of April — is even more insidious (and invidious). First, it appears to imply that Kerry’s having raised more money is a sign of unfairness. In the best case scenario — that is, in the least invidious view — it appears to indicate that the fact that Kerry was able to do this because of contributions by George Soros is unfair and more “evidence” of Kerry as a communist sympathizer. George Soros is apparently considered a communist because he survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and left communist Hungary in 1947 and has, since then, been educated in such evil places as the London School of Economics. Soros’ communist views are clearly demonstrated by his donating money for “a range of programs focusing on civil society, education, media, public health, and human rights as well as social, legal, and economic reform.” Additionally, like most communists, he’s a billionaire chairman and president of investment companies. In short, he’s nothing like the executives of the reorganized Enron which, even after its 2001 bankruptcy and which was one of Bush’s top career patrons, continued in 2003 to contribute to his campaign.

In fact, Soros did not give $75 million to Kerry, as gNat had claimed, but actually said he was committing $75 million of his own money to numerous groups, including, but not limited to Kerry’s because, as Soros — unlike the other super-rich such as Warren Buffett who more directly support Kerry — puts it, he’s for “Anyone But Bush.”

By the careful presentation — and, as a reminder to those who may have been distracted by the specifically political content of the last few paragraphs, this is the meta-issue with which we are concerned — of such “facts,” issues that do not actually exist are disingenuously created and advanced. Once again, what is not said, albeit on a slightly different meaning of “not said” than when discussing meta-issues such as “choice of language,” is what’s important, because in this case what is not said provides the missing pieces that transform a lie into truth.

These are the things that move one from advocating a particular point of view — e.g., “anti-Bush,” as I’ve periodically done here, or “pro-Kerry,” which I have not yet done here — and shading over into partisanship.

Stay tuned for my next blog article, where I plan to more explicitly detail how to deal with partisan writing. Meanwhile, I hope that thinking about what I’ve written here will cause you to recognize the truth of caveat emptor. Whether reading blogs, like mine, that advocate particular positions, views and perhaps (one day) even candidates, or whether reading blogs that are clearly partisan, the responsibility is on you, the reader, to maintain a critically-thinking mind and be sure that the writing, the advocacy, is of the quality you expect in helping you decide just what you want to support.

Categories: Blogs & Blogging


4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nat // Jun 5, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    If you smoke a cigar anywhere in America today, chances are some passing Liberal will scream obscenities in your face and accuse you of harming the environement and being a menace to society.

    [Editor’s Note: Here we have an example of a different sort of rhetorical device, related to, but different from, the things I was writing about. First, this post constitutes a non sequitur in that it is unrelated to the topic of the post for which it purports to by a comment (by virtue of having been posted in the comments section under the post). Second, no definition of “Liberal” is given; it is assumed you will know that “Liberals” scream obscenities at people who smoke cigars, accusing them of harming the environment and being menaces to society. No argument is offered to provide you reason to believe this. Shall we infer that only “Liberals” yell obscenities at cigar smokers? Shall we infer that if there is one such “Liberal” that all of them are evil? Should we believe that only “Liberals” are concerned for the environment? Does the writer here intend to indicate that “Liberals” are always accusing people of being menaces to society? The form of the message makes the message itself unclear. It appears to be intended as some type of innuendo, defaming “Liberals.” The straightforward text of the message itself, on its face, is false; that is, it is a lie. While there very well may be some place in America where someone thought to be a “Liberal” might do such a thing, it certainly would not happen anywhere in America, which appears to indicate that there is nowhere in America where it would not happen. ]

    However, if you have a fully formed child prematurely snatched from your uterus and whose brain is then sucked out by an attending “physician”, why then according to the Liberal manifesto, you are protecting a “freedom”.

    [Editor’s Note: Juxtaposed with this — exactly as logic (you disagree?) — would dictate, is the claim that “Liberals” support sucking out the brains of fully-formed children. And yet, here, on this very blog, I — who our “guest” has repeatedly either impliedly or explicitly accused of being one of these “Liberals” — have more than once stated the contrary. I have, personally, said that I am not in favor of abortion and that the particular form of abortion to which our “guest” refers, in my opinion, should be and could be made illegal. ]

    If you sell a deck of Luckies to a 15-year-old boy, Liberals want you to be fined or sent to jail. On the other hand if you sell a pack of condoms to the same 15 year old boy, Liberals will praise your action as being “socially responsible.”

    [Editor’s Note: This one is even harder for me to respond to, because I don’t know who, without doing the research, voted for laws that control the sale of tobacco. But then, neither does our “guest”; or at least he does not provide any reason to trust that he does. I do know that both so-called “Liberals” and so-called “Conservatives” have argued for laws that control what 15-year-olds (both male and female) may and may not legally buy. It would not surprise me to know that both “Liberals” and “Conservatives” think 15-year-olds should not smoke. I am also aware that there are all kinds of people, some of whom probably qualify as “Conservatives,” who believe that birth control — since without a doubt 15-year-olds will engage in sex, just as they have since time immemorial — is better than waiting until there are fully-formed children whose brains someone will want sucked out. ]

    I could go on.

    [Editor’s Note: Of course you could. It takes very little time to write balderdash, poppycock and bullshit. The real work comes in building logical arguments. For that, you cannot seem to start, let alone “go on.” ]

  • 2 abi // Jun 5, 2004 at 3:33 pm


    I found that an interesting read, and look forward to the next installment. One question: how does calling Nat “gNat” figure in the above?


  • 3 Rick // Jun 5, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    In answer to your question about gNat, who by the way, is back with another comment not connected with the post and failing to make any arguments for the non sequiturs — providing further evidence justifying the spelling of his name and probably necessitating that I implement the “playpen” idea Bob emailed me, which I think I told you about — it would, all by itself, be an example of the same sort of thing I wrote about.

    In other words, absent any other word by me about gNat, it would be an unfair and illegitimate rhetorical move. As you no doubt recognize, spelling his name “gNat” rather than using the correct spelling of “Nat” provides meta-information; it is commentary about him.

    Perhaps some will disagree, but I believe my numerous deconstructions of his posts justify the spelling, which itself was not used by me until I’d finally reached the point of recognizing that he was, in fact, a dishonest pest and had clearly demonstrated this.

    It’s also an example of a label that actually fits, within the confines of this blog, nu?

    Were gNat to write elsewhere and were I to respond to him elsewhere, I would be required (I think) to walk through a long proof or justification for the spelling.

  • 4 Bob // Jun 9, 2004 at 9:02 am


    Because he deserves it.


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