Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Unquestioned Premise

An ironclad rule of logic is that if one of the premises is bad, the conclusion is bad as well. The primary tactic of a skilled debater, whether on the school team or the courtroom, is to go after the weak premises and shoot them to pieces. And one of the primary techniques of the propagandist is the unquestioned premise, a basic form of disinformation.

It goes like this. Say you want to prove that the sun moves around the earth. You point out that everyone can see that the earth is flat and no one falls off, therefore the earth isn't moving, therefore the sun must be moving. Just slip that "common (non)sense" premise in there, and your mark swallows the argument whole. It's as easy as pie. But it requires either self-delusion or the intent to delude, as well as a pliable mark. Us readers, in other words.

The unnamed Courier editor manages to work four unquestioned premises into today's editorial, which is ostensibly on immigration reform but is really about getting more Republicans elected. I know, just go with me for a sec.

The editor's argument, in logical form, boils down to this:

Premise 1: The federal government is "neglecting its own immigration enforcement."
Premise 2: The federal government is "unwilling to enact positive immigration reform."
Premise 3: If the federal government will not enforce immigration law, Arizona must.
Premise 4: SB1070 would be effective in enforcing federal immigration law.
Conclusion: The federal government should allow Arizona to enforce immigration law as per SB1070.

Just look at those premises! I'll bet you didn't think he had it in him to make such breathtaking leaps!

What we have here are not facts, but rather talking points -- ideas designed to persuade you to think in a certain way. The unrelenting media narrative holds that the border is out of control and the feds are doing essentially nothing as illegals overrun the country causing havoc, crime, cracks in the earth, hail of toads, what have you. Anyone who knows otherwise is forced to show over and over again in tedious detail that these concerns are just not justified by reality. But those who are paying enough attention to know generally have jobs, families and real lives, so they get tired. The media machine never gets tired, especially of a story that generates beucoup moola.

Some facts:

The federal government is spending more resources and personnel on the southern border than at any time in history. To the editor, that's "neglecting."

The federal government cannot "enact positive immigration reform," much as our president would like to. That's the role of Congress, one in which the minority party is using every available tactic to block any initiative by the president or the majority party. To the editor, that's "unwilling."

Recession, not enforcement, is reducing the number of illegal immigrants here: illegals are leaving our state in droves, causing reasonable concern about further depressing our economy.

If its backers are being honest in how they're selling it, SB1070 is essentially toothless. If it's not, it's likely to exacerbate the crime and other problems we already have and add new ones, licensing bad cops, vigilantes and garden-variety racists to go after anyone who looks sufficiently brown, including Puerto Ricans and Indians. What the bill amounts to is a legislative temper tantrum, and that's causing reasonable people to step back, but I'm positive it doesn't scare the criminals one bit.

Finally, on the idea that the states must do what the federal government won't (to their satisfaction): Let's say there's a gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and huge amounts of oil are threatening the coasts and industries of five southern states while the oil company who made the mess dithers around trying to save its investment in the well and avoid paying the cleanup costs. By the Courier editor's logic, because Louisiana doesn't like how the feds are going about fixing it, the state would be justified, even obliged, to nationalize (state-ize?) the oil company, direct the leak fix and take on the cleanup costs itself. You do the math.

The editor packs all this wrong thinking into his unquestioned premises. (Why bother thinking when the media are doing it for you, after all?) His conclusion is rotten to the core as a result, but in the context of the unrelenting narrative, it looks fairly reasonable.

Underneath, the message is quite pointed and partisan. See, in the editor's world, "positive immigration reform" is code for "closing the border and sending them all home," and that's the only approach the Republicans will talk about. The smart ones know the idea is preposterous in the real world, it just can't happen, I don't care how much money and manpower you propose to throw at it. But they also know that as long as they beat the drum, they have an issue that scares voters and gets them elected, and, as proven over the last decade, once they're elected they don't have to do anything about it, they can just keep beating that drum. It's perfect. A continuously winning issue that can't be resolved.

In the real world, "positive immigration reform" means eliminating the artificial shortage of legal routes to work, bringing all immigrants onto the level playing field of workplace protections, minimum wages and withholding taxes, and looking after U.S. economic interests in a flexible and skilled workforce. When the editor writes on those ideas, I'll consider the possibility that the Courier is turning a corner on the issue. But however reasonable it may appear on the surface, today's editorial is just the same old scary drumbeat. On with the stampede. Watch your step, there's a cliff over that way.

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