In his recent column in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas Friedman points to the dangers of the increasingly shrill attacks on the President from the far Right. He draws a frighteningly possible parallel to the assassination of Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
The late Dominic LaRusso used to point out that anyone can attack any program or any person; the hard work was in proposing a better alternative. Attacking the speaker, as opposed to the issues, is the ad hominem fallacy, a flaw of logic so old that Aristotle named it. I challenge those who are criticizing President Obama to instead propose useful, practical alternatives to the positions he supports. Attack the issues, not the speaker. But because they have no ideas, they cannot.
History is instructive in this regard. After Senator Charles Sumner attacked slavery, South Carolina and slavery’s supporters in a speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks assaulted Sumner as he sat at his desk on the floor of the Senate, beating him with a metal-tipped wooden cane. Brooks resigned or was expelled from the House of Representatives. But his supporters re-elected him the following year, and showered him with gifts of heavy wooden canes. Brooks died the following year. Slavery was abolished – albeit at an obscene cost – in 1864. And Senator Sumner outlived Brooks by 18 years. Brooks’ physical violence accomplished nothing of benefit to the South or the institutions he claimed to support. Other than to bring the day of the Civil War that much closer. And to give us an object lesson in the consequences of the failure of civil discourse.
The Birthers, and those who claim Obama is a secret Socialist, and those who claim he intends to seize all firearms and ammunition: these folks are the moral equivalent of Brooks flailing at Sumner with his cane. They accomplish nothing except to make compromise even more difficult. Their fear of any change is so great that, like Brooks, they can only flail at anyone proposing change. They succeed only in poisoning the atmosphere. Like Brooks, the issues and positions they claim to support will eventually fail. They succeed only in making that failure more painful and catastrophic.