Speaking of Straw Men

by Michael Potemra

I think Jonah has formulated the issue in a way in which I recognize it. He says: “You come from the perspective, I’m now quite certain, which believes there’s a great deal of heft and meaning to such phrases as ‘I may disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ I come from the perspective which says such statements are usually diversionary treacle, intended to distract from the substance of the issues at hand.” Let me begin by admitting, forthrightly, that I do believe that that phrase has heft and meaning. But by posing such a stark contrast between the (supposedly naïve) people who believe it has heft and meaning and the (supposedly clear-eyed) people who realize that it’s twaddle, Jonah is posing both a) a false choice and b) an excluded middle. In short: building a straw man. Because, in fact, while remaining 100 percent committed to free-speech principles and their importance to our national character and identity, I recognize that some people use the same rhetoric as-to use Jonah’s words-”diversionary treacle.” But . . . so what? Let’s say President Bush calls on Americans to be patriotic. Some lib jumps up and quotes the old line, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” What has he proven–about patriotism itself, or about Bush? Precisely nothing; it’s just name-calling. Patriotism remains a noble thing, though some abuse it; same goes for defending free speech. (And free speech does, of course, include the right to mock those we believe to have said remarkably silly things.)

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