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evidence

Thinking about a bunch of stuff today, but first, I'd like to go back to what the Vice President just said...

Kerry did it a couple of times, and apparently opened the floodgates. Driving up to Dallas last night, I listened to the debate on the radio, and by far, the most annoying aspect of it was the constant "going back" to previous answers. I understand the temptation to have the last word, but geez. I didn't get to see the candidates themselves, which leaves me hesitant to review the debate itself. Based on my hearing, I felt that the debate was pretty even in the sense that each of them seemed to accomplish what they were after. Cheney's "I don't know where to start" was really odd--on the one hand, it was clear that he was allowed to go off-script (unlike W, I suspect), but when he did, it seemed like he did so because he was flummoxed. (I've seen others say that he was disengaged.)

At any rate, there was a lot more substance, or attempts at substance, last night, and it matched up with a couple of things for me. First, Timothy Burke has a really interesting post today, one that starts from his attitude towards Larry Bowa's dismissal as manager of the Phillies and ends with discussions of evidence as they pertain both to academia and the current discussions about Iraq:

This has been a very large-scale issue with a lot of postmodernist or poststructuralist writing in the humanities and social sciences. Much of it, taken for what it seems to say, ought to make it impossible to make what passes for normal evidentiary use of texts and documents. But I’ve read so many manuscripts now where the author theoretically kicks out the legs of the chair he’s standing on and then tries to float immaculately on air. It might surprise some conservatives and skeptics who probably could uncork a rant about “postmodernist academics? in a moment’s notice, but I think this particular rhetorical gambit has become even more profoundly characteristic of conservative thought and writing than any form of consciously “postmodern? writing.

It seems to me that what Burke is getting at here, to a certain degree, is a contemporary version of what Paolo Valesio called the "rhetoric of no rhetoric," or for you fans of the manuFactor, the spin of no spin. The idea is something like being able to claim that your opponent's evidence is bad, and that somehow, this is evidence for your own claims. And at its root, at least in the context of the next month or so, it's really another form of negative campaigning. You deflect attention from your own record or your own failings or your own lack of positive claims by attacking your opponents'.

I don't know that it's a necessarily conservative strategy, but it makes sense to me that it would be an effective one for incumbents who wish to deflect attention. In this race, Bush and Cheney really can't propose "new" actions, because they've had 3+ years to do what they propose, and new strategies simply raise the question of why they haven't done it before. More broadly, though, this strategy imparts a kind of incumbency upon whoever adopts it, as it places the burden of proof upon an opponent, who must labor to demonstrate hir own lack of bias or the quality of evidence rather than confronting an opponent directly. It's a smart strategy, but it's also one that's largely dishonest. Not only does it distract, but it operates with a patently false assumption, that there's some zero degree of rhetoric, spin, bias that's achievable.

I have a second point to go with my "First," but I'll post it a little later.