False Choice Rightness, Writing Badness

I’m glad that, as part of my Saturday morning routine of following him wherever he points, Insty led me to Ruth Marcus’ anti-false choice wapo article; it gave me a chance to nit-pick an article to death, one of my favorite blogging pastimes:

As a rhetorical device, particularly as a political rhetorical device, the false choice has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any. The phrase has become a trite substitute for serious thinking. It serves too often to obscure rather than to explain.

Maybe Ruth had originally written “The device” for the third time in two sentences and the editor axed it on those grounds, replacing it with “The phrase”. Whoever is to blame, I’m anti pinning the singular ‘phrase’ on plural false choices.

Ruth says “the phrase” has become a substitute for serious thought which implies that there was a time when a false choice represented serious thinking. It never has.

While I agree with Ruth’s general point, the reason Obama (or speechwriters) keep using false choices to present arguments as the wisest in the room is the same reason songwriters present lyrical gobbledygook as though it’s philosophical deep shit: Most people buy it. You can’t blame the thirsty for pulling water from the well.

The most nit-pickable part of Ruth’s piece is when she concludes with a subtle false choice of her own. It’s the worst type of false choice, unofficially known as giving the reader the false choice of a singular cause for an effect when many more choices exist. She also willfully misinterprets a quote to make an offhand political point AND she makes a wrong word choice. It’s a trifecta of journalistic badness:

“They said that we had to choose between cutting the deficit and keeping taxes low,” Bush boasted in 2006. “Those are false choices.” Well, we know how this argument turned out. The decision to spend down an illusory surplus with unaffordable tax cuts was a real choice — with painful consequences that the country is still reaping.

First her hidden false choice: Do we really have to choose between the Bush tax cuts and the painful consequences that the country is still reaping—

–nevermind, let’s tackle her wrong word choice first. Reaping pain: Fuck the heck? I understand not wanting to use the most obvious verb ‘feel’, but how did Ruth settle on reap? Must be an idiom gone wrong. If someone out there is reaping pain they’re either a farmer of some seriously GM-ed crops or a serial killer. [Update: On re-read I realize that it’s consequences Ruth says we are reaping, not pain. My bad Ruth. Still, not a wrong word choice, but not, regardless of widespread usage, a good one. 

Disagree? Here’s an n-gram graph showing “reap the consequences” vs “feel the consequences” (alternate version: reaped vs felt) usage from 1800-2000. Through the 1800’s and early 1900’s consequences were largely felt, now writers have collectively decided that consequences are reaped as much as felt. I don’t like the trend.

How do you feel about these: I gathered the consequences. I collected the consequences. I acquired the consequences. I gained the consequences. I procured the consequences.? I don’t like them one bit and they mean the same the thing as ‘reap the consequences’. Throw in the adverb ‘painful’ and those sound even more jarring. That’s where I’m coming from.

How much is the idiom ‘reap what you sow’ to blame for this? I don’t know. Like most idioms, the definition of ‘reap what you sow’ (harvest what you plant) is stretched when you swap out the original words, such as ‘harvest the consequences of your choice.]

Now back to the false choice between the Bush tax cuts and still-felt painful consequences.  Is that a real choice? Probably not. Any number of “real choices” could’ve been made–most of them being measures taken to prevent the creation or collapse of the housing market, or at the very least stopping the housing market anchor from being tied to the legs of the banking system–to avoid altogether, or at least ameliorate, the pain we now feel. Buch cuts aren’t alone as Ruth’s choice implies.

Finally we have plain old factual inaccuracy. The false choice Bush quote is from a 2006 Bush speech on his budget proposal, and, even though Ruth links to the speech, she refers to the 2001 surplus. Let’s assume the 2001 Bush tax cuts alone “spent” down the budget surplus; I doubt that the 2006 Bush false choice references those cuts. What’s far more likely, given that Bush says “cutting the deficit”, is he’s referring to the 2003 tax cuts made when the US had, at that time, a record deficit and opponents of the cuts said that we couldn’t tax cut our way back up.

So to sum up. The false choice as a rhetorical device is bad. The Ruth Marcus column on this badness is also bad.

See also: Clive Crook points out more Ruth Marcus writing badness.

If anyone followed the bullshit lyric link to Yahoo! answers for a discussion of Sheryl Crow’s poetic greatness in Soak Up the Sun, I love the line from the cynic who, among the many resounding YES!es, said:

No it is not profound, it is lyrical gibberish. You think the poor folks in Darfur want the starvation, drought & war, ’cause that’s what they got. Sheryl Crow has written a piece of middle-class bullbutt.
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