Over at the Current/Anchor, Justin Katz has written a, I don’t know what to call it really, but let’s call it a rebuttal, to a piece I wrote here on RI Future on RIILE, a local nativist hate group that on Friday held a protest against refugee children being housed in Rhode Island. Note that this rally was held despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that any such refugee children are coming to Rhode Island. The entire rally was based on fear and conspiracy theory.
Katz begins his piece rather elliptically, talking about how people of one time can’t be easily pigeon-holed into the societies of the past, given the obvious differences in politics and social mores. “Would Theodore Roosevelt,” Katz asks, “call himself a ‘progressive’ if he’d been born in 1958 instead of 1858?” Katz seems to indicate that counterfactual speculations have obvious limits, and that “it’s wise to be wary” of those who indulge in such speculation.
Then Katz goes on to unwisely speculate that if I were alive in a different time and place, I’d be something akin to a Nazi propagandist.
This exercise in pseudo-intellectual name calling would be funny, if I thought for a second that Katz was kidding, but he isn’t, and that’s really sad.
In writing his logical Gordian Knot, Katz composes lines such as, “I’d suggest, for example, that the real heirs of past oppressors are not the people who might share specific policy ideas with them or who are other than the Others whom the oppressors oppressed.”
To which I can only reply, “What the hell are you talking about?”
When Katz finally gets to the meat of his critique, he concentrates on the logical fallacies I supposedly committed in constructing my piece. For instance, by citing the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an authority on hate groups, I supposedly made an argument from authority, because as Katz points out, “In reality, the SPLC is a progressive hatchet organization whose work has inspired at least one terroristic shooting.”
In fact, however, I made no such argument from authority. I presented the fact that, “The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified both FAIR and ALIPAC as Nativist hate groups based on their rhetoric.” I then went on to present some of the evidence that the SPLC presented in favor of their determination. I never said that FAIR and ALIPAC were hate groups because the SPLC said so, I presented the reader evidence (and links to further evidence) so the reader could make that determination (or not) for themselves.
Based on the evidence presented, and based on the fact that RIILE has close associations to both groups and espouses similar rhetoric, I made the claim that RIILE is also a nativist hate group.
Ah, Katz might say, rubbing his hands gleefully before attacking his keyboard, ‘But you made the fallacy of guilt by association! Just because someone is closely associated with someone else and espouses the same point of view, that doesn’t mean you can paint them with the same brush!’ (Note: the previous actions and quote by Katz were dramatizations, not actual actions or quotes.)
Katz would have you believe that I claimed RIILE is a bad group because of its ties to ALIPAC and FAIR, which are bad groups. This isn’t the case. RIILE is bad because of its ugly rhetoric, racism and policy positions, and I point out the association with ALIPAC and FAIR to show that such local groups don’t just crop up out of nowhere, they are supported by national movements. In other words, that racism and misanthropy you’re seeing at the border is being spread to our state by national hate groups preying on the fearful and gullible, the very people who make up the ranks of RIILE.
But what’s funniest about Katz’s paragraph on guilt by association is the fact that he commits that very fallacy himself in the paragraph’s first line. “In reality, the SPLC is a progressive hatchet organization whose work has inspired at least one terroristic shooting.” Why should the SPLC be guilty of a crime committed by a gunman who picked his target off their website? Isn’t that the exact same kind of guilt by association Katz is complaining about? (Assuming of course, that Katz understands what guilt by association really is.) I’m sure Katz would never suggest that the Catholic Church, in taking a strong stand against abortion, is guilty by association of the murder of Dr. Tiller.
Katz later accuses me of an ad hominem attack when I wrote:
These then, are the people in Rhode Island who lack compassion, are ruled by fear and susceptible to nonsensical conspiracy theory. These are the people who see a humanitarian crisis and respond with thinly veiled racism, stupidity and xenophobia. These are, without a doubt, the very worst people Rhode Island has to offer, and I find solace in the fact that they are not only small in spirit, but small in number and small in support.
These are not ad hominem attacks. These are judgments I made, based on the evidence as I saw it. I presented evidence for each of the claims I made, and then plainly stated the claims. I didn’t say that the members of RIILE at the State House rally were flatulent, or on drugs, or mentally unstable. These statements, whether they were true or false, would have been beside the point, and therefore ad hominem. I was precise in my attack, and presented evidence for every charge.
Katz’s charge of argumentum ad populum, the idea that members of RIILE are wrong because they are in the minority, is also misapplied. I did not say that RIILE was wrong because they are in the minority, I said that I am glad that their opinions reflect a minority of Rhode Islanders. That members of RIILE are wrong is beside the point.
Katz’s last attack was to accuse me of dehumanizing my opponents:
On the thin gruel of his logical fallacies, Ahlquist insists that these Rhode Islanders with whom he disagrees are:
- not only misapplying their compassion, but completely devoid of it, as if inhuman
- overwhelmed with fear and lies
- primal in their racism, intellectually deformed, and fearful of fellow human beings as of a foreign species
The key point, here, isn’t exactly that Ahlquist’s rhetoric finds an eerie echo in the works of other propagandists who have targeted different minorities throughout history, but that he arrives there through tribal thinking that affirms his own sense of moral superiority. These are the evil Other, whereas he is a moral exemplar.
I do not think of myself as a moral exemplar, but I do try to speak with a clear moral voice. Whatever my failings as a person may be, like all people, I have the right to articulate my moral judgments, and if I sometimes fail to live up to the high standards I have set for myself, that makes me like everyone else on this planet:
I never said that members of RIILE were “inhuman,” I never said that they were “the evil Other” and I never called the members of RIILE “contemptibly subhuman.” These are the words Katz chose for me. The words I used were, “fearful, mean-spirited person,” “people… who lack compassion” and “the very worst people Rhode Island has to offer.”
I was careful to call members of RIILE persons and people because they are not monsters, they are in fact very, very human. People are not always nice. They are not always compassionate, brave or rigorous in their thinking. Sometimes they are mean-spirited, fearful and stupid.
I suspect, sadly, that Katz reacted as strongly as he did because of his own religious intolerance. Towards the end of his piece, Katz writes:
I don’t know if the zealotry with which [Ahlquist] seeks to use government to impose his atheism as the one true religion means that he would have been equally zealous in persecuting religious minorities when some other worldview held the reins of power.
Here Katz makes his ultimate argument. He hints at this throughout, but wraps it up here:
Steve Ahlquist is an evil atheist and if transplanted back in time, he would be a Nazi propagandist, or worse.
Talk about dehumanizing.