Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thoughts on the 'Ransom-Note Method' and the Twelfth Commandment

Ed Driscoll says he doesn't know whether it was me or Kathy Shaidle who coined the term "Ransom-Note Method" to describe the way the Left uses selective quotation to smear its targets.

It was me, but with a caveat: The Ransom-Note Method was actually first labeled such by another one of its victims, a friend of mine who hasn't claimed credit for the coinage and whose name I therefore can't reveal.

The term derives from the way the smear merchants typically assemble their smears by quoting a phrase here, two words there, and two sentences from something else, and then gluing it together with their own perjorative interpolations and a bit of guilt-by-association, much like a kidnapper cutting out words from a magazine to paste together a ransom note.

This was how Rush Limbaugh's "I want him to fail" remark became such a scandalous thing. As Jeff Goldstein has pointed out, if you read Limbaugh's remarks in context -- I actually heard the whole monologue as Rush did it live on the radio -- it is very clear the point he was making:
Obama is trying to implement a liberal agenda. I am not a liberal, and I think liberalism is bad for the country. Therefore, I hope Obama fails in his attempt to implement it.
The only thing really "controversial" in Rush's monologue is the belief that liberalism is a bad thing, which is something that every real conservative ought to believe. And Limbaugh, as he made clear from the outset, was responding to a "major American print publication" which was "asking a handful of very prominent politicians, statesmen, scholars, businessmen, commentators, and economists to write 400 words on their hope for the Obama presidency."

Stimuli and Responses
The fact that Limbaugh's "I hope he fails" was a response to such an insipid inquiry -- this newspaper was actually framing their inaugural commentary in terms of "Hope," the Obama campaign's own propaganda slogan -- has received too little attention. One of the basic tactics of the Ransom-Note Method is to separate the stimulus from the response in this manner. In other words, someone sees or hears something outrageous, says or writes something outrageous in response, and the smear merchants then isolate the response, so that it is presented without adequate reference to whatever stimulus produced it.

BTW, sometimes conservatives are guilty of using the same technique, turning a 15-second audio clip into an hour's worth of a talk-radio denunciation. Unfair rhetorical methods are unfair rhetorical methods, whoever employs them. (Where I come from, I never heard of a "fair fight.") But the way the Left uses this tactic is wicked. What makes the Ransom-Note Method so lethally effective? Three things:
  • Liberal dominance in major media. Having worked more than two decades in the news business, I never had a real newsroom argument about politics until I stopped being a Democrat. The extent to which the Democratic hegemony among journalists actually produces bias, well, you can argue that with Bernie Goldberg if you want. My point is that journalists in general are more receptive to negative reports about Republicans, and therefore smears against Republicans get more traction in the media. George F. Allen's "macaca" ran on the front page of the Washington Post for seven consecutive days. QED.
  • The imputation of bad faith. One of the tricks of effective propaganda is to connect a new accusation to what "everybody knows" -- that is, to present new information in a way that reinforces the pre-existing beliefs of Conventional Wisdom. Liberals have labored mightily for decades to convince Americans that Republicans are evil racist sexist bigoted homophobes, and so when a conservative says something that can be construed as reinforcing that perception, the smear-mongers say, "A-ha! See? We told you so!" The issue then becomes not so much the specific facts of the latest accusation, but rather the larger question of bad faith (mala fides). No one ever credibly suggested that George Allen hated Indian-Americans, but "macaca" was contextualized as part of the "Republicans are racists" meme, an accusation of bad faith, so that nothing Allen said in his own defense could get a fair hearing.
  • Republican cowardice. Few things infuriate me so much as the cringing defensiveness of Republicans who think they can concede every premise of the liberal syllogism and yet expect voters to come to some other conclusion than "Vote Democrat." Too many Republicans have that cowardly punk reflex where, whenever there's a fight, their first concern is for their own safety, rather than trying to win the fight. So when they saw George Allen under assault for "macaca," too many Republicans were silent and did not stand up to denounce the unfair and untrue accusations of racism against him.
You see this "punk factor" in the GOP all the time, but never so much as when unfair charges are leveled against a prominent conservative fighter like Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. A cowardly punk never admires or strives to emulate success, but always envies and resents it. The punk's habitual modus operandi is to encourage others to join his efforts to undermine the prestige and authority of successful leadership. The punk assembles a coalition of losers, an army of naysayers who sit around griping and grumbling about everything, telling each other how unfairly they've been treated, and blaming all their woes on the successful people.

Opportunities for Opportunists
Success is attractive. But any successful effort also attracts cowardly punks, who desire to benefit parasitically from the vision and hard work of others. And so during what we might call The Golden Age of Conservatism -- the 25 years from Reagan's 1981 inauguration to the GOP debacle of the 2006 election -- the conservative movement attracted a lot of shrewd self-interested people who saw the "conservative" label as a vehicle for their own personal ambition. Hello, David Brooks.

American Spectator publisher Al Regnery was born and raised in the conservative movement and worked in the Reagan administration. His father, Henry Regnery, published many of the classic works of conservatism, including William F. Buckley Jr.'s God and Man at Yale. Last spring, I interviewed Regnery about his book Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism. I asked Regnery for his thoughts on how the movement had seemed to lose its way in recent years, and his reply was memorable:
"You look back in the earlier times, there were no opportunities, so there were no opportunists," Regnery says, noting how liberals heaped abusive epithets on Buckley, Goldwater, and other early conservative leaders. "Later on, you have all these people who figure it's probably a pretty good political thing to do. And so they start talking about being conservative when they're running [for office], but they really aren't. So when they get to Congress or wherever they go, they're pretty easily dissuaded."
Regnery was speaking specifically about Republican politicians, but what he said could be applied with equal truth to "conservative" intellectuals like David Brooks -- parasites who latched onto The Movement for the opportunities it offered, rather than from any courageous conviction of the need to stand athwart history and yell, "Stop!"

The Crapweasel Coalition
When the chips are down, when the GOP is hurting from electoral disaster, when the conservative movement is discordant and demoralized, nothing helpful or constructive can be expected from the David Brookses, the parasitical opportunists, the pathetic fleas who ride on the elephant's ass.

Brooks revealed himself as a worthless punk with his "National Greatness" nonsense in 1997, which ought to have resulted in his immediate disfellowship as a heretic to the faith. Yet because he was deemed useful to the ambitions of others -- having kissed all the right asses in his sycophantic ascent -- Brooks was allowed to remain in the congregation, sowing discontent and promoting heresy among fellow congregants, which brought him to the attention of the New York Times.

Here's a clue for the youngsters: If the New York Times ever offers to publish you, you're doing something wrong.

It is cowardly punks like David Brooks, and all their sorry crapweasel imitators, who make the Ransom Note Method such an effective weapon for liberals. What has become known as "the 11th Commandment" -- Thou shalt speak no ill of a fellow Republican -- is usually, and wrongly, attributed to Ronald Reagan, and it is also widely misunderstood.

The 11th Commandment was actually coined by California state Republican Party chairman Gaylord Parkinson during the 1966 GOP gubernatorial primary. Parkinson had seen how, during the fight for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, the milquetoast moderate opponents of Barry Goldwater had done the Democrats' dirty work for them, by labeling Goldwater a radical warmongering demagogue. Thus, once Goldwater won the nomination, all LBJ's henchmen had to do was to repeat the accusation: "Barry Goldwater is a paranoid wacko extremist -- as even his fellow Republicans agree!"

David Brooks is not a candidate for public office and is therefore not covered by the 11th Commandment. Thus to denounce him is no sin and, as a neutral objective professional journalist, my first obligation is to the write The Truth: David Brooks is a crapweasel.

Furthermore, the next time some genuine conservative who's trying to accomplish something useful says something subject to misinterpretation and thus finds himself under attack by the Ransom Note Method, I will invoke what I call the 12th Commandment:
Thou shalt have no mercy on a crapweasel.
Don't say you weren't warned, punks.

UPDATE: "Read the whole thing," says Kathy Shaidle, and aren't you glad you did? Think about it: Would any wise man risk The Wrath of Kathy by disobeying her?

UPDATE II: Another woman whose righteous wrathfulness reminds me of my wife, Monique Stuart advises, "It’s well worth a thorough read!"

UPDATE III: "If you don't read it, my Irish wife will hunt you down and kill you."

UPDATE IV: "The Other McCain once again enlightens on the nuts-and-bolts of the manipulation of thought through the manipulation of language."

UPDATE V: Dad29 praises "this perceptive observation."

UPDATE VI: James Fulford links and comments.

UPDATE VII: WELCOME, INSTAPUNDIT READERS! Please leave a comment, buy a book, check out Britney Spears, or watch this inspirational video.

UPDATE VIII: Now a Memeorandum thread (Rule 3), we're linked by Pat at So It Goes In Shreveport and Chris at Point of a Gun. Meanwhile, No Sheeples Here came up with this artwork:

UPDATE IX: Speaking of artwork, Lady Godiva invokes Commandment XII, even if she's a little confused as to the Seventh Day.


  1. The NYT's own kept "conservative." That's not a crapweasel! That's a registered purebred doberman!

  2. But what if you say deliberately provocative things while daring people to repeat them out of context, i.e. saying that you hope to see "I Hope He Fails" requoted, out of context, with your name attached, across the country (starting with you, Drudge)?

  3. Hear, hear!
    I am sick of republican cowardice and compromise!
    We are in a fight for the future of political and economic ideology, and with it ultimately the future of our world. There is no room for cowardice.

  4. Bravo, Stacy.

    The left dictates our discourse and redefines our arguments. I'm tired of putting up the politically uninformed buying into crap like:

    - "I hope he fails"
    - "100 years in Iraq"
    - "I can see Russia from my front yard"

    It's all one big out-of-context smear.

    This is kind of thing that forced us to invent a new verb to describe what the media ( - and left - but I repeat myself!) were up to days after Palin was announced for the VP slot: "palinizing".

    And it all goes to this tendency that the left loves, and the media lazily attaches to, of making it about a person, and avoiding any real discussion on policy. From Justice Thomas to "Bush Hitler", it's all ad hominem, all the time. If you can piece together an out of context quote to seal the deal, all the better!

    It's how we end up with the electorate coming to results like this.

    My two biggest passions within politics are liberty and discourse. I'm afraid we're currently lacking, severely, in both. And lacking in the later is no small part for why we are on a path to lose more and more of the former.

  5. Whoa, I landed here from Instapundit! :D I clicked a link! Who knew?

    No chance of getting the "Reach Around Award" as my blog is about being an ER nurse, but hey! I can at least subscribe! : ) Any blog that gets me laughing at 0544 on a Sunday morning is destined for an RSS feed right into my mailbox...

  6. Excellent post. I think the opportunism of the faux-conservatives is key in explaining why the R party is such a shambles. Pols said they were conservative - but spent just as fast as any liberal.

  7. California Indian tribes demanded an apology from Arnold after he said they were "Ripping us off". Arnold said he wasn't going to apologize, "they ARE ripping us off!". The issue quickly went away and the proposition to increase gaming taxes passed. It was probably the first time any politician publicly stood up to the Indian tribes. It was also Arnold's high point in office.

  8. I like this characterization. The ransom note method is also evil because it takes one quote and extrapolates whether that person is right or wrong about other issues. For example if I make two statements, "I am an atheist" and "I believe statism is slavery", which are both true, then you can feel free to share common cause with me on #2 and disagree with me on #1 if that's your belief, or vice versa. So the idea that you repudiate and/or disregard someone based upon one or two things that you disagree with - especially if its an out of context quote as you point out - is just lazy thinking. -Tristan

  9. Bobby Jindal's speech to the RNCC made that same point (among others). You can find it online. Basically, he said that if people ask him if he wants Obama to fail - and expecting only a resounding NO - Jindal said that what he wants is for America to succeed, and if Obama's policies lead to that end, the he wants him to succeed.

    When his policies cut taxes on job providers, lead to responsible government, then he wants him to succeed.

    But when Obama wants to spend us into interminable debt (for example), then Jindal says we must oppose - because we want America to succeed.

    Asking "do you want Obama to fail" is really a "when did you stop beating your children" kind of question.

    And there are quite a few things that the administration is doing, that I really hope they do not succeed.

  10. Your link to this over at Taki said:

    "Bradford continued to do brilliant work, but the choice of Bennett was a clear sign that mainstream Republicanism was unwilling to endure important cultural controversy for the sake of principle."

    You note this habit continues.

    But if the GOP won't engage in the cultural controversy necessary to win or defend, why keep supporting them?

    They'll keep caving to the leftist conventional wisdom, thus creating space for something more hideous for Democratic activists to propose.

    All the real fights are going on in the Democratic Party. Why not launch a quixotic crusade within their ranks instead of backing the party of ineffective crapweasels?