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Argle Bargles (And Other Beasts)

March 17, 2005
By Pamela Troy

Whenever I start to consider our current state of moral and intellectual free-fall, I find myself thinking of a lecture on a database I attended several years ago. During the talk, various screens from the database were projected on a blank white wall in front of the audience. Included in this display was a fairly straightforward search screen for users browsing through address ranges. A field for the street number range, a field for the street name, and a field for the suffix - that is, the words "street, avenue, boulevard," etc. A woman sitting near the front, however, seemed to find it unsatisfactory, and she raised her hand.

"Doing a range search by address like that will do us absolutely no good," she said. "You see, here in this city we have 12th Street and 12th Avenue. If I just put in the street number range and street name, it's going to give me ranges from two different streets in two entirely different parts of town!"

An amused murmur rippled through the audience, and the lecturer looked a little startled. "Actually, ma'am," he said, "where I come from we also have that issue, for instance, we have a Smith Street and a Smith Avenue, and we use this very same database with no trouble at all because..."

"That is absolutely not the same thing," she snapped. "Let me repeat - we have 12th Street and 12th Avenue, not Smith Street and..."

The entire audience burst into laughter, and I could see the woman's neighbor leaning over to explain to her why, pointing also at the world "Suffix" on the screen. By the time the laughter died down, the point was made, the woman was silent and the lecture continued.

What does this have with our current situation? Well, consider for a moment how that conversation would have gone if, for some reason, the viability of the database were tied to the Democratic Party. The result would have been, not a moment's interruption of the lecture by a single person, but a hard-fought wrangle between Republicans and Democrats taking up the better part of an hour, if not the rest of the afternoon and the days that followed.

Word about it would have spread on right-wing web-sites and it would have become a major talking point among Republicans. Tucker Carlson would have laughed about it, citing the database as an example of the bizarre illogic that forms liberal thinking. Rush Limbaugh would have described the screen (minus the suffix field) on his show, assuring his audience, "I am not making this up!" The more brazen Ann Coulter would have included the screen in its entirety as a graphic in her latest book (which, following the ascending arc of Slander and Treason will be entitled Cannibalism: The Hidden Plank in the Democratic Party Platform.) Wolf Blitzer, Aaron Brown, and Tim Russert would have evinced polite bafflement over it and pointed it out as evidence of the Democrats' inability to remain focused. The fact that a database search that could distinguish Smith Street from Smith Avenue could also distinguish 12th Street from 12th Avenue would have been treated by many normally intelligent commentators not as a logical given, but as a conundrum utterly beyond their grasp.

As someone who has frequented online discussion boards since the early 1980s, I became familiar with irrationalism as a tactic long before it began manifesting itself regularly offline. One of the givens in any Internet forum is that there are always at least one or two participants whose personal mission is not to debate, but to short circuit debate and stamp out intelligent discussion wherever it appears.

Perhaps because the online term for such pests is "trolls" I've always pictured the tactics they use to end rational discussion as creatures with a horrible life of their own. These animals have lurked on the online world for years and have in the past couple years gained enough strength to break out and stalk the halls of Fox and CNN, and the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. You may even encounter them at your favorite diner, family gatherings, or your place of work. They're everywhere.

This piece is an attempt to impose a little sanity by at least categorizing some of the forms taken in this war against reason. Where possible, I've also included examples both online and in the real world. Hopefully, this can serve as a useful field-guide to modern explorers attempting to navigate early 21st century political discussion.

We start with the most basic and primitive of these beasts, the animal from which most of the others are descended:

THE ARGLE BARGLE

"'Argle bargle morble whoosh?' said Frito." - Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings

With its rejection of language as language, the Argle Bargle rivals the ameba in its primal simplicity. The fiction driving it is that every now and then the writer or speaker likes to type or utter nonsense syllables, an innocent pastime that is sometimes unfairly exploited by malicious observers. At the lecture I described above, the Argle Bargle response to the young man's explanation about the database would be feigned bafflement that anyone could infer that the statement "doing a range search by address like that will do absolutely no good," meant that the search wouldn't work. The woman would conclude by sighing heavily and saying, "Look, if I offended you, I'm sorry, but I really can't be responsible for your weird interpretation of an offhand, completely innocent remark."

Because the Argle Bargle is so primitive, relatively few writers or politicians rely on it, preferring its more sophisticated cousins. (See the Blinkard, the Amnesiac, etc.)

Ann Coulter, whose entire ouevre qualifies as an extended Argle Bargle, is an exception.

THE AMNESIAC

The Amnesiac can conveniently "forget" things like earlier statements, salient facts, even the actual subject of the discussion, but its most common manifestation involves the Amnesiac "forgetting" what s/he hasn't done. When asked a direct question the Amnesiac will doggedly stall, evade, and obfuscate, then insist after a few minutes later that s/he's already given an answer.

If an Amnesiac were present at the database lecture, for example, his/her response might be to respond to the lecturer's observation about the database being successfully used in New Jersey with, "Well, I recently read an article about the rather serious troubles you are having with that database in New Jersey." The lecturer, naturally enough, asks where this article was published. There follows an extended exchange in which the Amnesiac pleads forgetfulness, discretion, time constraints, any reason possible for not answering. After more than fifteen minutes of this, the Amnesiac suddenly looks surprised and exasperated, announces, "But I told you where to look it up five minutes ago," and sticks to it.

Currently, the most famous off-line Amnesiac is Scott McClellan.

THE BLINKARD

The expression comes from the old custom of putting blinkers on skittish draft horses, eye-guards that cut off peripheral sights that might distract the animal and make it shy. The Blinkard is aware that his or her own argument won't pull if exposed to such distractions as context, logical consistency, and precedent, so s/he imposes such a limited definition of being "on topic" that just about anything short of agreement or arguing about the actual spelling of the words the Blinkard has used is deemed to be off the subject.

The Blinkard's reaction to the lecturer would be to interrupt, with the air of a reasonable soul good-naturedly striving to get a discussion back on track, "Whoa, whoa, waitaminute, waitaminute! What in the world does Smith Street in New Jersey have to do with 12th Street in San Francisco? It's what, several thousand miles away? I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to insist that you stay on the subject and stop trying to distract us from this problem with your database that I've uncovered by reminiscing about your hometown. It's just not germane!"

The beauty of this gambit lies in its audacious willingness to harness the power of raw stupidity. The Blinkard is claiming to suffer from an inability to make logical connections that, if uncovered in an IQ test, would likely result in the diagnosis of a serious cognitive deficit. Since Blinkards typically show enough of a grasp of how language works to frame complex sentences and spell words correctly, this is probably a conscious tactic rather than a genuine disability.

Offline, look for them on Sunday Morning talk shows, especially those that involve panels.

THE COWARDLY LION

The term comes from that unforgettable scene in The Wizard of Oz when Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion stands on its hind legs and, tail lashing, snarls, "C'mon, put-em-up, put-em-uuuuup!" - just before bursting into tears when Dorothy smacks him on the nose. The Cowardly Lion will quite often initiate discussions by working him/herself into a lather demanding opponents to step into the fray so that s/he can have the pleasure of "demolishing" their arguments. When faced with an a taker, s/he will suddenly adopt a slightly harassed, world-weary air and announce that really, s/he's above these kind of fisticuffs and has no intention of lowering him/herself by taking part in them. S/he will maintain this pose throughout the rest of the discussion while other participants vainly try to coax him/her out from under the bed.

The Cowardly Lion's response to the exchange would be to cross his/her arms and sigh heavily, then, just as the lecturer gets to the part about Smith Street, raise his/her hands in protest and say, with the air of a reasonable soul finally pushed to the end of their tether, "No, really, look, look, I have no intention of being drawn into this. I'm sorry... really. Now, I simply raised a point about a problem with your database and you obviously have no adequate response, so let's not waste everyone's time, all right? Life is just too short for this..."

Offline, the most famous Cowardly Lions are Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. They also can crop up in any televised event involving unvetted questions from the audience, or on news shows where the anchor-person is interviewing someone from outside the Beltway.

THE GRAVEL THROWER

The Gravel Thrower is aware that some response rather than outrage or flight is called for in a debate. S/he has a rough idea that when person A makes a comment, person B is expected to oppose it, but the nuances of opposition - like the difference between a response that is to the point and a response that is not - are not understood. The Gravel Thrower simply grabs a handful of whatever first comes to mind - quotes from like-minded souls, genuine or perceived past misdeeds of the opposition that have no bearing on the subject, misapplied debate terms, wild generalizations, off-topic cites, perhaps a touch of personal disparagement - and hurls it, hoping some of the litter will hit the target.

An example of the typical Gravel Thrower's response to the lecturer's comment, "we use this very same database search for addresses with no trouble at all," would be, "Well, that's all well and good, but you are engaging here in a false dichotomy, since I'm talking about 12th Street, not Smith Street. And would that town you're talking about by any chance be the same town where your company's Vice President's secretary got pulled for drunk driving? Would it be that same database that had a problem with e-mailing attached photos to customers? Hmmmm? I think David Smith, the CEO of your West Coast competition says it all when he says, in a comment posted on his company website, 'East Coasters don't know a database from a spreadsheet!'"

This response imposes a double burden on the discussion in that its victim is forced, before even beginning to defend his premise, to clear away all the rubbish that's just been flung in his face and explain why he did not offer a false dichotomy, and why the secretary's drunk driving citation, the e-mail snafu, and David Smith's prejudice against east coasters are all beside the point. As a result, the discussion is derailed for a bit, and a number of pointless comments on drunk driving, e-mail problems, and New Yorkers from fellow Gravel Throwers can blossom while the lecturer vainly tries to return to the subject of range searches.

Classic Gravel Throwing used to be most frequently seen on 60 Minutes when Mike Wallace was moving in for the kill while interviewing corrupt corporate executives. A dearth of investigative reporting combined with the proliferation of other, more hardy beasts has thinned that breed out and made offline spottings relatively rare. Jeff Gannon, Les Kinsolver, and others used a version during White House press briefings in which the power of Gravel Throwing is harnessed as a means of allowing its target to take refuge from hostile questioning in a smokescreen of irrelevancies.

HUMPTY DUMPTY SQUARED

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'" - Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass

Humpty Dumpties have been endemic on the Internet ever since the introduction of online bulletin boards, but with the rise of irrationality in public discourse, practitioners have gone Lewis Carroll's version one better. They will not only claim the right to apply new and fascinating definitions to well-known terms, but will pretend that their definition is well-established popular usage.

This bizarre gambit became popular online in the 90s shortly after the publication of The Bell Curve. Numerous online conservatives and libertarians evinced surprise and amusement that those wacky liberals would actually consider the premise that people of African descent were significantly and unchangeably less intelligent than those of European descent "racism" fergawdsake! It's found a new life recently with some right-wingers trying to confine the definition of "terrorism" strictly to dark-skinned foreigners hijacking jets in the name of Allah (as opposed to pale-skinned middle-America types firebombing clinics in the name of Christ) and Bush administration officials trying to redefine "torture" so it doesn't include drowning, beating, sleep deprivation, and sodomizing somebody with a light tube.

A Humpty Dumpty Squared approach to the database lecture would be to simply announce one's disappointment, sadly observing, "We were led to believe that we were going to hear a lecture on a new database, but plainly we were misled. Instead, we've wasted our time hearing your babble on and on about a collection of data stored on computer and organized for rapid search and retrieval! I'm sure I speak for everyone here when I say that it's the weirdest version of a database we've ever seen!"

"Next you're probably going to try to get us to believe that Microsoft Access is a database!"

KAFFEEKLATSCHERS

Kaffeeklatschers tend to clump together around online debate boards, but offline they are also found at office lunchroom tables and diner counters. Within the circles they move they are accustomed to their opinion being greeted with nods and murmurs of agreement or at worst, mild demurrals about whether Hillary Clinton qualifies as consciously Satanic from birth or merely irredeemably corrupt as a result of her marriage to Clinton.

Since the Kaffeeklatscher is not conscious enough of the merits or demerits of an argument to register anything other than the appalling fact that someone disagrees, the response of the kaffeeklatscher will be the same whether the voiced disagreement is polite, rude, well-thought out, or just plain crazy. The Kaffeeklascher response to the exchange I've described at the lecture, for instance, would have first been a shocked silence. Then the woman would have exclaimed "I've never heard of such a thing! Why are you behaving in this manner? I make a simple observation about a problem with your database and you... you attack me!"

In the row behind her, a fellow Kaffeeklatscher would pat her comfortingly on the shoulder, while another, a few seats down, would look coldly at the lecturer and observe in a voice deadened with carefully suppressed hatred, "Well, everyone's entitled to their own opinion, I guess." Any attempt by the lecturer to either explain his own position or get the Kaffeeklatschers to expand on their own comments will result in more of the same.

If anyone in the audience attempts to explain the lecturer's point, the Kaffeeklatschers will draw a little closer together and relapse into silence, but only after darkly implying those audience members are covertly in league with the lecturer and are engaging in an organized attack, possibly planned well in advance.

This breed has recently become especially visible in the media due to the Bush administration's policy of rounding up sympathetic Kaffeeklatschers and using them for televised Town Hall Meetings.

THE PROUDLY IGNORANT

At one time it was considered somewhat important to actually know something about the subject being discussed. If a requested cite in an online discussion didn't pan out or could not even be provided, the citer generally evinced at least a little embarrassment about it. Today, unfettered by this elitist, reality-based viewpoint, posters to chatrooms and online bulletin boards are free so say pretty much whatever they want about Hitler being a leftist, Al Gore being unable to spell the word "potato," and no legal voters being turned away from the Florida polls in the 2000 election.

If faced with an actual cite involving dates, names, publications etc., the Proudly Ignorant will observe with amused dignity that, unlike the person who's gone through the trouble of actually digging up this information, they have a life, and are really too busy to waste time browsing through silly ol' archives and libraries just to prove a point.

The Proudly Ignorant response to the database discussion would be a wondering shake of the head with the comment, "Well, it's nice that you've had the time to waste reading up on all this, but most of us have jobs and families and just have to rely on our own common sense and experience. Maybe you should get your head out of that book on databases, and get a little of that yourself!"

Interestingly enough, an offshoot of the Proudly Ignorant gambit seems to have completely taken over mainstream journalism, the slight difference being that they consider it a point of honor to proudly pretend to be ignorant. The Church of the Subgenius saying, "Act like an idiot and they'll treat you like an equal," has been taken to heart by television journalists who, when dealing with DC Insiders on nationally broadcast panels, know better than to publicly correct the man in the expensive suit when he tells viewers that citizens of the United States have one of the longest (rather than the shortest) life expectancies among western industrialized nations.

THE ROFL

The ROFL is the first part of a two-step most commonly danced by Republicans after the Bush administration has enacted some especially egregious policy. The ROFL begins by ridiculing as paranoid and ridiculous the very notion that a policy is in place (online the letters "R.O.F.L." meaning "Rolling On the Floor Laughing" are posted early on as a sort of flag) then, after a short time has passed, the ROFL shifts smoothly into ridiculing denunciations of the policy as ridiculous.

Thus, the unpleasant moment when you have to actually say, for instance, "The government should be able to pick up American citizens and hold them in secret without lawyers or hearings" is avoided by simply jumping from pretended disbelief into justifying it as a fait accompli.

Offline, Tucker Carlson remains the unquestioned champion of The ROFL, in spite of his disastrous attempt at using it during Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire. (Ironically, the ROFL can backfire badly when used against a competent and witty comedian.)

These are just a few of the serviceable beasts that can be found infesting modern political debate. There are many more, some discovered and some as yet undiscovered as the wonders of a non-reality based viewpoint alters our intellectual environment. I just hope this helps people here in making their way through the jungle of American political rhetoric and dealing with its strange inhabitants, who have adapted themselves so uniquely to an environment cut off from physical laws and reality as we know it.

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