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
"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
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
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
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 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 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 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
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
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 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 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
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.