Someone asked me in email last week what I thought of James O’Keefe’s video expose of ACORN, specifically whether I thought it was unfair or distorted because O’Keefe wasn’t showing all of the videos where ACORN staff didn’t rise to the bait.
Sure, yes, that’s not fair. But don’t come complaining about cherrypicking attacks of this kind unless you’re fairly consistently against them, unless you’re first concerned with the ethics of how you use evidence. You can’t say that it’s ok for Michael Moore to do it and then complain when someone imitates his tactics. The reverse, of course, is also true: if you thought O’Keefe raised very serious questions about ACORN as a whole organization blah blah blah, then you must be very impressed with Michael Moore’s thorough and careful indictment of the health care system or of contemporary capitalism.
I would be the first to say that Moore can do some pretty funny and clever agitprop, mind you. But if we’re just talking about the aesthetics of being a provocateur, O’Keefe is no slouch. As entertainment, it all falls under the same broad heading that Jackass and Punk’d and similar sorts of latter-day Candid Camera programming, and there’s some appeal to that genre of schadenfreude. I wouldn’t want documentary or polemic to have to skew to the completely opposite end of the scale and be nothing but Ken Burns-style snoozefests, safe for the NPR pledge drive and soccer moms but of no use otherwise.
Still, if you want to treat any cherrypicked playing-to-the-peanut-galleries work as actually persuasive, though, congratulations on paving the road to Idiocracy. What bugs me more is trying to raise a selective stink about this kind of work just when it comes from political opponents.
There’s really only two ways for me to read someone who comes knocking around trying to raise the alarm at that kind of moment.
Either the only thing that really matters to the person complaining is that it’s their opponents that are doing it. In which case, complaining about rhetorical or evidentiary standards is just an attempt to mobilize people who care more about those standards than which faction is doing it. As soon as the controversy dies down, the partisan is likely to go right back to complaining about the centrist or independent or non-aligned person who is worried first about standards of argument or about the basis for collective action and second about the content of a given political argument. So don’t come knocking on the door and pretending to be concerned if you’re just trying to concern-troll some people onto some “me-too” bandwagon.
If, on the other hand, how we argue matters, the standards for evidence matter, if the point is to maintain some kind of rigor when we’re considering collective action or making public decisions, then it needs to matter even when you’re hearing a message that’s otherwise appealing to you. You can’t get away with privately supplying the serious evidence that you personally know about if that’s wholly lacking from the polemic in question, or taking out odious manipulations in favor of imagined probity.