The Failings of Humorless Groucho-Marxism in a Multidimensional World

My friend and sometime colleague, Christopher Roper-Schell, reacted in this publication to an article he misread and consequently misrepresented in his critique. Analyzing the damage done helps us to understand what the concept of being a fair observer can mean.

Businessman wearing a disguise of glasses with thick eyebrows and mustache looking at camera with blank expression © PeskyMonkey / shutterstock.com

June 05, 2024 07:20 EDT

At Fair Observer, we are proud of the concept of fairness highlighted in our title. For our journalism, fairness means being open to a variety of different ways of seeing the world, sometimes ones that are skewed or mistaken, often views that contradict one another. Fairness cannot be confused with objectivity. If we published only articles that are incontrovertibly objective, we wouldn’t have much to work from. All human communication starts from a vantage point. I discovered in my series “Breakfast with Chad” that even AI requires fabricating a fictional vantage point to convince human beings to listen to it.

Subjectivity is therefore not only a component of all writing, but an essential ingredient. As readers, we should always seek to have a sense of the person or intelligence who’s speaking to us. Good readers want to situate them on some kind of cultural map. For that reason, fairness should never be conceived of as the quest for a middle position between extremes. That may seem logical in a two-dimensional world. But in a multi-dimensional world, the middle itself can be an extreme.

Last month, our readers had an opportunity to see how a flawed understanding of the principle of fairness can lead an author astray. On May 15, we published an article by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies, “Arsenal of Genocide: This Is What the US Is Supplying Israel.” The authors are widely known for their commitment to the cause of peace and to the virtue of negotiation to end conflicts. On May 28, FO° Contributing Editor Christopher Roper-Schell published a polemical response with the provocative title, “On Gaza, CODEPINK Now Engages in Yellow Journalism.”

Christopher’s article begins by throwing punches provoked by the the word “genocide” in the title. In the first paragraph we read: “They don’t even bother to substantiate war crimes or a massacre. Frankly, such bald assertions are precisely what Fair Observer typically avoids, and that avoidance is one of the reasons I write here.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Bald assertions:

The preferred term used by lazy polemicists to describe the summary conclusions cited by those who draw their own conclusions from well-documented facts, especially when the facts in question are ones they themselves prefer to ignore.

Contextual note

Before going any further, I must explain that Christopher Roper-Schell is a valuable part of the Fair Observer team. I spent many agreeable moments in Christopher’s company in India two years ago.

Christopher is a card-carrying Republican. This background knowledge should help readers situate his vantage point. The same is true concerning the well-established public reputation in the media of Benjamin and Davies. Fair readers, like fair observers, should always take that kind of information on board as they tease out the meaning of what they read.

The opposite of a Republican, as everyone knows, is a Democrat. That long standing binary reality — despite growing ambiguity in recent years — has for at least a century constituted the ideological bedrock of political culture in the US. In most European countries, people might ask, “Which (of the plurality of parties) are you going to vote for?” In the US the choice has long been much simpler: “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

In other words, Christopher proudly proclaims his binary political and ideological allegiance, the tribe he belongs to. In contrast, Benjamin and Davies align themselves not with a given group of ambition-driven politicians but with a moral principle defined by their commitment to peace and a preference for negotiation over war. They have consistently opposed both the aggressive international politics of both Democrats and Republicans. This puts them in a minority within US political culture. War is, of course, more manly.

What does this mean for the reader of Christopher’s article? It contains what I would call a truly “bald assertion” about “what Fair Observer typically avoids.” As his senior, I would suggest that his article is more typical of what Fair Observer seeks to avoid. When opinion becomes pure partisan polemic, then the question of fairness comes to the fore.

Christopher’s first few paragraphs are essentially vituperative and invective. He complains about what the authors didn’t say. Didn’t he notice that the title containing the word he contests, “genocide,” indicates that the article is focused on the specific question of Washington’s role as a supplier of arms to Israel? He curmudgeonly reprimands the authors for not writing about the question he thinks is important: “how this started,” meaning, of course, the October 7, 2023, Hamas assault on Israel. Read the article, Christopher! It’s about what’s happening now, not eight months or 75 years ago. Had he done his research, he might have noticed that the authors already treated that in at least one earlier article we published.

Christopher fixates on the term “genocide.” He complains they “don’t bother to prove” that there is a genocide. The absurdity of his claim should be obvious to anyone following international news. In January, the International Court of Justice called Israel’s war a “plausible” genocide. A myriad of experts in international relations have gone further. These include Israeli historian and Holocaust scholar Raz Segal and Human Rights Watch co-founder and Holocaust survivor Aryeh Neier.

Perhaps Christopher would have better understood the title of the article he critiques if he had read as far as this sentence: “During the Second World War, the United States proudly called itself the ‘Arsenal of Democracy.’” In other words, in terms of cleverness of allusion, the wordplay in the original article is a serious notch above the facile and meaningless play on colors that equates a “pink” code with “yellow journalism.”

Fair Observer seeks to publish articles that reflect a variety of vantage points, each of which reflects a diversity of cultural, intellectual and political contexts. Cultures famously provide filters that make the same set of facts appear differently to different people. By respecting variety, we justify our claim to fairness. All three authors are American. One alone, however, is a Beltway Republican.

Historical note

The contrast between these two articles helps to illustrate a principle that has existed for many decades as a constant at the core of US culture: a preference for binary oppositions and an impatience with nuance, deemed a time-waster. This produces a Manichean approach to most serious problems. In practical terms, it means that there’s only one thing we need to know when discussing any issue: “Are you for it or against it?”  The Marx Brothers had fun parodying this feature of US culture. In the movie “Horsefeathers,” released in 1932, Groucho embodied this Yankee disgust with nuance in a medley of two songs: “(Whatever It Is,) I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man.”

The first paragraph of Christopher’s article makes it clear that whatever the article says, he’s against it. Groucho’s character would be proud of that unambiguous position. He would also appreciate the fact that Christopher tries to “get” not just his “man” but both the woman and the man he deems guilty of “yellow journalism.”

As “fair observers,” we should bear in mind that Benjamin and Davies’s article stands as an example of journalism that develops an argument from a non-binary position in multi-dimensional space. Between war and peace, both contained within their own inertia, it posits a third dynamic element: dialogue and resolution. Their position may seem extreme to someone who lives in a binary world. In purely objective terms, it may also be wrong or partial in the way it interprets certain facts since it reflects the authors’ commitment to clearly stated principles. It nevertheless defines a non-binary position and makes its argument by presenting a range of evidence. It puts forward clearly nuanced positions, such as this: “As with all these questions, we do not know the answers, but we should be skeptical of unverified atrocity claims.”

Christopher apparently knows all the answers. He bases his argument on two-dimensional logic, making claims that appear more accurately applied to his own writing than to his target: “Their narrative is wild and unsubstantiated. It’s also illogical.” What follows that accusation is Christopher’s egregious misreading of the point the original article is making.

Critical reading is what makes “fair observation” possible. We should consider it a prerequisite for critical thinking. But, my dear Christopher, try to appreciate that people who confine themselves to a binary, two-dimensional world — whether Republican or Democrat; warmonger or peacenik — will falter when faced with the nuance that comes from the unseen existence of even a third dimension.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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