August 2004
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Day August 9, 2004

The anatomy of attack: O’Reilly and Krugman

Let’s talk about Bill O’Reilly and Paul Krugman, on Tim Russert’s CNBC show this weekend. Not to join the crowd and deplore O’Reilly’s bullying tactics, although that would be all too easy, but because the reaction to it says a great deal about what Americans expect from “debate.”

A transcript is available here, and video clips available from (the full episode is also floating around on the web, but you’re on your own in terms of copyright law).

The “debate” was anything but. Krugman did what he does best — offer conclusions and opinions based on facts, which he brings out in notes to back up his statements. He’s not the best speaker, nor does he fight back in an exciting telegenic way. He’s merely solid and factual. O’Reilly, in contrast, consistently ducked every factual question in favor of ad hominem attacks. You can search in vain through the transcript to find an instance where O’Reilly cited a fact or research result to support an argument. O’Reilly used every trick in the book against Krugman, but never once answered for his own views with evidence.

How did ad hominem attack become the mode of intellectual discourse in this country? How, for example, do people watch or read attacks like O’Reilly’s and conclude that “O’Reilly kicked his butt on every single issue.” Donald Luskin, someone who should know better, gloats over at National Review Online today: “Bill O’Reilly didn’t just win the debate. He cut out Paul Krugman’s heart and stomped on it.” Every single approving comment I’ve read believes O’Reilly won the debate not because he successfully rebutted Krugman’s arguments, or offered better counter arguments of his own, but because O’Reilly physically dominated the debate.

I can only conclude that Americans have lost track of what a logical argument is, and substituted in its place the notion that the “winner” of a debate is the person who is loudest, scores the most cheap shots, and physically dominates the conversation. By these standards, O’Reilly clearly “won” on Russert’s show.

This is, sadly, nothing more than the alpha-male dominance of gorillas, writ into the political arena. One of the crowning achievements of our species is that we don’t have to think about everything in terms of aggression, dominance hierarchies, and physical intimidation. We’ve got language, and logic, and can use them. If we try.

I know, I know, a reader of Orwell’s essays — in particular, Politics and the English Language — shouldn’t be surprised by this at all. And I’m not surprised. But I am disgusted. It’s easy to be disgusted by O’Reilly. He’s in the vanguard of right-wing “shock” pundits that make their living by being high-profile bullies, and never engaging in real debate. But it’s much more important to be disgusted at ourselves, if we can no longer tell the difference between attack and debate, between logic and dominance, between facts and intimidation. That should worry the hell out of us.