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Urban Dictionary: “A logical fallacy involving the purposeful misrepresentation of an argument (or a person’s or party’s position) in order to strike it down.”
Kirchner & His Straw Men
Argentine President Nestor Kirchner sees himself as a people’s president. Since taking office in 2003, he has railed (often vociferously and with great vitriol) against those who he says seek personal gain at the people’s expense.
The targets of Kirchner’s discourse typically include the rich and powerful, farmers, ranchers, bankers, former presidents, big companies, CEOs, investors and the International Monetary Fund. Kirchner has also targeted economists who question his policies and journalists who expose questionable government actions.
For years Kirchner has presented himself as a morally superior politician who battles the forces of darkness to safeguard the people’s interest. He is the people’s David fighting the Goliaths of Argentina’s past and present. For years this approach has worked, endearing Kirchner to millions who have suffered at the hands of corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen and cruel dictators. Many believe the president is on their side, and this largely explains why he has remained popular.
Argentina certainly has had its share of miscreants. A glance at the history books confirms this. Moreover, nobody who has lived here for long doubts the abundance of corrupt leaders, avaricious businessmen or even journalists who write slanted and defamatory articles. There is a real need for politicians who stand up to abuse of power and fight for the underprivileged.
Argumentum Ad Hominem
Unfortunately, Kirchner’s discourse often goes beyond battling bad guys. He paints with a broad brush, attacking anyone who disagrees with him. When doing so, he often misrepresents their ideas. He turns their arguments into straw men and attacks distorted versions of them. He also regularly engages in argumentum ad hominem, another logical fallacy that involves the effort to discredit an idea by discrediting its advocates. Examples of this abound.
Here is one from Friday, when Kirchner assailed economists who question the veracity of the government’s inflation data. Given the gap between real prices and those provided by the government, private sector economists have begun measuring prices themselves and making their own inflation estimates. But rather than talking about why government data appear to be skewed or saying specifically why private sector estimates are wrong, Kirchner personally blamed the economists for causing extreme inflation in previous decades.
“In general (these estimates) are done by private sector (economists) who were responsible for hyperinflation in Argentina,” he said. “In Argentina, so that you all know, the (government inflation) index is perfect. It has been supervised perfectly. We have audited it.”
(Quick question: If the index is perfect, why is Kirchner firing the controversial person in charge of it just 10 months after hiring her?)
The Genetic Fallacy
Which of these unnamed economists caused hyperinflation? As usual, Kirchner didn’t say. But even if he had, this would have done nothing to address the validity of the national statistics office (INDEC) data or the private sector inflation estimates. The origin of an idea or argument has no relationship to its soundness. To argue otherwise, is to engage in the genetic fallacy. Yet Kirchner does this often. Last year he said cattle ranchers, who didn’t like government-imposed beef prices, had supported the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Even if some of them had, this would make no difference regarding their claim about the wisdom of imposing state-regulated beef prices. One thing has nothing to do with the other.
Kirchner has shown himself eager to attack groups of people from the safety of his lectern, where he is never subject to questions. Yet he virtually never attacks specific ideas. Nor does he even defend his own with any precision. He is argumentative but doesn’t like to argue, at least not with specific people about specific ideas. He prefers instead to generalize and (mis)characterize. As president he has never debated publicly. Nor has he held any press conferences. He is most at home creating and then destroying straw men.
Kirchner’s approach to argumentation is more akin to intellectual prestidigitation than to democratic dialogue. His refusal to engage opponents in legitimate debate shows a contempt for the kind of democratic process that Argentina needs in order to mature politically. But the president’s distaste for debate goes beyond a contempt for argument. It shows a certain disdain for the very people he claims to represent. Consider again his way of handling inflation.
When Economy Minister Miguel Peirano presented the 2008 budget to Congress last month, there was great expectation regarding what he would say about rising prices. At last, an opportunity to question Kirchner, through his proxy, about inflation. But Peirano, heeding instructions from Kirchner, refused to take questions. Not only did he not talk to the press, but he refused questions from the people’s representatives themselves. No public debate. Not a peep from a single member of Congress. In effect, Kirchner has muzzled the entire Congress and, in a sense, the entire population.
But the people will speak again later this month when they go to the polls to vote for a new president. Kirchner, Nestor that is, isn’t up for re-election. But his wife, Cristina, is. Like her husband, she hasn’t held any press conferences and has refused any kind of public debate. In fact, she has said almost nothing at all about what she would do if she were president. If elected, will she employ the same straw man strategy used by her husband? Only time will tell.
Illustrations by John R. Neill from The Scarecrow of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
*According to INDEC, a kilogram of tomatoes costs an average of 3.99 pesos. But on the streets of Buenos Aires, a kilogram of tomatoes is now selling for between 15-18 pesos. This is but a minor example of how government data fail to reflect the reality of consumer prices.