A straw man is a decoy. When your opponent can’t disprove your argument, he will construct a different one instead. This new statement resembles yours, kind of like how a scarecrow resembles a man to an undiscerning bird. But the argument your opponent has devised is weak, hence it is made of straw. He will then proceed, with seemingly great authority and conviction, to knock the stuffing out of his own concocted assertion. He hopes the audience will be swept up by his rhetoric and not notice the switch he has pulled. Then they will think he has disproved your original point. Many politicians use this trick, as does the mainstream media; the straw man is the bread and butter of many with a disingenuous agenda.
When the Associated Press, itself a part of the mainstream media, published an article describing the ethical implications of Clinton Foundation donors getting meetings with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State, many other mainstream outlets eviscerated one of their own with the venerable straw man. The AP wrote that,
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money – either personally or through companies or groups – to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.
Their point is that 85 out of the 154 private citizens that Clinton met with during her first two years as Secretary of State were Clinton Foundation donors, giving as much as $156 million to the foundation. This constitutes a clear conflict of interest and hence was unethical on the part of Secretary Clinton. That seems straightforward enough.
I have a very influential government job where I wield a lot of power over literally the entire planet. The majority of people I’m meeting with, whom it is not necessary to see in order to do my job, have given enormous sums of money to my private foundation. I know that having ethics isn’t merely about not being corrupt, but also about avoiding altogether situations where I could reasonably be corrupted. This is especially true here since my meetings with these people are private and, in almost all cases, it is extremely difficult for the public to determine whether or not I’m being improperly influenced by these donors. Because there is no easy to way to identify either the presence or absence of quid pro quo in these situations, it is my ethical duty to avoid them. The fact that more than half of the people that I have granted an audience to, when doing so was not pertinent to my job, are my donors indicates that I have not tried to avoid these situations. Therefore, I have acted unethically as Secretary of State. Given this, I am also likely to act unethically as President of the United States of America.
Now for the straw man: CNN writes,
Hillary Clinton is surrounded by suggestions of controversy. Terms like “Clinton Foundation,” “email server,” and “Benghazi” hover around her like a faint smoke that hints at the existence of fire.
But finding the fire — the lie, the misdeed, the unethical act — is proving to be rather difficult, as evidenced this week by an inaccurate tweet and arguably misleading story from the Associated Press that were quickly rebutted by the Clinton campaign and dismissed by many media outlets.
The original argument is that an excessive amount of smoke in and of itself establishes a lack of ethics. Because of the power and privacy Secretary Clinton was afforded, it would have been exceedingly easy for her to keep the evidence of her hypothetical misdeeds from ever seeing the light of day. So as a safeguard, as a check on her enormous power, she was supposed to hold herself to a gold standard, by which she would not engage in activities where there were compelling reasons for her to commit a crime or abuse her power. The very fact that she didn’t do that is an abuse of her power. She broke her word.
In contrast, the straw man fallacy put forth by the likes of Vox, CNN and The Washington Post is that there is no concrete evidence of a crime–there never is–hence there is no crime. From this launching pad, they go on to assail the AP in a number of ways. They point out that the AP tweeted a false statement to promote the article. This in no way changes the facts of the article, mind you. Nevertheless, they put an awful lot of effort into rebuking a statement that is less than 140 characters long because it omitted some information, trumpeting that there is “near unanimous agreement among other journalists that the tweet, at least, was false.” Their attack is truly dizzying: they cite a source that argues many people will read only the tweet and not the actual article, while also citing another source who derides the tweet as “click-grabbing.” So which is it? Is the tweet bad because people don’t bother to read articles (in which case, why are you writing articles?), or is it bad because it will make more people read the article? Next, they argue that the AP’s findings aren’t extraordinary because “Clinton had held thousands of meetings with government employees, foreign representatives, civil leaders, journalists and others while Secretary of State.” The people Clinton met that her job required her to interact with has no relevance when analyzing the impact of the people she met that her job did not require her to interact with. This rebuttal by the Clinton camp and the media is a clumsy, embarrassing attempt at manipulation.
In my very influential government job, I’m supposed to meet with other people in government. In addition to that, I also meet with private citizens, which is not a core part of my job function. However, some of these citizens could benefit from my position. An auditor asks why so many of these private citizens that I have met with also happen to have given my charity millions of dollars. I respond that I meet with many, many people. When you consider all of the people I meet with, the percentage of them that have donated to me is really quite small, negligible even. The auditor is not appeased because he thinks I’m distorting the facts to suit my point by offering irrelevant information to mask the relevant, engaging in a sort of reverse cherry-picking. He thinks he has me, but then something remarkable happens. His fellow auditors actually begin attacking him, parroting back my feeble defense, thereby amplifying and legitimizing it! I clap my hands in delight; silly auditor, facts are for kids! So put on your big-boy pants and fall in line.
Pointing out these fallacies might make us feel smart. But knowing what the fallacy is called, what it’s called in Latin, even being able to identify when it is being used, are not what’s important. What I hope that you will get from this is that those who are supposed to lead us and inform us, protect us and guide us, are instead starving us with lies. But the situation isn’t hopeless. We all have an innate ability to feel when something might not be true. It’s important that when you feel this way, you make the effort and look past the rhetoric to the facts. If you have the courage to go where the facts take you, then no one will be able to victimize you with bird-brained rhetorical trickery.
Finally, I’ve tried to lay out a sound logical argument, and I think I’ve succeeded. But I know that I have not convinced everyone that the point the AP made is valid and the rebuttal from Clinton & Co. does not pass muster. Those who don’t believe me either see flaws in my argument, or will themselves use logical fallacies to manufacture them. To those people, I ask you: what if Donald Trump (who I in no way support) did this? Would you still entertain the same rebuttal or expect the mainstream media to come to his defense, as it has for Clinton? Be careful how you respond, because your hypocrisy is showing.